Making sure everything is signed, sealed, and delivered!
By Aiden Jewelle Gonzales
I can’t deny that, during the interminable months of lockdown, the ease and convenience of online deliveries kept me safe, sane, and wondering where I would be without the ability to receive my essentials, groceries, and the odd impulse buy (or five) at my door. Beyond just my online shopping obsession, the pandemic has highlighted that a robust logistics industry is paramount not just for individuals but for industries across the board, and for society to function through crises.
“Goods will always need to move no matter the circumstance,” Tien Long Woon, the Managing Director of FedEx Express Thailand tells me when I sat down to speak to him about the importance of the logistics industry, and its emergence from its recent transitional period. “The simple fact of globalisation means that goods will always move from one country to another, and that is why the logistics industry is evergreen.”
It is this belief in the industry that tempted Tien Long from his career as a process engineer for a hard-disk manufacturing company: “I decided that I wanted to try a new career path, and I knew that logistics was the best business to be in if the trend of globalisation continues.” And after all, I ask him, who hasn’t sat refreshing their online shopping app of choice to see if the delivery status of their package has changed in the last two minutes, and he agrees with a laugh. “And imagine, I made the decision even without the benefit of knowing what the rise of e-commerce would be like in recent years,” he confides.
Born and raised in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Tien Long graduated with a mechanical engineering degree from Monash University in Malaysia, and he joined FedEx in 2010 as a process engineer. He spent his first four years there “mainly supporting the Malaysian market, but also supporting projects in The Philippines and Singapore, where we did facility and resource planning, improvement in processes, etc.” Promoted in 2014 to be an Operation Excellence Manager for Malaysia and Brunei, Tien Long quickly moved up the ranks in FedEx, becoming the Senior Manager of Penang and the Northern Region of Malaysia the year after, before coming to Thailand in 2019 as the country’s Managing Director.
He credits his growth within the company for his pragmatic approach as a leader, and his intimate knowledge of FedEx’s processes. “I always appreciate that I didn’t start as management in FedEx,” he reveals. “When you’re down there getting your hands dirty, you get to experience things differently. In my manufacturing days, I used to mix a lot with the operators and technicians, and I think it does teach you a lot.”
He reveals to Masala a behind-the-scenes look into how FedEx, despite being a household name, had to leverage its experience, network, and the dedication of its staff to pivot during the last few years, as well as his unique insights into the industry.
How would you consider Thailand unique in terms of drivers or opportunities in the logistics industry?
Thailand is well positioned within the ASEAN and Asia Pacific region to play a more important role as a supply chain. Because of our land borders, we are strategically located to support Indo-China, Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia, not just by air but by land, and that’s definitely a role that we should explore more.
ASEAN is a very competitive region, so we need to further grow our capabilities in this industry. We need to use our infrastructure to complement the reasons why people should consider Thailand when they redesign their supply chain. I think that would really reflect the advantage that Thailand has.
How would you consider FedEx one of the key leaders in the industry, not just globally, but in Thailand in particular? What makes you so competitive?
Let’s speak firstly to FedEx’s core strengths. FedEx has been in business for more than 40 years, and FedEx express, which is the operating company that we’re part of, operates more than 600 aircrafts. It’s that strong network that connects us with the 220 countries and territories that we serve; that gives us that edge. During the start of COVID, when the typical partnership between passenger airlines was down, we were able to move our goods, and I credit that to our investment over the years to ensure that some of those key assets in the industry belong to us, and are operated by us.
Specifically in Thailand, over the years we have invested not just in our air network, but in our ground network as well. Among the integrators in the express industry, we are the only one that has a full air network and ground network that connects China all the way down to Singapore, which allows us to give our customers a variety of choices to connect their goods. I think that flexibility is what customers want nowadays. Providing the right digital solutions has also really made a difference in terms of our offerings.
It may sound cliché, but I would say the most important element that makes FedEx so successful is its people. I feel honoured that I lead a team of people that are committed to the pledge we make to deliver, and that makes a difference. I have many great stories of the team going above and beyond just to deliver a package to their customer. And that’s really what we say sets us apart from who we compete with, our focus on the customer.
For example, when a customer needs a package urgently and it was released late from customs, oftentimes I have employees who say that they’ll deliver the package on their way home. That shows that we know the urgency of these deliveries.
Delivery couriers were also one of the many essential workers that couldn’t work from home during the pandemic, and many had to go the extra mile, often literally, to deliver during that time. What was your experience with having to ask staff to work on-site despite the lockdowns?
This is another testament to the team going above and beyond. When COVID happened, the employees didn’t panic, and they immediately asked how we would plan our resources so that customers still get their shipments. They sat down with their managers to decide what to do, and we all agreed to split the risk, with some working from home, and some working on site.
In a warehouse, unfortunately, not everyone can work from home, and couriers don’t have a choice. But they understood, and they asked us to help minimise the risk so that they would be willing to come to work. And that is the essence of making a difference. They knew not showing up was not an option, and they worked with us to make sure that can be done.
The COVID-19 pandemic’s impact in the last two years has been felt across industries. Can you walk us through your experience of its impact on existing logistic flows, both international and domestic?
2020 was, I must say, full of challenges. While I shared that our biggest asset was our own aircrafts, we had also partnered with a lot of airlines to move goods for our customers. As you can imagine, in late March and early April 2020, it came as a shock to us when so many of the aircraft were grounded, and we really needed to adjust how we rout shipments for our customers.
Domestically, I remember that we were struggling with regulations in crossing provinces, which were a hassle for domestic movement. Even now we continue to see an impact because of those regulations, and there were a lot of adjustments that we needed to make based on the environment that we operated in. It has not been easy, and it continues to be a challenge, at least for the foreseeable future. These events have really highlighted the importance of having people stay on the ground to make all the necessary adjustments.
In your experience, what kind of goods were specifically impacted, and how did you deal with the changes in supply and demand?
As you can probably guess, there was an initial surge in the import of face masks. Everybody tried to import them in, but the regulations were not clear, and there had to be a lot of discussions with the FDA, on how they wanted to proceed.
From an export perspective, all the different industries rebooted at a different pace. The technological industry, for example, had that chip shortage. Different industries therefore had different requirements, and the fluctuation of flow was very volatile. Many of the factories in the Chonburi area would have very high volume one week, and we’d prepare our resources to support that, but then they’d have very low volume the next because of a minor COVID outbreak in the office or factory floor. It was down to the level of factories calling to inform week by week about their volume that week, and asking for our continued support in weeks when their volume was high.
We also saw a huge increase in B2C transactions of things that people used to hand carry during their holidays. In the first Christmas of the pandemic, we received so many different items that we previously hadn’t seen coming through our network! That definitely presented its fair share of challenges for us.
With these challenges, how has the logistics industry had to pivot in terms of warehousing and adapting to new logistical flows, both globally and in Thailand?
In ASEAN and the larger Asian region, there have been many new warehouses built nearer to the customers, which has created a shorter pool and faster turnaround time. You can also see that globally – some parts of the supply chain in North America have also adjusted so that they don’t need to wait for goods to come from Asia, made worse by the shipping crisis that we see at the moment. So I think warehousing itself, and the way that we were planning on doing distribution, has changed, with the supply chain getting nearer and closer to the customer. That trend will continue to evolve as time goes by.
During this time, we’ve also had greater peaks as people ordered more goods online. To adjust to the peaks, what was more important than just hiring more personnel was securing resources and partnerships. We have over 1,400 employees, and other than that, we have partners to help us carry out some of the tasks that we can’t do all by ourselves. We’ve learnt that it’s really important to have strategic alliances with key people or vendors to ensure that you have enough resources during periods like this.
Exponential digital transformation has gotten people used to instant gratification, but logistics companies still need to physically get products to customers. How have you coped with the instant-access consumer expectations shaped by Amazon’s disruptive ‘same day delivery’ model?
I don’t think it’s right to say ‘same day delivery’ is everybody’s expectation, but what people most expect these days is instant information at their fingertips. With the power of the internet, all the platforms are continuously feeding information to the consumer – people want to know what’s happening with their deliveries, so they can plan.
Constantly keeping our customers informed on the status of their shipments, so they know when it’s going to arrive, is something that we’re working hard on. The constant stream of timely information is also so that they can make necessary adjustments. For example, if the FedEx Delivery Manager sees that you’re not at home on the day of our delivery, we can reroute your package to your office, or if you want to self-collect it later at your convenience, we make sure that we’ve built in that option for you.
Have you had to invest in technology a lot more because of this?
Most companies in the industry had that roadmap already – the revolution of Web 3.0, the Internet of Things; all the names that the digital revolution goes by now. The only thing that has changed is that the development pace has increased, and is a lot faster than we expected it to be, so what a lot of companies have laid out over a five-year period or three- year period, has been done over six months. Because of the shorter time frame, there have been hiccups in adaptation, but many of these technological investments were already planned, they’ve just been expedited.
With the improvement in the global situation, when do you think the industry will rebound?
It’s not so much what I see, but looking at the literature, with countries opening up, GDP will soon recover in many countries, and the industry will too. You just have to look at some of the bigger countries that managed to pull through. Although there’s bound to be a few ups and downs, generally speaking, if you look at the rebound rate in countries like the US and China, smaller countries will follow suit, with a little lag. That can give you an overall feel of where we’re gonna be, and I think that will put us in a much stronger position as we transition through the endemic phase.