Saudi Arabia to Sydney: Tony Frencham's global life

Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance

Tony Frencham is the International Business Executive leading growth, strategy and change management at Dow Chemical. He has been with the company for the past 20 years, and as such, has witnessed countless industry trends, spent a cumulative 17 years abroad, and has a succinct insight on what Australia needs to change to ensure it remains innovative and competitive.

Could you give us an overview of your day-to-day duties as an International Business Executive for Dow Chemical?

My role is split into two parts. Half of my role never really changes as it is aligned with supporting the core culture and values of Dow. However, the other half is constantly changing as it involves responding to our Customers, our employees, and the rapidly changing world around us.

As your title suggests, adopting a global mindset is pivotal to your job. Had you always been interested in living and working overseas, or was it something that happened organically as your career progressed? 

I have to admit – when we first moved offshore in 1997 it was a big adventure, as we (this whole experience was shared with my wife, and eventually our children) viewed Australia as being pretty boring. However, we quickly realised that Aussies are very well suited to global roles and that we could excel when others wouldn’t or couldn’t. That did then make us more interested in continuing the overseas experience.

You have been with Dow since the late eighties – how has the company changed over this time?

Wow, I hope you have mostly old readers as I pre-date the internet and we had things called telex machines back then! Dow was very local when I joined but we were well positioned to transition to regional and global structures and we did so through our people, including many Aussie expats (including our current global CEO, Andrew Liveris).

Based in Dubai for five years and much of that spent in Saudi Arabia – what’s the most valuable thing you learnt from living and working in a different culture?

We had previously been posted in Asia twice, the US twice and Europe once. I always felt like I’m well read, but when we arrived in the Middle East I quickly realised that what we knew was through a highly filtered view. We soon realised that you must view Arab culture and Islam as separate but strongly intertwined forces, and that there is a lot of context between all the Abrahamic religions. The most valuable lesson from that experience is that the underlying human condition is the same everywhere, and I am proud to count many of my Middle East colleagues as friends.

What was your favourite thing about living in these countries, and what did you miss most about home?

The favourite thing about living in so many countries is observing and valuing the differences. If I look at our family now, we have absorbed influences from all of experiences and we now understand or are open to the diversity of the world. We were fortunate that over our 17 years abroad, we invested in returning twice a year, every year to Australia, and therefore stayed very connected. Plus – in the Internet world, you can now read your local newspaper every day, so you’re never really totally disconnected.

Do you think there’s any aspect of Australia that needs changing or influencing to ensure it remains innovative and competitive?

Unfortunately, there are no local Australians under 40 who remember what a recession is, and that is not healthy. Our country is bubbling along but it is not fit for purpose against our global competition. We have an admirable society and welfare safety net, however, our tax rates are uncompetitive, our governments have lost their imperative, and we do not make the most of our competitive advantages in low-cost energy, innovative spirit, and our attractiveness to immigration.

What skills do you view to be most important for Australians to adopt while living abroad?

I had some country upbringing in my experience and Australia is a place that has the critters and climate that is constantly trying to kill you! I’m firmly convinced that in our psyche we are much better than others in preparing for the worst and then delivering the best. We also have a very “can do” attitude (or “get ‘er done” as my Texan friends would say).

Did you elect to return home to Australia, or was it a strategic decision with work (or both?)

A bit of both. In a large global company, it is very hard to get back home but a confluence of events allowed us to do so. However big companies being what they are, we will be heading back to Asia in 2017 as I will be taking on the role of President of South East Asia for Dow.

Did you find that spending time overseas was something that helped you professionally? 

Undoubtedly. You can take your strengths as an Aussie (and hopefully grind off the rough edges), and then experience and absorb the riches of the world both professionally and culturally. Throughout you meet remarkable people and realise that they are not specific to any country, culture, or religion, rather they are just great humans.