Dr Mike Thair is a veteran scientist with a career spanning more than forty years. He has worked across different fields, from agricultural research with Australia’s Department of Agriculture, through to working on environmental issues in the mining industry, as well as being involved in teaching and science education in the technical vocation and university sectors. He is also the Managing Director and Chief Formulator at Indochine Natural, a natural beauty company that he co-founded which is headquartered on Penang Island in Malaysia.
When he’s not formulating natural skin care products he is working in poverty alleviation projects in Southeast Asia, which he has done since the 70s. He has also consulted to large development donors such as the Asian Development Bank, World Bank, UN, USAID and AusAID just to name a few.
Dr Mike Thair travels frequently for his work. This interview was completed via email for the purposes of ease.
EWP: What does your typical day look like?
Mike Thair: Structured. Manufacturing is like that. All of our body care products are handmade using natural ingredients, and certain things must be done at certain times. For example, we pour soap at 4:30 PM, and cut next day at 9:00 AM. Most other products have fairly structured manufacturing regimes.
My day starts at 4:00 AM. We are based in Penang Island, Malaysia. Our home is on the beachfront in a fairly quiet corner of the island. Behind us is rain forest. Dawn overlooking the ocean and feeling its rhythm and mood is important. It allows me to energise for the day ahead.
Early morning is a great time of uninterrupted peace. I work through emails and catch up on technical reading. Work on calculations for formulations I’m developing. Then there is social media, plus writing various bits and pieces, and finishing technical reports. I also squeeze in my exercise regime and breakfast.
After breakfast, it’s off to our office and production facility, with a planned arrival of 8:30 AM. It’s only a 15 to 20-minute drive along the coast. The road is narrow and twisty and at certain times of year prone to holdups from fallen trees and landslides.
First up in the morning our production staff pack online orders for pickup by the courier. I have a brief meeting with the production staff and Quality Manager about the day ahead, and then we get into it.
The rest of the day is varied. We have a two-story area with the main office and factory retail outlet downstairs, and upstairs our R&D area. Nearby (a one-minute walk) is our two-story production facility. Depending on the priorities of the day, I spend time across all areas.
Around 90 percent of our production is now for other local and international brands. We specialise in the high-end all-natural products with small production runs. We do not target the mass market. Therefore, I spend a lot of time formulating and testing new products. This can take from three to four months or up to 12 months. Once a customer accepts a formulation, we then do a ‘Rapid Stability Test’ which takes three months. At the same time, we perform Challenge Tests to make sure that there are no preservation issues. This takes around five to six weeks. We have our own microbiology laboratory and a separate physical chemistry laboratory. For some tests, we send samples to a certified laboratory. Once a product is ready for manufacturing, we then go through a ‘Notification Process’ where the product and its formulation is registered with local and or international cosmetics authorities.
I assist our production crew and Quality Manager where required. In between, there are quite a few admin tasks to do plus attending to cosmetics compliance issues and corresponding with customers.
At around 5:30 PM I head home. After a break of a couple of hours (catching up on the Australian TV news) and the evening meal, its then home office work for another two to three hours.
The day is not over. The bathroom at home is a test lab. At least 10 to 20 bottles of new formulations road tested at any one time. Always a great way to start or end the day, enjoying the bathing rituals. But it’s a process that requires careful analysis over one to two months.
EWP: You are a scientist by trade. How did you get to be the Managing Director of a natural beauty company.
MT: A long and varied career. I’m not young anymore, and not so far off 70 years old. But I still feel the same as I did at 20, so I guess I may face challenges. But I figure Mick and Keith are both in their 70s, and the Stones are still touring in 2018, so I guess that gives me licence to still feel young.
I was born and grew up in Perth, Western Australia. It was a working-class environment. I had a very early interest in science sparked by the 1960s ABC TV series “Why Is It So?” with Professor Julius Sumner Miller. I struggled through much of my schooling and ended up in a class of ‘no-hopers’ in high school. I actually bumped into a few of them years later at a prison farm I visited when I was sampling cattle herds as part of a Brucellosis eradication scheme during my Department Of Agriculture days.
Had I not escaped high school I probably would have ended up working a Midland Rail Workshops in some type of trade. I was able to get my matriculation in one year under my own stream and away from boring classrooms. Then I gained entry into university to study Applied Science. This life suited me, and I spent many years as a student. The qualifications were not important. I just enjoyed study and learning. Along the way, I earned five university qualifications including MSc and PhD, but never attended graduations (apart from the PhD graduation to please my mum and dad).
My work history and interests are varied. This included stints in serology and histology laboratories. Agricultural research and teaching. Somewhere else I developed mathematical models for skin. Also, a stint working for a Middle-East oil company. Other periods working on mining environmental issues, and water pollution monitoring. Lectured in science at TAFE in Perth and Sydney, plus some university teaching. I also had an early interest in poverty alleviation and saw mathematics and science education in developing countries as an element in lifting populations out of poverty. I published in this area and consulted for various development agencies on science-mathematics education projects throughout Southeast Asia.
In the early 2000s my Vietnamese partner had a fashion design and tailoring business in Ha Noi. The “darling of the fashion industry,” with many foreign ambassadors and their wives as clients. One day she was parroting on about a Bali made handmade natural soap brand. I tried the soap and declared it rubbish. The challenge was out… “well show me you can do better” was her response. That saw me working in a corner of her design studio producing various handmade natural soap formulations. Also, both of us had an intolerance to synthetic perfumes and were always on the search for synthetic-free body care products. Almost mission impossible.
Anyway, it wasn’t long before her customers noticed, and wanted to buy these soap bars I was making. Then everything clicked and a business was born. Indochine Natural was founded in Ha Noi as a foreign-owned Vietnamese company in 2006. The business expanded quickly, and my partner was forced to move out of her fashion design studio as we overtook her two-storey business premises. In a fairly short time, we were exporting. By 2009 we had outgrown the production premises and moved to Penang Island, Malaysia. Since then we consolidated and doubled our production space.
EWP: What are your biggest frustrations with the beauty and cosmetics industry?
MT: No sense in getting frustrated, I see these as challenges. The fact of the matter is that most brands do not manufacture their own products. Also, in many cases, the brand owners do not display a good sense of the science behind cosmetics. They focus on targeting of their brand in the marketplace. The manufacturing is outsourced to Contract Manufacturers. These manufacturers have a fairly free hand in what goes into the products. Brand marketers rarely demonstrate a good grip on the science of cosmetics. Therefore, within this mix, we see huge amounts of greenwashing and misrepresentation of the product benefits and what goes into the ingredients.
Then there are the issues that arise with certifying bodies such as Ecocert. These certification organisations (and there are a lot of them now) develop standards for “natural and organic cosmetics”. The issue here is that the goalposts are constantly moving. For example, they will certify as organic an oil (originally organic) that has added “fragrance” (a synthetic) to mask the natural, and usually unpleasant, natural odour of the oil. This synthetic addition is not declared anywhere and is secret under secrecy laws. So with some Ecocert, and many other certifying bodies, you are using “organic” ingredients with unknown added synthetics. By lowering standards they get more customers onboard, generating more income via the certification fees.
The industry then is a mess. There are huge bucks involved. No sense in getting frustrated, we do our own thing. Do it ethically, scientifically, and sleep well at night.”
……..MILD, LONGLASTING, NATURAL SOAP…… 30+ days in our cure room. The room is packed with dozens of these racks. Temperature and humidity controlled. This preserves the benefits of the plant-derived ingredients. The result combines several elements. Natural ingredients. Traditional soap making. The level of luxury that only handmade products carry. You will enjoy sensational skin benefits. Exceptional quality. Everyday indulgence – bathing rituals to soothe, nourish, and hydrate.
EWP: What do you know that you wish more beauty product consumers knew?
MT: Products claiming to be natural are not necessarily free of artificial ingredients. The term “natural” is often used to let consumers know that a product contains natural ingredients and not that the product is totally free of synthetic substances. So while you think you are buying a 100 percent natural cosmetics, you cannot know for certain unless you read the ingredients list.
Avoid products with ingredients having capital letters and numbers. Typically these include ingredients such as PEG, MEA/DEA/TEA, ALS/ALES/SLS/SLES, EDTA etc. Often these sorts of ingredients may have potential health risks and you should research these before using these products.
If a body care label says its “cruelty-free” or “not tested on animals” it can mean that the product and not necessarily its ingredients have not been tested on animals. You might think that you’re buying cruelty-free, but the ingredients may have been animal tested.
[Mike has compiled an easy-to-read PDF entitled “10-Step Guide to Understanding Product Labels” so if you’re keen to learn about the ins and outs of beauty products from someone with an actual scientific background, you can grab a copy here]
……. In Malaysia, finding it difficult to find locally made, high quality gifts? Check out our Body Care Pack. The perfect gift or product sampler. Also, great travel companion. It contains 30 ml bottles of Geranium Body Wash, Spice Island Body Wash, Tropical Sunrise Shampoo, Patchouli Lavender Face Wash and Litsea Patchouli Face Wash. The Indochine Natural story started in the eighteenth century when European merchants flocked to the Straits of Malacca and Penang Island. They sought exotic treasures including cinnamon, clove, and ginger. These were valued not just to flavour, but to heal. Today, on Penang Island we maintain this tradition. Indochine Natural products are handcrafted by our local artisans. They use the natural, evocative fragrances of the historic spice route. We create aromatic, sensual bathing rituals to calm the mind, reawaken the senses and restore the soul. Our Australian Co-founder and Chief Formulator, Dr. Mike Thair, leads product development. He creates bespoke Indochine Natural aromas that are unique and distinctive. East meets West in many of his formulations. Our handcrafted products use only all-natural plant ingredients, and nothing else. Handmade by our artisans on Penang Island, Malaysia. We sell thousands of these…. Buy online now while we still have a few remaining.
EWP: Aside from your beauty company, you also work in poverty alleviation projects. Can you tell us what they are and how you measure impact?
MT: Yes, there are a couple of distinct areas of my poverty alleviation work.
First, our company Indochine Natural takes on our own projects. In Vietnam, we were working with farmers, the poorest-of-the-poor. Under the Communist regime, they have very small landholdings. These are owned by the Government. In most cases, they battle to make a good living.
We identified farmers growing Luffa acutangula, a popular Vietnamese vegetable that looks like a cucumber. It is a perishable, and market prices fluctuate. We trained farmers to dry these on the vine and process them ready to be manufactured into bathroom loofah. We agreed on a price per dried and cut loofah before planting and guaranteed to pay cash for each dried and cut loofah meeting pre-agreed specifications. The farmers soon learned how to allocate a certain percentage of their crop to the guaranteed income from Indochine Natural, and risk fluctuation market prices with the rest of their crops. Within a few months we had 50 farms on board, and quickly built up a stock of dried loofah. These were cut and made into bathroom loofah. We were soon exporting to several countries.
In any developing country, the intellectually disabled find the going tough. On Penang Island, we came across a group of rural-based intellectually disabled. They had a fledgling soap-making enterprise, but the quality and production capacity was low. We worked with them for many months improving their capacity. Next, we introduced the concept of making a general household cleaning liquid from recycled cooking oil. We made basic equipment for them and again spent months working with them to perfect the technique. After some time they generated income selling the household cleaning liquid and expanded the collection of recycled cooking oil from local restaurants. This income generation has now expanded significantly. They have re-invested income into having more production equipment constructed, and the production area is now a lot bigger. They also run training programs for similar groups on how to produce the liquid cleaner from recycled oil. Corporates are also buying in to attend the centre for this type of training as a staff motivational activity.
In both poverty alleviation projects, we measure impact by the success of income generation, and sustainability. By sustainability we expect Indochine Natural to pull back, and have the participants carry on with zero support.
My second area of poverty alleviation over the past 40 years (crikey, has it been that long?) is consulting services to large development donors. These include the Asian Development Bank, World Bank, UN, USAID, AusAID, DIFID, and others. These activities have covered work in over 10 countries in Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe. Initially, my consulting focussed on capacity building and technical inputs into science education across the Technical Vocational and university sectors. A lot of my work focussed on capacity building science teachers. These activities have since widened to include village focussed road maintenance activities, social components of city planning, ethnic minorities integration, final reviews of completed projects, and ongoing monitoring and evaluation. As the ‘old-guy’, I often lead consulting teams.
Measuring impact on these large complex projects is difficult. The budgets are huge, often hundreds of millions of dollars. Part of my evaluation work is using various donor criteria. Often these criteria are questionable, and in my reporting, I raise these issues.”
There are many other issues. For example, on one project hundreds of primary schools were built nationwide in impoverished areas. The targeting of the locations was excellent. Construction was of a good standard. However, I soon discovered that the project implementers were selling these schools to unsuspecting individual donors in western countries. On a nice-looking website, families were invited to donate $10,000 to build a school, and the school would be named after the family. And sure enough, I saw these family names appearing on concrete walls, usually at the end of the building and away from the eyes of probing project evaluators. The photos were posted on the website for the benefit of proud donating families.
This raises various moral dilemmas in impact and project corruption. I usually use a young “geeky” inexperienced interpreter/translator. They are not hardened, and not frightened to ask locals awkward questions. I talk to mums and dads at school gates picking up kids after school, the guy selling ice-cream in the school playground, the students, and the young graduated teachers who live in the classrooms. At this level, I have found that many projects have a significant impact. Usually, it is not something that donors measure well.
EWP: Do you ever feel burnt out or overwhelmed at the scale of the poverty problem and related issues? What advice would you give others feeling tired, helpless and powerless to make change?
MT: If I felt burnt out and overwhelmed, I could not operate effectively. Over many years I have become accustomed to the poverty and poor living conditions and look beyond this. I focus more on the people themselves. I engage and get to understand their life. Most are accepting of their lot and just get on with life. I have experienced the horrors of Cambodia (I was there in 1975, but that’s another story) to the Tsunami in Aceh, Indonesia, plus many other places. I have learned to admire the human spirit displayed in many poverty and disaster-stricken areas. So on my side, I am not overwhelmed. I adopt a collaborative willingness to work with the people and buckle down to tackle the problems. Progress is being made. Over 40 years I have seen improvements in the quality of life. However, problems remain. Exploitation of the downtrodden is now a big issue.
Responses have been edited for clarity.