Bouncing Back from Adversity

Interview with Xiuling Guo, Managing Director at Cargill

By Ricky Foo

After one week of Working From Home, I'm able to build back a good rhythm. It's important to have breaks in between all the Teams and Zoom calls, plus replying many emails. I find myself more relaxed, more productive and less anxious.

Last week (April 13th), Singapore just registered a record high of 385 new COVID-19 cases and 9th death. The number is still very small compared to many European countries. U.S. infection (>583,000) and death rates (>23,000) remain very high and worrisome.

On the other hand, I read and watched Bill Gates recent interviews on his perspective on the pandemic (Ted Talk, How to respond to Covid-19, and What our leaders can do now) and what the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is doing to accelerate the development of vaccines. I admire that he is a strong leader who is providing clear directions and finding solutions in crisis times like this! Bill Gates already gave a warning in a 2015 Ted Talk. It's a poignant reminder that we are still not ready 5 years later.

Let us continue to learn from business leaders on what they are doing to keep their organisations running and keep their employees safe.

Introduction

In my fifth interview, Xiuling Guo, Managing Director from Cargill joined me via Microsoft Teams for a discussion. She manages the edible oil solutions business in Southeast Asia and Australia, serving a total of 55 countries globally. Both of us were having the meeting from our homes. Thankfully, no children were involved!

Here are the excerpts from our interview:

Ricky “R”: Hi Xiuling, thanks for joining me in the interview today. Can you share with us your overall perspective on the COVID-19 pandemic situation?

Xiuling Goh “G”: The COVID-19 situation first caught my attention in early January 2020 when I was preparing for the Chinese New Year holiday. Having experienced SARS back in early 2000, I was slightly concerned but this only grew when there were more news reports about the rapid spread of the virus.

I went back to Shanghai to see my mum and to celebrate her 79th birthday on New Year’s Day. As I landed in Shanghai on January 22, there was a public announcement from the government as the situation was clearly escalating. The hotel we were staying at even started taking immediate precautions! When I returned to work the week after, we were quick to act and checked on the availability of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) for our production supervisors on site. 

COVID-19 has evolved to be a pandemic in a short period of time, posing challenges to global supply chains. As it is a relatively new virus, there is a lot we do not know, and this has created uncertainties that all businesses need to manage.

Impact on business and supply chain

R: What is the impact on your business and supply chain?

G: At Cargill, we are focused on two priorities in this difficult time: keeping employees safe and healthy and providing the ingredients, feed and food that nourish people and animals. Food is an essential service and a basic need-- we are leveraging Cargill’s global supply chain to fulfil this mission. 

In terms of the business that I lead, we are following Cargill’s global and regional guidance, while collaborating closely with local stakeholders to ensure the safety of our employees, business continuity and mitigate risks. Our two plants located in KL Malaysia and one plant in NSW Australia – serve customers in more than 55 countries. 

Many of the markets we target are feeling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic at different levels. The Philippines is in lockdown and Malaysia is under movement control order (MCO), therefore both locations have seen little activity for foodservice businesses. On the flip side, in the Middle East, our distributors are preparing for the Ramadan (April/May) and they are shipping more due to a worry of supply shortages. In Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, there is a good demand due to the building up of food inventory by the customers. However, no matter the situation, we work closely with our partners to make sure we can deliver our promises to customers. 

Take our Malaysia operation as an example. We started to take preventative measures in January 2020. This includes preparing enough PPE to protect our employees and building a strong business continuity plan to fulfil customer orders. I am proud to share that we have not failed to deliver any order as of today.

R: How is it disrupting your supply chains? 

G: The edible oils business has a long supply chain. It starts from various crude oil originations like tropical oil from the south-east region, and soft oil from Europe and central Asia.

In the beginning, when China was the centre of the epidemic and went into lockdown, we experienced a disruption in ocean freight. It took a long time to move our food-grade containers to other countries. However, as China gradually recovered, other countries were impacted. 

And when Malaysia announced their MCO, some of the essential services linked to food production, for example, packaging industry, were not in operation. There were some delays before we could continue to keep our goods moving. 

It is inevitable that there are impacts as a result of the global COVID-19 epidemic. But by leveraging Cargill’s strong global network we are able to minimize the impact to our customers. 

Food retail sector is growing in demand

R: How are your customers reacting? 

G: Customer reactions vary depending on the country and food/product segment they serve. Some have built up inventories and cancelled future orders due to the unpredictability of local developments, for example, a closure of borders. While some customers have reduced their demand as many restaurants have shut down or seen a significant decrease in business. 

Consumer spending has shifted to the food retail sector, where we’ve seen a spike in demand. Within the food retail sector, we’ve also seen a huge difference in sales volume as consumers generally stock up on staple foods. 

R: Where do you see the opportunities in the current situation? What is your strategy?

G: In this unprecedented time, we see an opportunity to help our customers address their supply shortages. 

With time, I’m confident that we will get through COVID-19 together. Keeping that end goal in mind, our near-term focus is to work closely with customers, suppliers, our employees and the local government to ensure continuous operations. 

Digital is also as a core part of our business strategy. Today, we have launched e-commerce platforms for our customers, and it includes product innovation and support for shipping. As consumers and businesses accelerate their adoption of digital technology, this will continue to be core to our strategy.

Successful engagement with team members virtually 

R: How are you managing your team? 

G: Cargill is a global organization and moving to a virtual workspace with remote teams was a fairly smooth transition. Although it was not a significant shift for us, I have also made an effort to connect with people (such as young parents) on my team who may need additional support during this period. 

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that many recognize that having to work from home presents its unique set of challenges and stressors. There are a few things I do to help my team. For example, for most of our calls, we start our session checking in on each other or saying hello to each other’s children. The team also keeps it light by making jokes and when we achieve a major milestone, we have a virtual wine session to celebrate! It’s times like these that give us an opportunity to get to know our colleagues. 

I also regularly engage more widely with employees in our business across various channels that range from newsletters, internal social media and video messages. It is important to maintain strong levels of communications and to maintain connectivity. We are then able to grow and support the business, solve problems and work through issues without relying on seeing each other in the office. 

As for our teams who work in plants and are unable to work virtually, we have put in place additional safeguards to protect their health and safety. Our plant employees play a very important role in helping to keep the food system running to nourish the world. 

The balance between harvesting opportunities and mitigating risks

R: What advice do you have for business leaders?

G: Based on my previous experience in the supply chain, I’ve always believed that risk management is a critical organisational capability that must be built into daily operations and into team culture. Just like with COVID-19, we must be prepared when crisis strikes. 

Also, for a situation like COVID-19, there is a lot of uncertainty and change in a short period of time. The ability to navigate through uncertainty and adapt to changes is important for business leaders.

It is important to have the long term in mind and put people first. Take care of your people and show gratitude for the extra efforts your team, customers and partners are putting in. Provide your employees with the right tools to succeed and stay safe, for example, providing adequate personal protection equipment. This is especially important during a time when a crisis like COVID-19 epidemic is causing a lot of concern. When you have your people sorted, then as a dedicated team you can take good care of customers.

When this all passes, how your business performs, and the relationship you have with customers is closely linked to how we acted during the crisis. 

Conclusion

The key takeaway from my interview with Xiuling is that we need to be prepared for the future. As much as we like to “harvest opportunities,” we also need to actively “mitigate risks,” especially in emerging markets. Xiuling reminded me that putting people first and establishing safety is the No. 1 priority. If we protect our employees, we are protecting the business, and we are able to serve our customers. 

If you are interested in how to build a resilient leadership team in APAC, drop me a note at ricky.foo@mercuriurval.com.


  • Bouncing Back from Adversity
  • Covid-19