What you make it

Mabal Tan

Mabal Tan is not one to dwell on things she’s not in a position to change. She believes that life is a series of choices, and if you set your mind on something you should pursue it wholeheartedly. For the general manager of Shell Business Service Centre (SBSC) in Kuala Lumpur, it isn’t the cards you’ve been dealt that matter so much as how you play them.

It’s advice she often shares with others. In her 27 years with Shell, she has held a variety of leadership roles that have let her share her experiences with many young Malaysians. ‘I try and do my best to make a difference not just at work but also at home and in the community,’ she says.

Almost 40 years ago she made a decision that set her on a path towards further education which ended up shaping many of her attitudes, giving her confidence and ultimately changing her life. The life-changing moment happened when she was 17 years old and, as a result of the quota system in education, unable to secure a place in one of the local high schools.

‘This was the mid-1970s when there were few high schools offering HSC – the equivalent of STPM or A-levels – and private colleges and twinning programmes were practically non-existent,’ she explains.

Most girls would have settled for a nursing or a secretarial course, but Tan, who was the youngest of three children, was determined to obtain a degree and achieve greater things.

‘So I wrote to various embassies to enquire about further education and eventually secured a place to study in the UK.’ She completed her A-levels in the UK and then went on to Teesside University, emerging with a computer science degree. She also gained work experience at a multinational bank in the UK during her course and after graduation.

Looking back at that period in her life, Tan says it required great determination on her part to leave home at 17 to pursue her dreams. The journey was tough, she acknowledges, but the experience had its rewards.

‘I learnt to take full responsibility for the choices I made, and I gained more than a degree. I learnt valuable life skills such as speaking up for what I believe in and the experience shaped my attitude to life,’ she says.

Very much an introvert at the time, Tan adds that the experience taught her to build relationships and to learn to collaborate with others. ‘I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for that decision,’ says the 56-year-old.

Career highlights

On returning to Malaysia in 1983, she worked in the motor trading industry before joining Shell in 1986 as an IT analyst. Five years later she moved out of IT to take on a treasury role responsible for the accounts payable, payroll and banking activities in Shell Malaysia’s downstream business.

Although it was her first non-IT role, Tan adapted quickly as she had been supporting the application systems for these activities. In addition, the one-year foundation course in accounting she had taken before embarking on her degree course came in handy.

‘The highlight of the role was to re-engineer the activities in the department to simplify processes and speed up the turnaround time for cheque processing,’ she says, adding that the experience also honed her people and change management skills.

Starting in 1993, she spent two years in a general management role, providing support services to the engineering department in the upstream business in Miri, Sarawak. ‘I was tasked with a bigger change management role in a very different environment,’ she explains.

For one, she was the only female leader in the engineering leadership team. ‘I had to change my style in influencing my male colleagues and leverage my strengths in people management and team building to achieve the change,’ she says, adding that the role also sparked her passion for coaching and mentoring.

Going global

In 1998, IT in Shell moved to a global reporting structure and Tan, as the local IT lead, was very much involved in the global transformation. Her main achievement at the time was to build a case for Kuala Lumpur to be a global delivery centre and to transfer some of the SAP support work from Europe to the city. In 2000, she had the job of recruiting more than 300 IT personnel to Shell and developing the Kuala Lumpur hub for Shell’s IT infrastructure delivery.

She took up her current position in 2008. It’s a role, she says, that uses her previous experiences in leading change. ‘As the GM, I am responsible for the various support services for the centre. This includes HR support, recruitment, learning and development, facilities, health and safety, security management, IT infrastructure, finance, and general affairs.’

The role, she adds, gave her the opportunity to shape the entire work environment of people, workplace and culture to influence the employee value proposition and make it attractive to work in SBSC. In essence, she puts in place the ingredients – from upholding the reputation of the organisation to creating a conducive work environment and effective human resource policies – that will shape the behaviour of employees and prospective employees.

Changing perceptions

Tan concedes the task is not without challenges. Not many young graduates in IT, finance or human resources are attracted to a career in business services, she admits. ‘Getting the talent to work in what is perceived to be a back-office setup is a challenge. In most cases, they are not even aware of what business services is about,’ she says.

To counter this, within SBSC, various branding initiatives are undertaken to change the perception of business services in Malaysia. For one, she says, using the term ‘business services’ rather than ‘shared services’ gives a truer reflection of how such services have evolved over the years, pointing out that the IT, finance, contracting and procurement and HR roles have been moved out of the various operating units to the business service centres so that these centres are now the backbone of Shell.

‘We don’t just handle transactional activities but work that is important to the organisation. In IT, for example, most of the operational activities are outsourced but we manage the overall infrastructure in terms of the technology to adopt, and the improvements to be made to systems to improve the processes and quality of data. These are activities that add value to the business.

‘A career in SBSC is a great opportunity to work in a global community in a multinational corporation. In Kuala Lumpur we deliver a range of business services and provide our employees a platform to hone their skills.’

The best and the brightest, she says, are given opportunities to move into different roles locally or abroad in SBSC and the mainstream business.

Attention is also paid to training and development, she says, adding that employees are encouraged to take up professional qualifications such as the ACCA Qualification, with the company reimbursing a significant percentage of the fees on completion of the course.


As well as individual development, Shell places a lot of emphasis on learning from others and teamwork. ‘We help others in our team but we are also prepared to challenge each other. This applies both at work and play.’

Besides working in their usual teams, staff are encouraged to participate in networks of common interests such as toastmasters, women’s networks, diversity networks, and sports and recreation activities. ‘We are proud of our commercial-grade gym with facilities for yoga, dance, music and pool. Our latest facilities addition is a computer games room and an outdoor barbeque-cum-entertainment area on the rooftop.’

She hopes that SBSC will continue to grow to be a vibrant, world-class professional business service centre for an even wider range of services and to do Shell and the country proud.

As for Tan, the years have not diminished her love for the job, helped by the philosophy and culture within the organisation, which is embracing diversity. It’s not uncommon to find her still attending to her tasks sometimes in the early hours of the morning.

What of work-life balance, then? ‘Work-life balance is what you make of it. I do my part in building my family,’ says the mother or two, adding ‘but I also want to have a fulfilling career.

‘Whatsapp, Facetime, Skype and emails are tools that I rely on to stay connected with family and friends. My two teenage daughters are my friends in Facebook and thanks to smartphones and the internet I am often in touch with them even when I am travelling.

‘My weekends are reserved for family and church, where I do my part to help out. I’d like to retire one day and say that I’ve done my best, I’ve made a difference and I have no regrets.’

Sreerema Banoo, journalist

This interview was first published in ACCA's Accounting and Business magazine

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