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Balancing idealism with pragmatism
A GENUINE love for serving customers has served Shafie Shamsuddin well. The 45-year-old president and chief executive of PT Trans Retail (Carrefour Indonesia) has been named Outstanding Chief/Senior Executive (Overseas) of the Year at the 2016 Singapore Business Awards.
Even though nearly 20 years have passed, the former management trainee at Carrefour Singapore still remembers the day Carrefour opened its doors here. It was his second year in the job, and he had been promoted to head the toys, sports and luggage department.
The week leading up to the opening on Oct 17, 1997 had been wrought with sleepless nights and endless second-guessing on store layout from shelving to lighting to ambience.
"When the door finally opened, I saw a group of customers run all the way in and into the toys section, looking for the Star Wars collectibles that we had prepared. They were so happy to get their hands on them. "Immediately, without realising it, my tears started flowing. At that moment, I knew what I was looking to do with my life."
Mr Shafie says he had chosen to begin his career with Carrefour in 1996 to earn a living and support his family. "My goal at that time was to give happiness to my parents, family, friends and relatives. It was while working at Carrefour that I realised the importance of making anyone and everyone happy!"
Mr Shafie's dream is to reopen Carrefour in Singapore someday. The shuttering of the store in 2009 (after more than 12 years here) was "unfortunate and very sad", he says.
It was a place where families came together, and where loyal customers appreciated the assortment and offers, and suppliers the dynamic product launches and brand wars that Carrefour Singapore brought.
"While we are not in Singapore any more due to constraints and different needs from our group then, I believe Carrefour has contributed to the growth of the retail market here by helping to grow the local players, suppliers and associates professionally."
Mr Shafie, who says he is very much involved in the daily operations of the company, likens his job to running his own small city - fun, exciting and yet demanding as he is responsible for his over 30,000 associates (or employees) today. "Running a hypermarket business is simple yet complex. Many people underestimate the joy of running it. It's a drug that will pull you back again and again. Once you enter, it's very difficult to get out!"
ALMOST NOT CEO
The Nanyang Technological University graduate was once told he would never become CEO. In 2003, he asked the then CEO of Carrefour Singapore if he had a shot at the position, believing he was progressing well and ready to be challenged. He was appalled to hear a resounding no, reason being that at Carrefour, CEOs had always been French.
But Mr Shafie was far from demoralised. The next day, he went up to the Carrefour Singapore CEO and thanked him for the the revelation, at the back of his head knowing it had inspired him to want to change things.
"I told him that I was impressed with him and our Carrefour culture - that is, having the courage to tell the truth. This was even though it was never stated in any of our policies that the company would not give opportunities to an Asian to become CEO."
Three years later in 2006, Mr Shafie would make history. On Valentine's Day in Kuala Lumpur, the president of Carrefour broke the news to him that he had been nominated to become CEO of Carrefour in Singapore and Malaysia. "It was unbelievable! Less than three years ago, it had seemed impossible."
Only it was an uphill, arduous journey from there, Mr Shafie shares. For one thing, his employees in Malaysia were not confident of his ability to lead. And so he gathered his top 100 leaders at that time and pleaded for a chance to lead them, adding he could not fulfil three of their wishes even if he had wanted to. The first is that he is not French. Second, he had zero experience as a CEO. Third, he was the youngest CEO then at 35 years old, and there was "nothing I could do to be 45".
But he promised to be committed - to listen to them, make changes when necessary and restart expansion and growth plans. He requested for six months to prove himself.
"After six months, if you think that I am not the leader for you, I would gladly remove myself from this role and let a new leader take my place," he told his team.
He stayed as CEO for almost four years - and in that time, Carrefour Malaysia and Singapore saw the opening of 12 hypermarkets, a doubling in the number of associates to close to 6,000, and a nearly 100 per cent profit growth in three years. "That was a milestone for me and also for Carrefour as we continued our growth in Asia," says Mr Shafie.
INDONESIA A TOUGH MARKET
Indonesia proved to be a challenging market, when he took over as CEO of Carrefour Indonesia in July 2009. Even though it was the No 1 hypermarket in the country then - with 70 stores across 20 cities - three major events came close to changing that.
First, the Indonesian anti-monopoly agency accused Carrefour Indonesia of monopolistic practices, and won a legal case to have it sell off 30 stores and pay a fine of over US$2 million. Then, there was a threat by a rival conglomerate to disrupt the operations at five of Carrefour Indonesia's stores, which collectively represented a-fifth of profitability. The third, labour union demonstrations, caused monthly disruptions that drove distribution costs up by some 20 per cent.
Mr Shafie was given at most three years to turn Carrefour Indonesia around. In under two years, the company won its legal appeals against the anti-monopoly agency and averted selling any of its stores or paying a fine. It won the right to a hefty compensation from the offending rival conglomerate, though it chose in the end to preserve the business relationship and not take the money. And it managed to regain control of the labour unions. "After all that, we came back stronger in sales and profitability," Mr Shafie says.
AN ENTREPRENEUR AT HEART
Asked what makes a successful business leader, Mr Shafie says it's how one inspires oneself to be better every day, and strikes a balance between idealism and pragmatism. For him, he stands by four principles - objectives, mind, muscle, heart.
A business leader, like an entrepreneur, has to dream big. "Don't stop at dreaming but come up with a specific role in a specific period of time," Mr Shafie says.
The mind should never stop learning and being curious, he adds. Like how an entrepreneur is obliged to execute many roles at once in a company, a business leader too should develop all competencies that will help in his work and life. He should not be afraid to use his muscles, to get down on his knees, do the hard work and perspire. Finally, a successful business leader needs to lead from the heart, be humble, and most importantly, kind, he says. "Character is the magic to success."
INTEGRITY AND PASSION
A business contact-turned-friend can testify to Mr Shafie's integrity and passion for life. Alan Goh, 55, founder and managing director of homegrown bicycle brand Aleoca Pro Singapore, says: "He is honest and down-to-earth, always thinking of others first and taking good care of his employees."
The two go back some 18 years. In 2013, Mr Goh was appointed a business development consultant with PT Trans Retail Indonesia (Carrefour), where he spent the next two years in Jakarta and witnessed his peer's passion for work. "Shafie would personally make his way down to all of Carrefour's outlets to check on operations, including even taking a motorcycle to beat traffic."
Mr Goh had even encouraged Mr Shafie to join politics. Says Mr Goh: "He is a good candidate. My view is that, why should he, a Singaporean, work for a multinational corporation in another country, when he can serve his own country?"