Risk and business continuity manager at environmental solutions organisation Veolia, Lenny B. Conil, believes there has been a big shift in Asia’s attitude towards risk management in recent years

When he first moved to Asia in 2006, Lenny B. Conil (pictured) says that it felt like hardly anyone knew what risk management was and, if they did, “it was seen as something painful that you had to do”.

“Now it is part of everyone’s culture and I get requests from country directors to come and audit their sites,” he says.

“They want my input on any number of things, even at the business development and bidding stages.

“There’s still a way to go before making risk management a huge part of the business, but it’s there, it’s recognised and it’s acknowledged as something that you need to take care of and take into account before making big decisions.”

The Hong-Kong-based 32 year old has been employed by Veolia as a risk and management systems coordinator, technical centre coordinator and hydraulic engineer, working his way up to his current position which sees him responsible for the management of risk for all activities (water, waste and energy) in China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan.

A big role, no doubt, but “actually a bit smaller than I used to have”, Conil admits.

“My role used to include Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia, but our operational regions were rearranged about a year ago,” he explains.

“Before, I was purely risk and crisis for Veolia Water, one branch out of the three that we have, which is water, waste and energy.

“We merged these different activities, so now all teams are working for the three divisions, and I took on the role of purely risk management.”

What this means in practice is French-born Conil is responsible for identifying, quantifying and prioritising the key risks that Veolia faces in all the countries for which he has responsibility.

“Because we are a listed company, Paris headquarters must be confident that we comply with rules where we have to manage and master our risks,” Conil explains.

“My role is to go on the different projects that we have in different countries and come up with a list per country of the top 20 risks, followed with an action plan. So I go and meet people and discuss with the experts all the different subjects possible in the company; we’re talking legal, financial, image reputation, HR, operations, strategic aspects, purely technical, IT and so on.”

Selling know-how

As Conil sees it, Veolia “sells know-how” and is, by its very nature, extremely local in its scope.

“We treat water or waste for a country with 90 to 95% of our staff local,” he says.

“What we bring is not rocket science; it’s people who know a lot about chemistry, physics, how to operate an incinerator, and so on.

“We teach our local staff lots of things, but our expertise is not just technical drawings on paper, so we are lucky enough to be able to operate without really suffering any technological transfer or any criticism over taking resources out of a country.”

That’s not to say that the company’s multitudinous operations don’t face many risks. As Conil puts it: “Things are heating up here and there in Asia, so at some point that may actually endanger some of our economical interests”.

Legal instability in China is one big issue he deals with on regular basis. “It’s difficult to enforce a contract in mainland China,” he says. “A contract is the foundation of everything you do business-wise, therefore this leads to lots of different problems trickling down from the core issue of not having an independent legal system.”

Extreme climatic events are also impacting more and more people and operations, he says.

“The concentration of populations in big cities has reached levels never seen in the past, therefore a single big storm has much more consequences,” he points out.

“Runoff is a also major factor in rain-related events; the more impermeable the ground is with roads, car parks and built structures, the bigger downstream impacts are.”

Dealing with Fukushima

One natural catastrophe that Conil remembers well is the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, which he says made it “easier for people like me to convince the board or operational people that we really need to have contingency plans”.

“At the time, it was clear no one knew what was going on and it was really pretty difficult,” he recalls.

“My role was purely as a media person where I was, twice a day, seven days a week for three months, putting together a media brief for my top management in Asia and Japan.

“Key at the time was knowing what was going on with so much noise and contradictory information, so I was focussing on what I thought was the best pieces of news to help the team make decisions.”

Conil explains that Veolia had approximately 3000 employees in Japan and “therefore we needed to put plans in place”.

“We moved our headquarters from Tokyo to put it a bit further from the heart of things,” he explains.

“The management team moved for a month or so to Kyoto, as we were preparing for the possible occurrence of an explosion of the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

“We’re talking iodine pills, and food and water supply in plants within concrete buildings. Fortunately it didn’t happen, but we were preparing for that.”

Social cohesion

For Conil, it’s the social side of the equation in the areas in which Veolia operates that is of utmost importance.

“When we are somewhere, we have lots of things done with local schools and the community around the plant in order to ensure we don’t just talk the talk,” he explains.

“We have anti-discriminatory practices, we involve women and handicapped people, and we contribute to local development.”

Social cohesion is vital to business success, Conil says which is why he is somewhat concerned about instability and protests in countries such as Thailand, Vietnam and even China.

“China is the big unknown,” he says. “There are strikes and protests every single day in China, but people don’t talk about it and the media doesn’t really cover it because it’s not properly organised so it hasn’t lead to anything yet.”

But Conil knows well that this kind of talk isn’t what many people want to hear.

“Asian cultures tend to not be too keen on anticipating bad things happening in the future,” he says.

“Not that any particular way is better than another, it’s just a different way of doing things.”

As a risk manager he feels his role is to force people to consider, in his words, “what might happen in five or 10 years’ time and how much it will cost”.

“But let’s not talk about it and hope for the best is the type of attitude you often get,” he laments.