Houthoff’s Singapore representative Esther Veltman interviews Ethel Chan, Regional Director HR at Mammoet


Ethel graduated from the RMIT University. The early part of her working life was in banking and marina lifestyle until she ventured into the energy sector in 2006 when she joined a Norwegian start-up and fell in love with its action-oriented nature and diversity of human interactions. As a young woman in a highly male-dominated sector, it took a lot of courage to rise up and spearhead a function with an annual personnel budget of USD 35m. She managed a diverse workplace: Cyprus, Norway, UK, Vietnam and Venezuela, as well as employee profiles of 26 nationalities. She continued to thrive in her role moving to larger organisations, and in the recent nine years began focusing more on regional business optimisation via transformation, restructuring and M&As.

She is a seasoned leader, strategic and operational savvy. Ethel brings infectious energy and drive to people around her and is customer focused and solutions driven. She is grateful for having great mentors and wonderful team members throughout her journey.

She is a mother of two children ages 17 and 10. Besides being a hands-on parent, she enjoys architecture and interior decor.

“At Mammoet, we help the world grow safely and efficiently and move to a more sustainable future. We provide solutions to any heavy lifting or transport challenge. It is our purpose to lift, transport, install and decommission big objects so that our customers can grow and maintain their production capacities and infrastructures in the safest and most efficient ways possible. Some dream about a future that is Smarter, Safer and Stronger. We actually build it.

In my role as Regional Director, Human Resources for Mammoet APAC, there is never a dull moment. With 12 business countries, managing the different level of organisation maturity and local complexities is part of the job. As a member of the APAC management team, I help to translate our business objectives and needs to forward-thinking strategies and solutions with the aim to improve our performance and profitability.”



The best takeaway learned in cross-cultural business and communication is first to accept and embrace any differences.
“There is one golden rule in every communication: be sincere.”


Is it, in your opinion, imperative for European companies to have a local presence in Asia to be successful in the region? Why Singapore?

Absolutely! If you want your business to succeed in Asia, you need to know the place and the people with whom you want to do business. To establish close connection, the need for local presence is the first step. There are few good locations in Asia to consider. Depending on the companies’ selection criteria, many choose Singapore to benefit from its strong infrastructure, an attractive tax system, ease of doing business, wide network of trade agreements, political stability and good talent pool. According to The Economist Intelligence Unit’s latest Business Environment Rankings (BER), Singapore will remain the world’s most investor-friendly location over 2020-24.

Do you think the COVID pandemic changes this opinion now that people have been working from home without travelling?

The COVID pandemic is the best change

management tool I have experienced! It has changed most of us, how we work, interact, how we see and do things. We cannot foresee how COVID can change the need for a strong presence in a country in the future. For now, it has yet to change the key factor to success in Asia, the need to be close to the ground. If anything, the need for human interaction has not diminished, and the fact that with leadership presence it will provide a sense of stability. Working from home without travelling and depending on information from media and sources does not give your business an edge over the rest.

What is the first and most important rule or advice for doing business in Asia as a European company?

The common phrase ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’ refers to the importance of adapting yourself to the customs of the location. Having the sensitivity, awareness and openness to learn about the place and people is the first step to show that you are sincere in building the connection. Avoid the straight approach of adopting one standard fits all. Ignoring the cultural differences and sensitivities is a recipe for failure for the longer term if not the immediate. Uber is an apt

example. Among the first ride-sharing apps in the world, Uber entered Southeast Asia in a “plug and play” fashion, doing little to adapt its app and Western-centric business model for regional markets. Although Uber has local presence, Uber failed to recognise the cultural differences and its consumer behaviour. Uber exited in 2018. Grab eventually took control of Uber’s Southeast Asia operations.

From your personal experience, what would you say is most typical or striking about doing business with the Dutch? Can you give an example?

Being direct is what I have experienced most with the Dutch. It is a distinct attribute regardless of where Dutch colleagues are based: the Netherlands, Singapore, Australia, Taiwan, Thailand and even in the Middle East. On many occasions, we can expect Dutch colleagues to speak their minds. They are open, have opinions and express themselves without beating around the bush. I see this is an authentic attribute as you get what you see, but in some societies in Asia, where communication culture is more cordial and discreet, they may find this communication style

abrupt and intimidating. Interestingly, I didn’t have a good impression of Dutch directness prior to joining Mammoet. I had interpreted Dutch directness as rude and demanding from the occasional interaction I had with a former Dutch CEO and a Dutch field employee many years back. I had also received reiteration from some nationalities that it is not easy to work with the Dutch. Thankfully, with personal connection and a better understanding of Dutch culture after some years in Mammoet, I can now draw a good and positive perspective on Dutch directness.

On a lighter note, in a recent virtual workshop attended by women from around the globe, there was a role-play scenario with several nationalities about requesting for a job promotion. The Italian presenter was spot on when guessing the nationalities based on the communication style of some participants. One participant blurted “No, no, no, you can’t use such a direct approach if you have a Japanese boss.” The class bursted out in laughter.

“Being direct is what I have experienced most with the Dutch. It is a distinct attribute regardless of where Dutch colleagues are based:
Netherlands, Singapore, Australia, Taiwan, Thailand and even in the Middle East.”
What do you consider the biggest challenge in your position? In addition, what is the best takeaway or lesson learned in cross-cultural business and communication? 

Communication. It is the biggest challenge, yet the best approach in maximising the performance of employee and business overall. One classic example: we do not assume English being a universal business language that will be fully understood by most. A global or regional English written communication may receive different reactions, due to complexities of the message, type of words used or not understanding the objective of the message. Especially if there are actions required, I will reach out to each country to follow through, begin with asking them to explain the message, and I support to address the gaps. Another example is when requesting views and ideas and addressing concerns. Personal engagement with each country to get the best out is more effective than a broad-based approach.

Better yet, if you can speak the local language. There are countries that require more handholding than others.

The best takeaway learned in cross-cultural business and communication is first to accept and embrace any differences. We tend to be unaware of our biases, placing stereotypes and cultural assumptions on others. By acknowledging there are differences, one will be open-minded, self-aware and take interest in being knowledgeable about different cultural backgrounds and customs. When one is culturally mindful, one will be more conscious of the verbal and non-verbal cues. There is one golden rule in every communication: be sincere.

As an HR director responsible for the APAC region, you have to work with all these different people. What are your main challenges and top priorities with respect to workplace diversity and inclusion?

Asia indeed is a region that is rich in culture, ethic and religion. Most countries take inclusive steps to create a harmonious place to live and work towards one nation, regardless of race, language and religion. I believe Asia has done considerably well in recognising, embracing and celebrating such diversities.

There is, however, still some progress needed with regard to other aspects of diversity and inclusion on gender, age, and thinking style. These areas are on my working agenda: the stereotype of certain roles and tasks done by men and women, leadership positions or key positions for a certain age group or gender, and the acceptance of labelling someone as different if they think out from the ordinary.

Do you agree that inclusion gives companies a competitive advantage?

I am a strong advocate of diversity and inclusion (D&I) and will vote for companies that do well in D&I. Not

only does it add competitive advantage, but it stands out from the crowd. I am fortunate to work for a passionate organisation like Mammoet that believes the importance of D&I and is taking steps to focus on a longer-term strategy to ensure inclusivity is fully embedded.

SHV, Mammoet’s parent company, operates in highly diverse societies in terms of gender, culture, race, age and ways of thinking. It truly believes that building diverse and inclusive teams is key to unleashing even more of the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit that enables the company to deliver excellent products and services, create sustainable growth and take responsibility for future generations. Mammoet echoes the commitment by ensuring this is reflected in the diversity of its people and in building an inclusive culture where all people are respected, engaged and given opportunities for personal and professional development.


Esther Veltman represents Houthoff in Singapore. Her focus is on developing close ties with our local clients and firms to create new alliances and strengthen our network. Esther works closely on this with our Netherlands-based professionals who will be visiting Singapore regularly.

Esther worked as a lawyer with Houthoff for 7 years and practised corporate law with a focus on restructuring and insolvency law. After Houthoff, Esther specialised in securities law, financial services and regulatory law.  She worked as a legal and compliance officer for reputable companies in the financial sector for several years. During that time she advised on a range of compliance matters regarding asset management, Dutch and Luxembourg investment funds, banking, and reinsurance.



Singapore is a true “melting pot” with a huge diversity of people with different cultural backgrounds. I consider it a privilege to work and live in this small city state for a few years. In Asia it all boils down to investing in and building relationships that are based on trust, respect and developing business. It is great to learn from the cultural differences, religious sensitivities and other local customs and use this experience in my work as a representative for Houthoff.