Johnny Kwan (BEng Chemical Engineering 1978, MSc Management 1979), is passionate about social, corporate and environmental responsibility. He recently spoke at the Alumni Weekend about his road to sustainability, including his studies at Imperial, his time as President of China’s biggest chemical production company BASF China, and his increasing interest in social innovation business. Watch Johnny in action here.

What did you learn during your time at Imperial, in class or out?            

“The best course in my undergraduate degree was called Industry Focus and Responsibility.  It was very academic but there were many industrial seminars and I enjoyed those the most. It gave us the perspective of what industry and society were working on and were concerned about, and what students could look forward to with their participation. It also provided lots of inspiration as to what is needed and it generated a desire to provide solutions.  

My postgraduate studies opened my eyes and the non-scientific part of my studies extended my lateral thinking and help me to strike for a better balance towards good engineer ethics."

What is your fondest memory of your time here?          

There are many fond moments in my memory from when I was at Imperial. To name just a couple; I spent two months in the summer of 1977 in Bath while working on my undergraduate industrial project with Avon Rubber. It was joint research on rubber mixing and the laboratory works were conducted at their company premises. Another example was the very distinctive excellent relationship the postgraduate lecturers had created with our class, which was very small but a truly international team mostly coming from 'third world' countries.”

Tell us a bit about your career.                 

"I had a very rewarding professional career for 35 years in the chemical industry. I worked for 15 years with Exxon Chemical (downstream of Exxon before the ExxonMobil merger), and 19 years with BASF. For the last 11 years I was the chief executive of BASF in China. During my career I was particularly passionate about building a better chemical industry image through responsible care and sustainability. I am engaged with key international networks on sustainability and I am committed to sustainability not only for my own company's performance, but I have been a strong advocate in the whole industry and with the relevant stakeholders. One of the highlights was a project I initiated in China on the platform of the China Business Council for Sustainable Development, called '1+3 CSR project'; which was awarded best Chemical Management Practice (along the supply chain) by UNEP in 2011, and two times published in Global Compact year books."

What are your plans for the future?      

"I retired officially from BASF at the end of March 2015, and my plan is to to continue to engage in the promotion and implementation of sustainability concepts and practices in China's chemical and related industries. The way I'm planning to do this is by establishing a social business enterprise."

What would be your advice for current students?          

"My advice to current students is to understand the relationship of sustainability in the society and their professions. Sustainability issues do not only address the challenges we face today, but they also represent the need for solutions and they present a huge business opportunity."

What’s the most difficult decision you’ve ever had to make?   

“One of the most difficult decisions I had to face was to step down from the position of Chairman of the Association of International Chemical Manufacturers (in China) in 2011 while the association was making good progress in responsible care, working together with the China Petroleum and Chemical Industrial Federation, and the ICCA ( International Council of Chemical Associations). I personally introduced the relevant by-laws within the association when I took over the Chair in 2007 and yet I knew I had to stay true to my own belief that I should not extend my Chairmanship."

What are you most proud of in your life?            

I am most proud of my commitment to responsible care and sustainability. I did it not just by playing lip service, but instead committed myself to making it happen. To this, one of my favourite quotes is "walk the talk and talk the walk'.  It signifies both the importance of doing, and articulating what you have done to inspire or to influence people to join you for a life time journey."