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For seasoned commodities executive Gan Wan Pin, if there is one area where he thinks his industry should really concentrate its focus, it’s digitization.
“Commodities is a very traditional sector,” he tells The CEO Magazine. “There are a lot of transactions and with it, a lot of paper flipping.”
Digitization, he explains, would make transactions more secure and deter potential fraud.
“We’ve been spending more time thinking about the next generations of Access World and how we can create an environment to attract and retain tomorrow’s talent.”
“You can always replicate paper one way or the other. Blockchain, on the other hand, is much harder to clone,” he explains. “It’s not always 100 percent, but it’s much better than paper.”
The Managing Director, Asia–Pacific of Access World appreciates that any impactful initiative in this area would involve a large part of the commodity ecosystem.
“It’s not something that Access World can, on its own, impact and change single-handedly,” he says. “Instead, it’s a long-term target for the sector.”
Although he’s still in his 40s, Gan admits that his mind often wanders to the future of the industry – and his legacy.
“We’ve been spending more time thinking about the next generations of Access World and how we can create an environment to attract and retain tomorrow’s talent, who tend to have different perspectives on work and life,” he reflects.
One of the main areas of focus is a better understanding of emerging trends to be able to combine them with the requirements of the business and the development of the organization.
“The question is how can we synthesize the way we operate with the new trades and finances, even the pool of customers, that are appearing?” he asks.
A decade has passed since Gan returned home to join Access World in Singapore, relocating from Shanghai where he was working for APM Terminals.
At that time, the global logistics provider for the world’s commodity markets – including ferrous and non-ferrous metals, agricultural products, forest products, project cargo, polymers and oil and gas – had just been acquired by Glencore. Not long after it was rebranded to its current name in 2016, he assumed his current role.
He points to authenticity, integrity and the courage to do the right thing as the key attributes of a modern leader.
“At some point all leaders in their career are faced with tough decision-making,” he suggests.
“We continue to enhance our reputation in the global marketplace by delivering on our promises even during very tough environments.”
And like most, the COVID-19 pandemic was one of those pivotal moments.
“Lockdown took a toll on everyone’s mental wellbeing in the company, including my own,” he admits. “But as a business, we did what we could.”
That included going back to the basics. “We made sure that everyone had adequate supplies of food and essentials,” he reveals.
Frequent conversations between managers and staff and flexible working arrangements were other initiatives.
Gan attributes low staff turnover during the pandemic – and now – to the company’s efforts in ensuring the physical and mental wellbeing of its people. And these initiatives are here to stay.
“We were running them before, but the pandemic brought out the importance of a safety culture,” he says. “We’ll continue to maintain high safety standards across our operating sites and offices, but also be sensitive to our people’s stress and work–life balance so that we have a sustainable group of people who can work for us for a very long time.”
The business also bucked other trends during the health crisis, reporting record volumes during the period despite the supply chain disruption and equipment and labor shortages.
“Now that I can calmly sit down and look back, it was amazing,” he reflects.
One of the highlights was the completion of a large project in Vietnam.
“We were involved in the importation and transportation of wind-powered turbines to a wind farm at a time when no-one could travel,” he confirms.
Thanks to the “trustworthy and solid partners who were willing to align and commit to our cause”, a challenging situation had a successful outcome.
The climate continues to require agility to deal with the unknown, but Gan believes the business is well placed to navigate the ever-changing landscape.
“Fortunately for Access World, we fare relatively well in our business in Asia–Pacific,” he says, noting that as a team, they have emerged stronger.
“We are more resilient and better equipped to deal with future challenges. We continue to enhance our reputation in the global marketplace by delivering on our promises even during very tough environments.
“And we always kept a very open and collaborative attitude and engagement with our customers, keeping their interests at heart.”
In early 2023, the company inaugurated a state-of-the-art warehouse facility in Busan, South Korea. The facility, which represents a US$17 million investment, is in what Gan describes as “a key location for our business”.
“Strategically, we tend to add onto our global network of over 300 facilities worldwide,” he says, explaining that a large percentage of these facilities are in Asia. “This is done through either building new facilities or acquisitions of the assets of companies.”
“In our areas of traditional strength, like base metals, we will expand vertically, meaning we will capture more of the value chain by serving different customers and different parties in the chain.”
The execution strategy for each location is different. For instance, Busan was a design, build, operate project.
“When it comes to acquisitions, the growth is clearly faster because the identification of targets and the subsequent integration of the businesses,” he says.
Along with shoring up its geographical footprint, Gan reveals that Access World will continue to diversify into different commodities and expand its service offerings.
“In our areas of traditional strength, like base metals, we will expand vertically, meaning we will capture more of the value chain by serving different customers and different parties in the chain,” he explains.
There are also new business segments to investigate, areas where the company is already seeing “considerable success” including project cargo, renewables and electric vehicles.
Internally, the business is upping its sustainability efforts.
“We are exploring the use of electric forklifts and other electrical-driven equipment rather than the traditional diesel-driven machines,” he says.
A conscious push to incorporate more skylights into new facilities to capture more natural lighting, as well as solar panels on rooftops, are also ongoing as Gan looks to reduce power consumption.
“We are mindful of the environments and local communities we operate in and exist alongside, and we make it a priority to hire from the local community,” he adds.
“It’s extremely important that we understand the local culture, so that we adapt ourselves to it and offer the community suitable employment opportunities.”
The past few years have definitely held a few important lessons for Gan, including making him a calmer leader.
“I’m a lot less knee-jerking,” he says with a smile.
But one thing has remained consistent throughout his leadership: keeping his people and his teams as his top priority.
“Without good people, no organization can ever be good or great,” he stresses. “And without a great organization, there’s no such thing as a great leader.”
Strong in the belief that leaders should be serving the organization and the people they are leading, Gan says that creating a suitable common vision for the organization, the sector, the culture and the dynamics should rank highly on leaders’ priorities in their roles.
“Without it, you’ll never be a great place where people want to come and work,” he points out.
Discussing his work–life balance, Gan admits it’s an ongoing juggle. “I end up sleeping a little bit less,” he concedes.
His day starts at 5am with a jog, followed by emails and other bits and pieces before heading into the office.
“But you do have to be conscious about it. I try not to take calls over the weekends where possible because balance is not just balancing yourself, it’s balancing your family as well,” he advises.
Since the pandemic, he says he’s definitely traveling less.
“That’s only possible because people have realized there are different ways to get things done.”