A Chat with Toh Hui Leng
BY Joe Lombardo
Continuing our 2021 series of fire-side chats, it is with particular pleasure to chat-up with TOH Hui Leng, Chief Operating Officer at FairPrice Group Supply Chain. Hui Leng describes herself as “passionate about driving efficiency & innovation in Supply Chain through technology” – a quality that is very relevant to face-up to the many supply chain challenges in our path!
“Hui Leng, welcome to our fire-side chat & thank you for making the time to speak to us in your very busy schedule to talk to us about yourself & your esteemed company”
Let me start off by asking you to tell us about your background and experience?
I have had an interesting career considering I started off as accountant. I hold a Bachelor of Accounting Degree from the Nanyang Technology University Singapore. Prior to joining FairPrice I held a role as Auditor in the Audit General Office, followed by the position of Chief Accountant with a French MNC in Freight & Logistics Company.
I joined FairPrice about 20 years ago, where I held various roles. I was exposed to many manual systems in operations and I was tasked to drive and operationalise the transformation of the manual systems. This led to installing highly automated solutions in what I can consider a successful transformation program. These involved various state-of-the-art technologies including Sortation Systems, Pick-to-Light, integrated ASRS, auto stores and many others.
Today as the COO at FairPrice Group Supply Chain, my responsibilities are still very much operational. I am responsible for leading the FairPrice Supply Chain’s operations team in ensuring on-time deliveries to all FairPrice, Cheers, Unity outlets, as well as to On-Line customers, ranging from dry food, fresh food and grocery items. I am also involved in driving a few business development initiatives,
What are the key challenges you have as COO at FairPrice ?
My role is a very interesting one, while I support the CEO in business development, I also take care of all operational requirements, which comprises business processes including e-2-e fulfillment (end-to-end), technology solutions for operations and physical infrastructure.
If you are our online user, you will see the wide range of on-line services that we promote. Driving our products & service campaigns, are at the forefront of our digitalisation program. In today’s fast digitalising economy, it is a fundamental prerequisite to have an effective e-commerce & online channel offering.
Whilst you seem to be well on track, what were the barriers & constraints you faced ?
Changing the business mindset was a big barrier, where we encountered tough obstacles to change. In addition driving new technologies comes at a cost, and in most times at a high cost. But if we want to progress we must take some calculated risks. My challenge has been to achieve the balance between the real requirements of the business and the cost of realising a genuine transformation in the way we do things at FairPrice.
Our core “bread & butter” technologies have been in our B-2-B (business to business) capabilities and over time we have improved our methodology, tool and processes to achieve a high productivity rate of at least 2 to 3 times that of manual operations. The technologies and how we are implementing this into our B-2-C (business to consumer) work, is the new thrust of our capability build up, and this is being evolved as we scale up or down, remaining agile and nimble, in view of the huge fluctuation in demands from the customers.
This business sector will continue to demand adaptable management and technology innovations to stay competitive.
Your achievements to date, have also been attributed to working with good technology providers – what have been the success factors in your technology journey ?
That is right, we could not have done this on our own. Working with trusted solution providers has made all the difference. Our approach to finding the right solution provider has been based on diligent procurement processes. In searching for the right technology partners, we did a lot of “window shopping” and comparison amongst providers’ capabilities to our specifications and expectations, even before requesting for a proposal.
Once we found a solution provider that could deliver a “fit-for-purpose solution” and with the potential to scale subsequently, we then work on adding value to the basic, core technology solutions, namely, to achieve features like easy-to-deploy, easy-to-adapt and modify, and great user experience(UX) . We see our operational needs evolving very fast, and if technology upgrades, updates, adaptation and deployment to meet consumer and market changes are not swift and not cost effective, we will fall rapidly behind our competitors. This is my focus area and one which I hold very dearly for my Company and Customers.
Your ability to create the right partnerships with your solution providers was also key – what was your approach and what was the most important aspect that achieved this success?
I fully agree that partnering is essential to achieve the best solution and to help deliver real transformation. No single company can ever achieve a successful transformation on their own. For successful partnering, there must be a strong collaborative approach. This involves openness to data sharing, knowledge sharing, trust in all aspects of security, risk and the provision of a mutual and resilient foundation upon which we can work to achieve the best solution in the shortest time and at a competitive cost. This is not easy to achieve, without a focused attention.
The partnership also continues after the solution implementation, where we need to leverage the support of the solution provider’s knowledge, technical resources & expertise, agility to adapt and solve our problems to ensure our business continuity is secure at all times.
A key partner in your digital transformation has been Swisslog I believe that is where the successful partnering has yielded many benefits – could you share with us your experience & how instrumental was Swisslog in helping FairPrice in their transformation ?
Absolutely, Swisslog has been a key partner for us. Our 1st project with Swisslog started in 1999 and has continued for several years. Our partnership also had a very strong relationship management. They understood our business in such detail that they brought many productivity improvements, both in software & hardware-driven automation. We appreciated their approach to building some system redundancies, giving us options in solutions and the ability to make changes
They supported us well in response to adhoc issues as well as for more technical issues. There was a very professional understanding in how we worked – a great example of openness and collaboration in action.
Their efforts contributed significantly to the advancement in our digital transformation journey.
It is great to hear of your success story with Swisslog, but in general can such relationships with solutions provider sustain for long periods and what does it take to keep them fresh?
Yes, I agree that like all relationships, there needs to be a refresh element. Whilst Swisslog maintains strong expertise in material handling solutions, making them very strong in warehousing solutions, they, like many other solution providers, need to watch the market and Client’s requirement changes.
By this, I mean that solution providers must also transform themselves to stay relevant to a Client’s needs. Today, I look for faster time to market – for solution deployments, offerings that can be quickly upgraded with the latest technologies, and competitive pricing models. My financial background instinctively drives me towards seeing things from a Opex vs Capex perspective, as software and system solutions have today become a consumable item and we tend to shy away from capitalisation of such system when we can!
I feel that with data generated by our businesses, solution providers have a great opportunity to utilise resources better and create better data analytics as well as visualisation models that strengthen their offerings. They need to also adapt to the new normal and fully refresh their business strategies.
“Hui Leng it’s been fascinating talking to you about your digital transformation journey but also we appreciate you sharing with us an important aspect of partnerships and deep collaboration with solution providers. We wish you the very best in your continued welcome to our fire-side chats & thank you for making the time to speak to us in your very busy schedule”