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There were many lessons to be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, in both a personal and professional sense. To varying degrees, we all reassessed our lives, our attitudes and our preconceived notions of the world and people around us.
Boon Joon ‘BJ’ Chua was no different.
As the pandemic took hold and interrupted business operations across the globe, Chua began to learn more about how his staff would perform under a new kind of pressure. And the General Manager, South-East Asia of bulk liquids chemical logistics firm NewPort Tank Containers Singapore was pleasantly surprised.
To coin a much-used adage, when the going gets tough, the tough get going, and sometimes from unexpected quarters. So it proved at NewPort.
“The takeaway from the experience is not to set boundaries around people. Don’t put them in boxes. Provide opportunities for people to shine.”
“The journey over the past few years has been extremely eye-opening,” Chua explains to The CEO Magazine. “When the pandemic started, there was clearly a great deal of concern about the tremendous drop in volumes and there was a lot of stress.
“But we learned – especially myself, I feel – many positive and valuable things about the team and how they dealt with adversity, and in ways I didn’t expect.
“It was very interesting to witness. We saw surprising performances from some of our employees. They really rose to the occasion and performed beyond expectations.”
Importantly, the learnings from such a challenging set of circumstances were not just momentarily observed and consigned to moments in time. For Chua, it was something to take forward in his career.
“The takeaway from the experience is not to set boundaries around people. Don’t put them in boxes. Provide opportunities for people to shine,” he advises.
“And in terms of the business more generally, there are always opportunities in a crisis. Possessing a positive mindset regardless of the situation is the first step toward solving many of the challenges and problems you face.”
Chua is now approaching his 10th year at NewPort, having “cut his teeth in the logistics industry” as he puts it, first at fourth-party chemical logistics provider Elite International Logistics Singapore, then at fellow chemical logistics specialist Hoyer Global Singapore.
He helped with the opening of NewPort’s Singapore office in early 2014 and currently has responsibilities for its entire South-East Asia operations, which also include Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands.
While no-one was prepared for the pandemic, and the business community was thrust into unfamiliar territory, Chua’s experience in the sector kept NewPort on an even keel – at least as much as possible – as the pandemic storm raged.
He recalls how volumes plummeted before eventually rebounding. However, as they did, the sector was thrown another curveball: finding capacity on vessels to transport the cargo.
“We just couldn’t find enough space on the ships or aircraft to fulfill customer orders. It was mentally exhausting for the staff to keep up, so looking after our employees was a priority,” he remembers.
“We have seen over the past three years that external shocks can change the business environment.”
“But we were lucky in some ways because we had begun digitizing the business prior to the pandemic, so we were able to work from home and continue operating seamlessly and smoothly.
“We have seen over the past three years that external shocks can change the business environment, so one key learning is that having a well-checked continuity plan is essential.”
Increasing its level of digitization is one of the key aims for NewPort over the next few years, with AI among the technologies being explored. It will be one of the differentiating enablers for the company, Chua predicts.
“We are actively looking at what AI can bring to the business,” he reveals. “Essentially, our business is a simple one. We move cargo from point A to point B, so the work itself is not complicated.
“But we ship in large volumes, sometimes the cargo is hazardous and, in terms of operating processes, there is a lot of information and paperwork that needs to be checked at every point. Digitizing these processes is the direction the company is heading.
“In fact, NewPort also successfully implemented its global integrated logistics system in 2022, which has further enhanced our efficiency and improved our digital service offerings.”
If NewPort learned positive lessons about its staff during the pandemic, recent operational challenges have underlined the importance of developing strong partnerships. Its collaboration with its depot, Container Connections, is one such example.
As everyone grappled with similar dilemmas during the pandemic and battled to find a way through, many bonds grew tighter, Chua says, and not just in a business sense.
“We have seen relationships grow stronger with the transporters, depots and shipping lines,” he notes. “And not just on a company level. There has been closer people-to-people connections.
“Every part of the supply chain is trying to fulfill their part of the service so we’re all on the same team. It can’t be us versus them, because if the customer is unhappy, the job just hasn’t been done right and all of us on the same team fall below expectations.”
“A clear vision, a guiding light for the management team and employees, is the first thing a leader needs.”
This notion of playing as a team is one that Chua follows in his own role and more broadly in his management style at NewPort. But in order for that team ethos to thrive, a coherent strategy needs to be articulated, he says, and that comes from the top.
“A clear vision, a guiding light for the management team and employees, is the first thing a leader needs,” he stresses. “I advise and mentor our managers, but also give them freedom to make decisions. It’s important they have autonomy, and a leader should not be afraid that people under them will make mistakes because that’s when they learn.”
And as Chua can testify from his own pandemic experiences, even business leaders never stop learning. As he says of the pursuit of business and management excellence, “At NewPort, we never stop.”