VNCI Royal Association of the Dutch Chemical Industry

Why does someone choose to study chemistry, and what makes a job in chemistry so exciting? Chemie Magazine asks people in the sector. In the section Working in Chemistry this time Marjan van Loon from Shell.

What consumer products do you contribute to?

As Country Director, I am responsible for the strategy for all Shell’s business activities in the Netherlands. This varies from the factory in Moerdijk to the petrol stations and wind farms. They all have their own director, but I am responsible for making them fully sustainable as soon as possible.

We sometimes start projects that others think are not possible, such as a solar park at Moerdijk. We did a feasibility study with the young people who work there and it turned out that it was possible. For example, the factory there got excited, and so did our solar energy department, and the park was built in 2019. That’s my job. In chemical terms you can call me a catalyst.

“I want the energy transition to make an impact at Shell Nederland and become a machine that continues to rumble and accelerate on its own.”

I definitely want to do something with my chemical engineering degree. This knowledge is useful in many of the energy conversion projects. When a refinery, based on oil as a raw material and energy, wants to switch to bio-based raw materials and green energy, it helps that I know what reality is. How should this be done, what will you encounter, and what does it take to make this safe? But it is also about the economy, politics, the human side. That’s what makes this feature so exciting.

What do you say to your children when they ask what kind of work you do?

My daughter studied renewable energy technology and my son chemical technology, so I do not have to explain anything to them. But I am often surprised that many people do not really know where Shell’s gas and oil end up. An electric car with a lot of plastic in it, your mattress, your clothes filled with synthetic and dye, shampoo, your sofa, but also the hot shower this morning. Your house is therefore filled with products that Shell has contributed to in the Netherlands.
In addition, I stand by our plans for the future. I help, inspire and motivate people in Shell’s offices and factories to work on this. For example, we are currently discussing filling stations where you can no longer get petrol or diesel at all, but only hydrogen and electricity. I also often visit gas stations where they do something extra. For example, there is a very nice gas station in Pesse, Green Planet. The owner wants everything you can fill up at his station, no matter how crazy it is. To me, it’s a bit like an amusement park.

Marjan: “It’s my job to boost it.” † Photos: Shell

How did you get into this job?

In high school in Helmond, I really liked chemistry and math, but I preferred to work in nursing or become an anesthesiologist or pharmacist to combine technology and care. My dean explained what one can do with chemistry and what subjects go with it. With Shell, for example, I only thought of gas stations. He inspired me to look at chemistry technical opening days.

When I started at Shell, I quickly learned that you always need others for big projects. That way, I learned to work well together. In Pernis, I made a project for a form of collaboration where maintenance and production people could jointly decide what maintenance was needed and how much they would spend on it. It was very interesting to guide.

Then I became a team leader and department head, and I started making more and more strategies for entire industries. That way, I slowly but surely gained insight into the combination of energy, chemistry, production and organization. I think a lot of people with a technical background can do just fine.

What would you advise your younger self right now?

My life in Helmond was very hot but also very local. Eindhoven was already far away, this was done at most once a year. I had my friends in the local music association. When I went to university 35 years ago, it even said in the local newspaper: ‘Girl must study technology in Eindhoven’! When you come from such an environment, you do not think about working internationally.
As I got older, I became more courageous. My advice would therefore be to get braver sooner. Do not limit yourself, do not close doors that no one is asking you to close yet, but go for all the options you are given. That way, you will automatically find out what you can and cannot do. And you can really do a lot more than you think when you’re still young. So get out there, you only live once, make something out of it.

What does your work bring you?

I especially enjoy working with people on puzzles that others find too difficult to solve. Then I will find out how it can be done. Large wind farms, a factory for biofuels, the use of difficult-to-recycle plastics as raw materials, geothermal energy: We carry out all difficult projects. When delivering such a project, the team is so proud and so happy. And teamwork that gives results also makes me very happy.
My husband and I know each other from university, he is also senior manager at Shell, so we have not had to work for money for a long time. Together we can always ensure that bread comes to the table. Of course, it’s nice how much I earn, we can go on vacation and share it with our family, but that was never the motivation.

Which own achievement are you most proud of?

We are building a biofuel factory in Rotterdam so that petroleum becomes more and more sustainable. There have been many discussions about this beforehand. Is not it too expensive? Is it financially viable? Does it work? It is complex in terms of technology as well as in terms of discussion with all aviation actors. But if that game succeeds, where you have to turn on everything at the same time everywhere to break the chicken-and-egg discussion, then I’m proud of it.

“I especially enjoy working with people on puzzles that others find too difficult to solve.”

When I first started as director of Shell Holland six years ago, the Paris climate agreement had just been signed. So we started this very ambitiously. My goal has always been: I want the energy transition to make an impact at Shell Holland and become a machine that continues to rumble and accelerate by itself. I want to arrange everything so that I am no longer needed. I would be proud if people afterwards say: Marjan has inspired us to tackle this ambitiously and bravely.

If you could change one thing about your job, what would it be?

I do not always like the contact with the media. I know it’s part of it, but I did not want to worry about it myself. Sometimes I can not quite tell my story. If a journalist is critical of it, he or she will look for a news outlet to write something about. While in engineering subjects are difficult and complex. You have to go in depth first. Media like to flatten things, maybe even through social media, where everything has to be faster and shorter. But then we make a caricature of what the problem is. Energy is invisible, but at the same time it is intertwined in all parts of life.

What would you rather do than what you do now?

I play saxophone and like to play in bands. If I was good enough, I would spend a much larger portion of my week on it. My Monday night is nonetheless holy, so I go to the orchestra. And if I have nothing, I play the saxophone for an hour every night, practicing.

I work ten to twelve hours a day during the week, but I can also relax. On the weekends I hardly work and on a free evening I do not try to check my phone. So I’m not always on. Moreover: if you like things, then do not bother to do them. People who complain that they are too busy often do things they do not like.

Who is Marjan besides her work?

Marjan has been playing the saxophone since childhood, which she still does – preferably as often as possible. She also likes to travel. For example, she dreams of going down along Europe’s coastline with her husband in their Volkswagen van until they encounter the sign ‘Istanbul’. “That van is an oldtimer from 1970 that still runs on petrol. But the core is fortunately with such a bus that you do not have to drive too much in it, but above all you have to find places where you want to live. “

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