Smooth operator

7 mins read

Danish industrial coatings executive Pernille Lind Olsen joined Henkel adhesive technology a year ago to head up its global metals business. She speaks to Will Dalrymple.

Olsen discusses the role of its products in high-volume metal manufacturing, and the company’s sustainability agenda.

As Olsen puts it, there is a natural fit for her at Henkel. “Since I was a little girl I have been fascinated with industrial manufacturing: how things can be achieved at scale and speed, and the efficiency of industrial manufacturing. As I grew up and in my professional career, I have been inspired by the power of innovation and its impact on our day-to-day lives.”

That enthusiasm was fostered by a Danish children’s television programme that explored how things were made (a bit like ‘Maddie’s Do You Know’ on the BBC).

Not that she trained as an engineer; in fact, Olsen’s university degree was in political science, she admits. “That is not an obvious way into industry, but I realised I was more interested in working with business and working with the impact that business has on how we develop in everyday life.”

Her first job was as an analyst at Danish industrial enzyme firm Novozymes. “I was hired to do an SAP implementation in the HR department. It was super-specific, but it was a start. What I learned was change management and stakeholder management and how to run a big project that might have stakeholders that are not always fully aligned,” the corporate vice president recalls. (Perhaps her university studies weren’t so irrelevant after all).

Thirteen years later, she moved to Danish coatings manufacturer Hempel, where she worked for another 11 years in a variety of management roles, including heading up its south and east Asia division out of Singapore.



Although both Hempel and Henkel offer coatings, they couldn’t be more different. The former concentrates on heavy coatings for huge sections of steel for civil engineering structures such as bridges. By contrast, Henkel’s customers apply extremely thin layers continuously at speed and high volume. Here, as she puts it, chemistry, water, temperature and time are used to pretreat the surface and make ready for coating. For such materials, there are three key market segments: metal packaging manufacturers (cans and tins), the coil industry that produces sheet steel, and suppliers to general industry creating products for agriculture, construction, white goods and window frames, for example.

So: does every painted metal surface need pretreatment? Olsen replies: “It’s a dogmatic question – dare I say yes? If you have processes to run at speed and at scale, you would need to pretreat in order to coat it, yes.” Pretreatment, which passivates or converts the surface, makes the paint stick and makes the paint layer – regardless of application method – look the way customer expects.

The primary Henkel product family here is Bonderite, which includes a range of sealants, coatings, lubricants and cleaners. Metal packaging sealants are also sold under the Darex branding, which Henkel acquired in 2016.

Henkel’s global metals business is divided by longitude, with operations in the Americas, EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) and Asia, where teams of sales and applications engineers work closely with customers. On top of that, Henkel operates manufacturing sites, also around the world.

She summarises the business: “What customers are looking at is speed, consistency, accuracy, quality. They want line production; some of it is very fast. It needs to run really accurately every day when they run lines, so our mission is really to make sure that we support that, and with good products.” Henkel also offers supporting equipment and data to monitor lines and continuously optimise the process. Those services, she points out, depend on the skills of its staff on the ground.



In recent years, particularly because of the Ukraine war, focus has turned to process inputs of water and energy. “How to reduce water and energy is becoming increasingly important and we all feel it right now.” In terms of how customers can save energy, Olsen emphasises consultation. “Let’s talk about where your big energy levers are, and let’s talk about how we can help you either with smaller steps right now with current solutions, or bigger steps later by redefining how we run the process.”

She expands on that point: “In the longer term, we want to engage with customers on their and our future challenges and opportunities, in terms of in particular energy and water, and maybe also changes of material – steel and aluminium – driven by some of the bigger trends in the market, like e-mobility and lightweighting. All of that we work on with our customers. We invite them to work with us to share with us where they have challenges and where we could potentially collaborate on solutions; we do that across the board.”

The corporate VP offers a similarly high-level approach to reducing water usage. “It’s two things: how can we use less water, and how to make sure that water we use is easily recycled; and at best zero discharge out the factories.” Current solutions include the so-called ‘new generation’ pretreatment process that operates in fewer steps than it used to, with fewer water rinses. In addition, there are low-foam solutions, so users need less overflow, and low-temperature solutions (down to room temperature) that lead to less evaporation.

One challenge for Henkel’s product line comes from ever-growing government regulation of chemicals, she points out. “We are looking at what is coming, rather than being reactive, to be prepared, and come up with solutions before they are regulated. We are spending time understanding the possible hazards of substances and how we can deal with them. That has a big impact on our innovation pipeline, that we want to make sure that we don’t develop [what become classified as] hazardous substances in the future.” For example, Henkel has developed an alternative to one recently-announced substance of concern, chromium (Cr(VI)) used for passivation, called Bonderite M-NT1455, based on Cr(III).

When asked if this dynamic situation is difficult, she replies: “It is. We need to be looking into the future all the time, and trying to understand what is happening around the corner.”


Besides considering the future of customers’ business, as a member of the senior leadership team, she also has a watching brief over both company and staff. Olsen remarks: “We are only here a short period of time in the bigger scheme, and also the future of our kids, and grandkids, so the decisions we make today as private persons but also as professionals have an impact on what happens down the line.”

As one might expect of a blue-chip multinational, Henkel offers lots of STEM-related programmes for R&D, application engineering and sales roles. “It’s a high priority to connect to talent across the universities, and across the globe, and collaborate as closely as we can,” she states.

For example, one initiative of interest is the 18-month-long adhesive technologies innovation impact programme, in which Henkel recruits a diverse group of graduate scientists from all over the world and sends them to its new Inspiration Centre Düsseldorf (see box) for basic training and exposure to different parts of Henkel’s technology and corporate structure, before moving into future roles. “It is a great way of getting a highly-diverse team into our innovation organisation, in terms of where they come from, their gender, and qualifications of course,” she reflects.

Continuing on the diversity theme, she observes: “For me, my personal take on this is that we need to make sure that we look at diversity in the broadest possible sense, because I believe if you bring together people that think differently, you will come up with a different set of solutions than if you bring together people that tend to think in the same way.”

In terms of gender specifically, she mentions Henkel’s corporate commitment to increase its gender diversity, including in STEM-related jobs. On that point, she pauses to make a personal affirmation. “It’s a wonderful organisation, and I thrive. I think the biggest task we probably have is to make sure that we have diversity in our hiring, because it’s an absolutely wonderful place to work, also for a woman.”  


BOX: Girder-lover

Olsen is a closet fan of industrial architecture. “On a very personal note, I also have a soft spot for the aesthetics of industrial equipment and large steel structures, which sometimes drives my family nuts because we always need to go to see the industrial harbour wherever we go, because it is the most beautiful sight. Or the old factory area outside of town. I really like to do that, which my family doesn’t fully share.” (Pictured, above and left: aluminium coating.)


BOX: Industry willing to go green

Despite heavy investment in production technologies, Henkel’s metal coating customers are willing to consider greening their lines, Olsen reports. “I have done my best to meet customers over the past nine months of my tenure. And I haven’t met anyone who wasn’t willing to do discuss how we could do things better or in a more optimised way. The industry is running big, complicated processes, and they are probably only changed for good reasons – we would have to ask them about that – but I have only had good conversations on how we can work together to improve.”


BOX: Henkel’s new building generates enthusiasm

Says Pernille Lind Olsen: “At the ICD, we put together our European-based product development and innovation colleagues in different labs close to each other to make sure that we use the full breadth of technology and R&D brainpower. [There are 28 light labs, six heavy labs and 585 workstations, on seven levels, each of which is the size of a football field; total floorspace is 47,000m².] We also created a space that is easy for customers and academia to come in and collaborate with us. In that space we have partners working in their own labs, together with us. We have automated labs to see how we can work better for ourselves, and with customers. It’s a collaboration space and an inspiration space.

“The spirit of the building is what we want to do across the globe, and what we do every day when we engage with customers, which is to have a good, honest, open discussion about the challenges we are trying to solve, and how we do it together in the best possible way. I get a little excited when we start talking about the ICD because I think it’s a super-cool building,” says Olsen.


BOX: Pulling together

When asked if Henkel’s commercial imperative to sell product interferes with its stated desire to improve customers’ efficiency, Olsen replies: “I don’t think it goes against our interest. We are here to help our customers run their business in the best possible way. If we can create value with our products, equipment data and knowhow, that is what we are going to do, together with them. We are constantly working to optimise their processes, and sometimes that means that we are also making sure that they use the right amount of our products: not too much, not too little. That is part of our business.”