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When Sandy Hao arrived for a job interview with testing and certification specialist SGS China, she was in for a big surprise. As she entered the building in Shanghai that contained the lab she hoped to work in, she realized that the company was a bigger deal than she had anticipated.
“When I showed up, I was amazed to see this huge line of customers waiting patiently to send their samples off to the labs to be assessed,” she says. “I had thought that the testing, inspection and certification industry was just a niche, but I could see I was wrong and it represented a big opportunity for me.”
Eighteen years later, that has certainly proved to be the case for the firm’s Managing Director for the past two years.
“I’ve always felt respected and trusted. Like me, the company places a high value on integrity.”
“Right from that very first job interview, I had a very good impression of SGS,” she remembers. “Since then, I’ve always felt respected and trusted. Like me, the company places a high value on integrity.”
SGS is a world leader in its field, with more than 97,000 employees across a global network of more than 2,650 offices and laboratories. In China, it has in excess of 16,000 staff working in 200 laboratories located in 90 cities.
Not exactly a niche.
Its state-of-the-art labs service a bewildering variety of industries including retail, agriculture, food production, life sciences, minerals, petroleum, chemicals, environment and automotive.
After impressing a panel of interviewers on that day in 2005, Hao was named a manager of the chemical lab, then promoted to be a director of the China chemical lab before senior roles in its agriculture, food, environmental health, and safety and technology divisions.
She was then promoted to Director of Electrical and Electronics Technology for China and Hong Kong, with an additional global role in the Electrical and Electronics Restricted Substance Testing Service. This subsequently led to three years as Executive Director with responsibility for connectivity and products, and finally her appointment in 2021 as Managing Director of SGS China. She is the first woman leader among all the company’s affiliates in SGS’s north-east region.
However, any celebrations about Hao’s new role were tempered as it coincided with the worst of the trauma unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have fostered a trust, collaboration and success culture in the leadership team.”
“It brought many uncertainties into our market,” she recalls. “Labs in cities such as Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Qingdao and many others could not operate properly. I had to consider how on earth we could maintain our growing momentum in the face of the crisis.”
The answer was two-fold. Hao could see that SGS had a couple of key areas of expertise that could help it navigate a course through stringent regional lockdowns and supply chain chaos.
“The first was our ability to build strong teams and engage talented people,” she reveals. “We are continuously adapting and evolving according to the changing circumstances. We have fostered a trust, collaboration and success culture in the leadership team.”
Its most recent staff survey backs up her claim. SGS China’s score in employee engagement and management effectiveness are both well above not only the group average, but also external benchmarks.
The second factor was rigorous investment in digitalization.
“More and more digital solutions are on the way to close the loop from online ordering to operational considerations, final reports and connection with our clients’ own systems,” she explains.
“Business innovation is our main mid- to long-term focus and will be the driver of the growth that strengthens our market leadership in China.”
Digitalization and automation have boosted growth in business units including automotive, semiconductors, medical devices, connectivity and products, agriculture and food.
SGS’ strategy mirrors that of the Chinese government, which earlier this year pledged to put the country at the cutting edge of information technology through its Digital China plan for the development of smart cities and rural connectivity.
The stated aim is for China to be a world leader in the digital space by 2035.
“Business innovation is our main mid- to long-term focus and will be the driver of the growth that strengthens our market leadership in China,” Hao declares.
Away from the frenetic world of the testing, inspection and certification business, Hao maintains a healthy work–life balance through carrying out a few inspections of her own. In her back garden.
“Spending time with flowers and plants is how I relax and find inner peace after a busy week,” she says with a smile. “If I’m not potting up or digging out weeds, then you’ll find me reading a book to learn and find inspiring ideas. In fact, the best advice I could offer a young female leader is to be a lifelong learner, to be curious and refresh your knowledge base.”