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CEO of SATS believes in encouraging people-led innovation

As SATS advances its vision of Feeding and Connecting Asia, CEO Alex Hungate says it is important to cultivate a learning culture and reward employees for good work done

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President and Chief Executive Officer Alex Hungate believes in the importance of employee engagement.

With over 70 years of experience, SATS’ success rests on strong business- and people-focused leadership, shares SATS president and chief executive officer Alex Hungate. Excellent corporate governance comes down to engaging deserving staff, he adds.

SATS, Asia’s leading provider of gateway services and food solutions, has won the gold award for Best Managed Board and the Best CEO award for the large capitalisation category at the Singapore Corporate Awards 2018.

He tells us what winning these two awards mean to him, and his contributions to the company:

Q: What are your thoughts on winning the Best CEO and Best Managed Board awards?

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A: Winning the Best CEO and Best Managed Board awards in the large capitalisation category is recognition of the hard work and dedication of everyone at SATS, including my colleagues on the Board. It is a celebration of our efforts to improve productivity and service standards for our customers.

We also see it as a testament of the great support that we have received from our key partners like Singapore Airlines (SIA), Changi Airport Group (CAG) and Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore as we overcome the issues faced by the aviation industry. I hope that this recognition will spur on our people to pursue our shared vision to “Feed and Connect Asia”.

SATS does catering for the aviation sector, as well as hospitality, freight and food. PHOTO: SATS

Q: What do you think contributes to excellent corporate governance?

A: On top of having rigorous procedures, controls and systems in place, our corporate governance is firmly rooted in the company’s core values. These values guide our decision-making at all times, shape our culture, and our reputation.

The success of a company in any dimension depends on the calibre of talent it can attract. Corporate governance is no exception. Attracting people with good values and then rewarding and recognising behaviour that is in line with those values is the best way to ensure excellent corporate governance.

Q: What type of leader are you? What qualities do you think have contributed to your success in this company?

A: I feel that engaged, motivated people will create exponentially more value for our customers, the company, and the community. Placing people at heart of everything we do has helped us to become successful.

Joining the company from the financial industry, I acknowledge that I am not going to be the domain expert. Others in SATS have decades’ more experience. As such, my servant leadership style focuses on helping people to make good decisions by working collaboratively across the company, and removing obstacles that are preventing them from serving our customers better.

Mr Alex Hungate interacting with staff at an event. PHOTO: SATS 

I spend a lot of my time getting to know people from all over the company, engaging them around the office or at internal events to listen and learn from them. At the same time, I bring a fresh perspective to the business and identify gaps and opportunities, which may not be apparent to them.

I believe in cultivating a learning culture that thrives on agility. We have developed robust training programmes to help our people grow with SATS. For example, we recently launched the SATS Academy to foster skills mastery and lifelong learning for our employees. The Academy’s programmes will be aligned with SkillsFuture Singapore’s Skills Framework for Air Transport to enable our staff to receive nationally recognised certifications. We also offer educational sponsorship through our continuing education scheme to support our people in upgrading their knowledge and skills.  

Q: How is your career progression like in SATS?

A: I was an independent director of the company two years before becoming PCEO and was familiar with the operations of the company. SATS has always been strong in operational excellence. I could see the potential and purpose of the company, vis-à-vis its importance to Singapore and the development of Asia. Since I became PCEO, I have been focusing on developing a technology-driven, people-led approach to encourage our people to embrace new technology for the development and successful implementation of ideas to improve service and productivity.

SATS' AR smart glass cuts cargo and baggage loading time by 25%. PHOTO: SATS  

People want to be valued for their contributions and belong to a close collaborative team. My job is to create opportunities and resources for them to fulfil their full potential, and this traverses all levels of the organisation from ground staff to management.

We strive to provide an environment where people feel that the company appreciates them, recognises their contributions to the company and community, and respects their values.

An employee working in SATS can find fulfilment in knowing that we help to connect friends and families around the world, provide great-tasting nutritious meals that build healthier communities, and enable trade that drives economic success through our activities.

Today, we have many examples of people-led initiatives such as robotics for our kitchen assembly line, Smart Glass for ramp operations, radio-frequency identification (RFID) for cargo track and trace, and Smart Wheelchairs for Passenger Services.

Q: What were some of the achievements that SATS has made under your leadership?

A: Moving in tandem with changes in the industry, we have shifted from the threat of being disrupted to becoming a disruptor. We are decentralising innovation and development to hone new viewpoints and ideas at a faster rate. CNBC named SATS “Asian Disruptor of the Year 2017” because we encouraged our people to challenge the status quo. Having the technological leadership helps to create greater value for our customers and ourselves, and we are grateful for partners like SIA and CAG who are receptive to adopting new ideas.

For example, SATS won the 2018 IATA Ground Handling Conference Innovator competition for our use of smart watches in Technical Ramp Operations. Using 4G data, our smart watch resource management solution streamlines processes on the ground, enabling improved productivity and safety through enhanced communication. The equipment also tracks real-time performance, allowing us to harness data insights for better resource planning in the airport and for our partners.

SATS' smart watch and bone conduction headset improves productivity and safety in technical ramp operations. PHOTO: SATS

Q: What were some of the challenges you faced when achieving the company’s goals?

A: Managing the interests of multiple stakeholders simultaneously can be challenging. Most people think that investors are the key stakeholder and the role of the CEO is to create value for them. Yes, investors are important stakeholders for the company, but their needs are relatively straightforward compared to the needs of other stakeholders ranging from customers and partners, to regulators and non-governmental organisations.

Another aspect is the complexity of operating across many jurisdictions for multinationals like SATS, where it is a demanding task to keep up with the changes in standards internationally. Values and expectations are changing at an accelerated rate and future-proofing our business requires us to stay several steps ahead to anticipate risks and opportunities. This is not always easy.