A taste for the flavour business

Tina  Tan

With a leadership role in food technology, alum Dr Tina Tan is at the forefront of the flavour manufacturing industry.

As senior general manager at Matrix Flavours & Fragrances, a flavour manufacturer and exporter headquartered in Malaysia, Tina (PhD Chemistry 2008) is responsible for the strategy of the company – exploring areas for growth, forming industry partnerships and increasing revenue.

She also knows what food flavours and tastes are getting consumers excited.

“Right now, the trend is moving towards plant-based proteins as a replacement of animal source proteins. One of the most talked-about products is the impossible burger – a burger that tastes like meat, but is 100% vegetarian,” Tina explains. “We are also seeing a trend of protein shakes that are made out of vegetarian sources, such as pea and sunflower proteins. The challenge here is to make it palatable enough to drink, so this is where flavours are very much needed.”

Matrix produces a whopping 1200 different flavours across the food and non-food industries, including pharmaceutical and latex, supplying to over 60 countries. Categorised into seven flavour ‘families’, flavours range from the everyday – vanilla, chocolate, sesame, cherry – to the niche – white gourd, soursop, cactus, yak butter.  

The largest company of its kind in Malaysia, Matrix was founded in 1978 by Tina’s father, Dr Tan Chee Hong, who is still overseeing operations today. But it wasn’t a natural assumption that Tina herself would join the family business.

“I was given the freedom to pursue whatever career I wanted,” says Tina, who attended the University of Melbourne in the footsteps of her two older brothers, also alumni. “I was at a crossroads after finishing my degree: to continue in academia or move into industry. It was suggested that I join the business from an R&D perspective for a couple of years, just to see if it suited me. I had pursued my education in organic and physical chemistry, so moving to the food industry was a big leap and meant starting from scratch to learn a new field.

“It’s definitely been a great opportunity that has taken me out of my comfort zone of being a scientist, and let me challenge myself in a new industry.”

Tina believes women in Asia are increasingly taking leadership roles across the business realm.

“I do find a higher concentration of women entrepreneurs and women in key leadership roles in Malaysia and some Asian countries,” she says. “I am a member of the Entrepreneurs Organisation and the Malaysian chapter has over 20% women members, which is one of the highest across the chapters globally. I draw a lot of inspiration from these women and other women leaders who are creative, innovative and very intelligent.

“Matrix as a company employs more than 60% women in their management and executive roles. Our group deputy managing director is a woman and she has been one of my greatest mentors. We didn’t specifically look out for hiring women – basing it on meritocracy, looking past gender and race. It just happened they were the best people for the job!”