As he leads a homegrown firm with over 10,000 staff, Seah Kian Peng, CEO, NTUC FairPrice, shares his take with Wani Azahar on talent management and building a culture that leads to high staff retention.
Q: You had assumed the role of chief executive last year. What were some of your immediate priorities, and how has the progress been?
As a homegrown social enterprise, we remain focused on our social mission of moderating the cost of living, thus making lives better for all.
We have introduced initiatives to help the community save on grocery expenses, such as senior and pioneer generation discounts, Every Day Low Prices (EDLP) basket of essentials, Yellow Dot products and housebrand items.
Being socially responsible to our customers, environment, employees and the community, we voluntarily published our inaugural FairPrice Sustainability Report in 2016. In this regard, we are ahead of many public listed companies, for which this requirement will be mandated by SGX by end-2018.
To improve productivity and the customer experience, we have adopted new technology such as self-checkout counters, SCAN2GO and iCash, and have also built a new hi-tech distribution centre at our headquarters in Joo Koon.
To meet the changing needs of consumers, we have evolved into a multi-format retailer with FairPrice, Fairprice Xtra, Fairprice Finest, Fairprice Xpress, Warehouse Club, Cheers and FairPrice Online. Last year, we introduced FairPrice Shop, which aims to better serve the needs of budget-conscious shoppers.
We have also piloted stores in Bukit Merah/Lengkok Bahru which are installed with senior-friendly features. By end of 2017, we will have 14 of such stores, and will be sending some 500 staff in the next two years for training on how to serve elderly customers better.
Q: As a member of parliament and a CEO, you’re obviously very passionate about leading and guiding your people. How would you personally define your leadership style?
Leading by example is important in leadership. This is why our senior management team makes it a point to visit every store, especially during festive periods, to gain a better understanding of the challenges faced by front-line staff and customers, and to also help out if required.
Our senior management makes it a point to visit every store, especially during festive periods, to gain a better understanding of the challenges faced by front-line staff.
We must have a listening ear, be fair, and stay humble to motivate all to give their best. I am heartened that FairPrice has forged a family culture, with everyone looking out for one another. Our staff retention rate is quite high, with almost 10% of our workforce having been employed with us for 20 years or more.
Q: What do you think are the top qualities of a good leader?
I believe a good leader is one who is empathetic, has foresight, and embraces diversity.
At FairPrice, we are committed to creating a conducive workplace. Hence, it is important for leaders to understand the challenges faced by employees. We have thus introduced benefits to promote the welfare of our employees, such as flexi-work arrangements, grants and awards.
We also recognise the need to be forward-looking, introducing new technologies throughout our operations to improve the customer experience. We also have a management trainee programme to attract young talent to build a pipeline of future leaders.
Diversity is also a key driver at FairPrice. For example, older workers above 60 make up 16% of all employees. Therefore, we have the advantage of being able to tap on our employees’ varied experiences, regardless of background.
Q: What’s the biggest difficulty in being a CEO to a large firm with over 10,000 employees?
The most valuable asset of any entity is its people. However, for such matters, there are always going to be some intricacies to navigate.
Talent management is one of the more difficult issues to address in a large firm – we all want our organisation to comprise of exemplary talent. While we have many good members of staff, there is still the need for consistent talent management.
Our staff retention rate is quite high, with almost 10% of our workforce having been employed with us for 20 years or more.
Additionally, as people’s shopping habits change in the digital age, we too have to respond and change the way we conduct our business and in turn, the type of employees and skill sets we require at FairPrice. Managing talent and building a cohesive team requires careful and skillful management.
We also believe in developing our existing talent. Our ground staff receives training to keep updated on best industry practices; executives are sent for leadership courses as part of their continuing education. It is crucial for FairPrice to ensure that we have a sufficient pool of talent in the pipeline, which then dovetails into our leadership succession plans.
Q: In comparison, what do you think is the biggest issue other firms are facing in leadership?
I do not think the issues and challenges I face are any different from other CEOs’. The industries we operate in may differ but I believe the concerns are quite similar.
The amount of disruptions these days will only increase. The bigger your organisation, the more you have to worry about how these will impact your business.
You have to also future proof your organisation or run the risk of being displaced. Succession planning is imperative when it comes to effectively future proofing ourselves. Like what our country and government is going through, every organisation and CEO needs to set in motion and put in place this very important task.
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