Renewal for plantation management
Mahbob Abdullah 
Labour shortage is causing harvesting rounds to go beyond 20 days in many areas

NOW that we have entered the New Year, we can see how we can improve on the first hundred years of plantation management which itself was a big challenge. Planters in the early years had different sets of problems – surviving tiger attacks, diseases such as malaria, getting water supply from wells, and light from hurricane lamps, while a fridge may have been cooled using pink kerosene.

They supervised the estates and turned the rubber crop into a highly successful commodity which helped the economy in most years, thanks to high prices such as during the Korean War.

But rubber prices also experienced periods of low levels that are called slumps. Other crops were tried, including cocoa, but the one that succeeded was oil palm, which exists until today.

Yet, in moments of difficulties, I often asked how long the eventual good periods will last.

Today, we have our own set of problems. Everyone knows that margins are getting thinner as yield has not increased.

Labour shortage is causing harvesting rounds to go beyond 20 days in many areas, so much so that fresh fruit bunches are left on the trees while the oil-bearing loose fruits are uncollected.

On the other hand, plantations with competent teams will have less of these problems and show commendable results.

They record above-average rates for yield and oil extraction, and consequently, their production costs are low.

These companies have their loyal followers that keep their share prices high. But there are also companies which do not have efficient managements, which is probably why their market prices can be below the value of their net tangible assets.

Common traits of such companies are the lack of training and nurturing of new planters. As a result, many would try to take in those who apply for a job in mid-career.

Sometimes because they are from a big company they are assumed to be an asset, but many end up as disappointments.

Reasons as to why they left their previous employment are often realised only during the course of their work in subsequent months.

It could be due to indolence, lack of commitment or integrity, or they were just waiting for the next interview for another job and have no sense of loyalty.

At the same time, the existing team is getting older.

But job extensions are permitted, otherwise many of those positions in the organisation chart would end up vacant.

Some of the planters serving now are well over 60 years old, while previously the retirement age was 55.

They were replaced by younger and more energetic people. It was a kind of renewal to improve the work on plantations, often with the help of new ideas. This renewal must go on.


Succession planning

Oil palm plantations have markedly increased to 5.7 million ha in 2016 compared to only 2.7 million in 1996, but training has not kept pace with such growth.

It would be a good idea to get plantation companies to look more closely at the age of their management staff and when they should retire.

Based on such data, it is possible to work out the ideal employee intakes and add some more to account for resignations as some may change their minds, or may not make the grade.

Such employee exits can be low if the selection is done well. It is important to ensure that they enjoy the outdoor life, as sometimes they may live very far from town.

For this reason, applicants from rural areas may be more adaptable to living and working in plantations.

A programme should be created to make up for their lack of exposure. In the past, foreign companies that had plantations in the country sent their planters for overseas visits, or for courses at training centres after some years of service. But with the cuts in training often seen, this is no longer done.

However, our plantations have also expanded abroad, and some planters can have the opportunity to gain overseas exposure and even learn a language such as French, say, in Africa.

Times have changed as well, and we have different categories of plantation owners today.

Government-linked corporations have the biggest holdings and may have different needs too.

Then, there are the large, entrepreneur-led companies, many of which have their own training programmes, even though they may not cover the long-term replacement needs.

The third category is the smaller companies which may not have the resources to conduct a full-scale training programme.

It may serve them well to pool their efforts and set up training schools that can also be a profit-centre.

It is also likely that there are private companies that can start training courses, listen to what the industry wants, and feed plantation companies with their quality students.

Such courses can be helped immensely by the first-hand and direct experience of the trainers, many of whom could be planters who returned to the country after many years of serving abroad.


Correct training

These planters may not want a full-time job in the field anymore. But they can be guided by professional trainers to share their knowledge and experience to supplement textbook teaching.

The shortage of management is not only in the field but also in the mills. There is insufficient effort to train engineers for our specific needs, resulting in a shortage in the 450-odd mills in the country.

The correct selection of trainee engineers is essential to ensure that they have the ability and the will to get their full steam certificates. This qualifies them to be in charge of the mills and the pressure vessels.

I might as well mention refineries, in which I worked for many years. As far as I know, there is no formal training centre for the full gamut of refinery management that includes the technical aspects, cost and manpower management, sales, and international marketing.

This explains why marketing of our palm oil products is being done by people from overseas.

There might be scope for universities to teach marketing, trading and sales tailored to the plantation sector.

As plantation trainees get a good start and become young managers, they will find that there is much more to learn as environmental and sustainability regulations get more stringent.

They have to be au fait with the changes and cope with new technologies that can help with plantation productivity.

Training will be expensive with more new things to learn, but there is no other way to keep up with the changes.

Of the trainees, a good number will stay on to the end of their working lives. Each would have earned for the organisation much more than their training cost. It’s an investment in management renewal.

A strong and energetic team can make a big difference to the results. Young managers will grow to provide leadership in their time and be able to try new ideas to increase competitiveness. Their training will see to that.

Mahbob Abdullah is a former planter. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 267.