Name a bigger challenge than this! Mr Ngien Hoon Ping, who will leave FairPrice Group Supply Chain (FPGSC) this week to become the Group CEO of SMRT Corporation from August, joined us at the height of the pandemic, in September 2020. The food supply situation in Singapore was “fairly unclear” at the time, as Mr Ngien revealed in a recent interview. The general concern at the onset of COVID 19 in early 2020 has been that “we might run out of food; and even when we have sufficient food in our stockpile, whether we have the food distribution capabilities to effect seamless delivery.”
Today, as we are exiting an unprecedented global pandemic, Singapore’s food supplies appear more resilient than ever. FairPrice Group has played a fundamental part in this, by creating a separate unit with FPGSC, strengthening its distribution and warehousing capabilities, as well as the ability to monitor and analyse events that might lead to disruptions. Data analytics and operations monitoring, thus, play an important role to strengthen the supply chain. “There was a need to build up strong capabilities – in warehousing, distribution and data analytics – and most importantly, a dedicated team,” Mr Ngien said. “It was due to concerns that further waves of Covid could affect workers and cause more disruption.”
There have been some tricky moments nevertheless. Singaporeans tend to become anxious when the traditionally very smooth food supply seems at stake, which can lead at times to overreactions and bouts of panic buying. Malaysia’s recent chicken export ban has only been the latest scare. “We stockpile a lot of essential items,” Mr Ngien reassures. FairPrice has also been diversifying its sources, basically buying “from everywhere,” as Mr Ngien explains it.
Sometimes that job requires swift actions. When the container ship Ever Given ran aground in the Suez Canal last year, essentially cutting off the main trade route to Europe, the procurement team had to quickly switch some orders for olive oil and pasta to Australia. FPGSC’s new state-of-the-art operations centre SCope spotted the incident early and alerted the different teams about possible repercussions on stocks. It illustrated how under Mr Ngien’s watch, supply chain management has transformed from a mere operational role into a strategic asset leveraging data and analytics.
The team saw how there was actually a lot of value and insights in the data that is being produced when items are stored, moved around, or sold to retail. Specific SKUs can be analysed regarding consumption and distribution patterns. FPGSC is now offering suppliers access to its data and analytics solutions, and to store some products in its warehouses at cost-effective prices, including the new fresh food distribution centre. This allows suppliers to better manage their inventory and generate value from data.
Mr Ngien feels proud of what the FPGSC team has achieved. “The requirements for SCope have been very simple,” he said. “We needed to know faster and see clearer, then act decisively to make sure we don’t run out of food and there isn’t a panic situation.” His team has taken it further, analysing the initial plan many times and in detail, pushing it above and beyond. “It’s important to train our people, provide them the environment to learn so that they are able to make critical decisions on their own, to be able to go further,” he says about his approach to leadership.
Despite the signs of relief on the pandemic front, they continue to keep a close eye on the situation. Mr Ngien’s optimistic takeaway: “There have been ‘down moments’ where we had doubts, but in the end, we have come out stronger as a team.” Thank you, sir, for your service!