Saturday 27 April 2013

Seah Kian Peng: Save, give, value all

FairPrice CEO Seah Kian Peng tells Susan Long his motto, his dream of making the supermarket chain a beloved Singapore icon and his challenge of balancing doing good and doing well.
The Straits Times, 26 Apr 2013

HE HAS never forgotten what it's like to be poor, to be that boy in school uniform a shrug too tight or threadbare trainers that skidded. He still remembers what it was like to choose between a bus ride or a meal. He still keeps a daily ledger on a spreadsheet to account for every cent he spends.

Over the past seven years, the Marine Parade GRC MP and Deputy Speaker of Parliament has been a champion of the needy, from single mothers to abandoned elderly, in the House.

At work, he keeps a vigilant eye on the grocery bills of Singaporeans squeezed by rising prices. Mr Seah Kian Peng, 51, CEO of FairPrice, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, wants to make sure his supermarket chain, set up by the labour movement in 1973 to moderate living costs here, stays true to its value-for-money origins, even as it updates offerings and woos the better-heeled.

FairPrice has a team of 10 who trawl competitor stores weekly to do price checks on a basket of essential goods for the average household. "We do this so that we can confidently look you in the eye and say, overall, we are the cheapest," he lets on.

In the last 12 years since he joined FairPrice, the cooperative has gone on an expansion spree. It has leapfrogged from a single-format supermarket retailer to a multi-format stable of 96 FairPrice supermarkets, 10 FairPrice Finest stores catering to those with a more upscale grocery list, five FairPrice Xtra hypermarts, 136 Cheers convenience stores and 22 FairPrice Xpress service stations.

Each time he introduced a new way to sell groceries, there was internal "resistance".

"People raised good questions: Were we straying from our mission, can we make it work? That made sure we never lost focus. But time has shown that these moves helped us stay relevant to as many Singaporeans as possible," he says with diplomacy.

But what has steadfastly remained the same is FairPrice's insistence on uniform pricing, even as it set up in posher locales like Somerset and Scotts Road. The same tube of toothpaste or bag of rice at FairPrice Finest along Orchard Road sells for the same price at a FairPrice or FairPrice Xtra in the heartland, contrary to how commercial outfits practise differential pricing, factoring in location and rent.

His next agenda is to entrench FairPrice as a local champion in every sense - how it sources, hires and goes down in history. It has stepped up its support for local farms and food manufacturers, holding frequent fairs to showcase made-in-Singapore products. Over 40 per cent of the eggs and 10 per cent of the fish and vegetables it stocks are now farmed locally.

It is also an unabashedly pro-Singaporean hirer. Of its 9,000 staff - the majority work in its stores, with only 500 doing backroom support at its headquarters in Upper Thomson - 80 per cent are Singaporeans, 10 per cent permanent residents and the remaining 10 per cent foreigners. He tries to adhere to this ratio, even though he has currently 900 vacancies, which can be easily plugged with foreigners.

More than 40 per cent of FairPrice's workforce is over 50 years old. Its oldest is 71. And it has over 250 staff who have stayed over 30 years. It also hires a big pool of permanent part-timers - mostly Singaporean housewives and students during term breaks - who form a third of its workforce. In recent years, it has also started hiring autistic, visually impaired and other disabled people.

Next, he plans to go further and enable every employee to walk to work if they want to. At FairPrice, internal transfers to be nearer to the "office" are more than welcome. "By virtue of our footprint, we can do that. I think it's a big advantage if employees can save on transport costs and time."

His ultimate goal is to establish FairPrice's place as a true Singapore icon. He was chuffed when New York-based Singaporean photographer John Clang recently mentioned that shopping at FairPrice was one of the things he missed most while away from Singapore. Recent branding surveys by Campaign Asia have ranked FairPrice, together with Apple, Sony and Nike, to be among the top 10 brands here. FairPrice was the only home-grown brand to make the cut. Its Facebook page now has 70,000 fans. Officially, it receives 100 compliments for every complaint it gets.

The chain receives at least two requests each month from Singaporean couples to have their wedding pictures taken in its stores. It is also inundated with requests to bring schoolkids on educational trips to learn about budgeting and the food chain, which it tries to oblige.

His dream, he lets on, is for FairPrice to be a part of Singaporeans' daily life, so it forms part of the "memoirs" of every Singaporean. He feels that Singaporeans should be proud of this home- grown brand which, despite being a latecomer to the hypermart business in 2006, has weathered many storms and fought off competition from major international kingpins like Carrefour which debuted here in 1997.

"You know, FairPrice, with our own very local management team, has been able to hold our own, fend off and make some of the big players leave and, at the same time, grow our market share. I think it's something which all of us Singaporeans should be proud of," he says, adding that FairPrice's market share has grown from 50 per cent to 57 per cent in the last 12 years, despite more players muscling into the low-entry-barrier market.

Sisters' sacrifice

HE WAS the third of four bright children of a printing firm line worker and a housewife who took in sewing to make ends meet. They were often broke and relatives chipped in to help out.

He and his siblings were top students at the now-defunct Mattar East Primary. They all made it to Raffles Institution and Raffles Girls' School, but his two older sisters gave up their university education to provide for their younger siblings, a sacrifice he remains grateful for.

At RI, he made it to the squash team and longed for higher-performance shoes and racquets, which were beyond his means, even though he worked as a painter, kitchen helper and stocktaker during holidays.

He won a Colombo Plan scholarship to study building at the University of New South Wales. When his younger brother qualified to study engineering here, the older siblings could afford to send him.

He returned in 1986, finished full-time national service, and worked at a government-owned engineering company, for which he helped set up shop in Shanghai. He was then absorbed into the Administrative Service where he joined the Defence Ministry's finance division.

That was followed by a secondment to the National Trades Union Congress to do corporate planning and start NTUC Healthcare's chain of pharmacies. He then left for the corporate world - a "bucket list item" - and joined a Hong Kong-listed engineering company to do business development.

Three years later, he was invited to head NTUC Healthcare as well as NTUC Media, where he took care of its publications and radio stations, and returned it to profitability.

In 2001, he joined FairPrice as its chief operating officer and rose to become CEO in 2010.

Since then, he has substantially grown its corporate social responsibility commitments, from helping to distribute used textbooks to feeding retrenched low-income workers, guided by the dictum that "the ability to help others is a privilege". Each month, the NTUC FairPrice Foundation receives up to 100 requests for cash or grocery donations. It gives up to 10 per cent of net profit to "doing good".

But he admits he sometimes feels stuck. Often, his fellow MPs ask for a FairPrice outlet to be set up in new housing estates, mistakenly assuming the cooperative can sail into any location. "It's a misconception: Everything is through e-bidding and open tenders. We have to bid to win in the open market. No preferential treatment," he says.

The other thing that keeps him awake is striking the balance between doing well and doing good at FairPrice. "Both are not mutually exclusive. But achieving a balance is hell of a tough job," he confides.

Undercover boss

THE man radiates an unflagging positivity. Often, he sounds like a motivational speaker. He spouts lines like: "See the glass as half full", "Value everyone because everyone counts" and "Do the basics better". He shrugs away unpleasant allegations of how FairPrice crowds out smaller mom and pop stores or that its sheer heft makes it able to squeeze suppliers for better prices. He figures he can't win them all.

But he maintains that the same principles govern how FairPrice works with business partners. "It doesn't have to be binary, either I win or I lose. I hope our business partners will say versus everyone else, FairPrice is quite a fair client," he says.

Business partner Bennett Neo, 44, regional director of Asia Pacific Breweries, notes Mr Seah is tirelessly patient, making time to listen to everyone.

"His fuel source is superior to nuclear energy. He runs on sincerity and passion, which lasts forever," he notes of the avid sportsman who has a golf handicap of 18, plays football, cycles, and often sprints 4km from his Serangoon Gardens semi-detached home to his Braddell Heights constituency.

Mr Seah's office door is always wide open. He is known to make surprise store visits. Since 2011, he started an MBA (Management By Attachment) initiative where all senior staff have to work in a store two days a year, cashiering, stocking shelves or rounding up trolleys, to help them "empathise" better with ground staff.

He admits he has problems saying no. "My default answer when someone approaches me for help is: "Why should I not help you".... So I end up, burning the candle at both ends," says the father of two children, aged 18 and 21, who is married to Jean, an accountant-turned-housewife, adding that five hours of sleep a night is a luxury.

In his 20s, when an NS mate was imprisoned, he gave all he had - save a few dollars - to help his friend's young family out.

"I have received help from others and helped others in turn," he says, shrugging. "There is great value in thrift. There's also great value in giving. If you can do both, life is a joy."

Seah Kian Peng on...

His dream for FairPrice

"We want to be seen as the people's supermarket, which evokes some emotion from everyone in various forms. This is where I spent a lot of time with my family, this is where I met my wife or husband. Such that if someone were to write his memoirs, FairPrice would figure in it."

Senior citizen Tuesdays

"You don't even have to show your IC (identity card) to get the (senior citizen) discount. It's done by sight. Sometimes when you ask people, they are not so happy. They go: 'You mean I look 60?' Sometimes we miss out some. Sometimes, we are over-generous. It's OK lah... My philosophy is: Never design a system to catch that 1 or 2 per cent who abuse the system. Policies should not be designed with a view of catching that small minority who abuse it and in the process inconvenience the rest."

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