Board Perspectives
Boardroom Perspectives

EVERY MOMENT IS A TEACHABLE MOMENT – LEARNING FROM DIVERSITY

An entrepreneur who built a supermarket chain from scratch, Lim Hock Chee, Chief Executive and a board director of Sheng Siong Group, believes in harnessing the potential of all who works with him.

His is a self-made story that has been told many times. Son of a pig farmer, Lim Hock Chee, together with his brothers, took over a little provision shop in 1985. Through competitive pricing and the out-of-the-box move of combining traditional “wet market” and modern supermarket concepts, he set Sheng Siong apart from other chain grocers. From a small outfit with a S$3,000 daily turnover, Lim now steers a mainboard-listed company with more than 70 supermarkets across Singapore and China and S$1.34 billion in annual sales revenue.

A quick scan of news reports brings up as many positive financial reports as it does heart-warming human interest stories. In 2021, word on their generous up to 16 months staff bonuses following the group’s “tremendous” FY2020 performance, quickly went viral; while in 2022, news of Lim and his wife waking up at 5am to help cover the duties of supermarket staff down with Covid-19 became the talk of the town. Both instances reflect Lim’s egalitarian leadership style.

For the down-to-earth 2018 Businessman of the Year, it is people that make or break a company. He personally steers human resources within the group, sees potential in all his staff, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or background, and places emphasis on building an inclusive culture of learning. Diversity is likewise embraced on the company board, with experiences and skillsets valued for the varied insights they bring to robust decision-making and solutions.

He might have left school before taking his ‘O’ Levels, yet in Lim’s leadership philosophy lies deep wisdom – acquired through 38 years of building a behemoth from scratch. Here, he shares his insights on developing and harnessing the capabilities of those he works with to reach for greater heights.

What is the core focus of your work as CEO of Sheng Siong Group?

I have my hands in all aspects of the operation, from purchasing to IT, but the core of my work is in HR. As a leader, one of the key abilities you need to have is to unite your staff. I do this by walking the talk. Our company’s corporate culture is based on moral integrity, and I try to lead the way so that others can follow suit. This was how Singapore’s founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew built an extraordinary team – he set his goals high and made sure that he achieved them, so that others would do the same.

As the saying goes: birds of a feather flock together. If you want to attract the right people to build something together, you have to create that right culture with the right values. Through this, people of all backgrounds can be united, and the positivity can be drawn out in each. I regard our business as a school of sorts, where people can learn and grow. A career at Sheng Siong isn’t just about earning a wage, but fulfilling potential and realising dreams. We have staff who have taken what they have learnt at Sheng Siong to start their own businesses. We also have others who rose to manage new Sheng Siong branches. The human resources within Sheng Siong is never stagnant: our people are constantly growing, and influencing each other to grow.

Given your people-focus, what were your considerations when shaping Sheng Siong’s board of directors?

An emphasis on transparency and moral integrity aside, I sought a diverse board which, including independent directors, could objectively guide us with their profession-specific insights. So we have lawyers and accountants, individuals with different areas of specialty and different backgrounds on the board to lend their different network resources and expertise. With their different perspectives, they might also be able to see shortcomings that we might have missed. It is through learning from their different experiences, opinions and views that we make up for our deficiencies. This is especially important if we want to go out into the world. What we encounter in other countries may be completely different – by promoting and embracing diversity, we poise ourselves to tackle these challenges.

Has the board’s gender diversity, in particular, impacted the company in any way?

The president of Singapore is a woman, as are many ministers. Women are definitely equally capable and Sheng Siong has been welcoming of women leaders. From my sister-in-law to my niece, many female members of the family have taken key roles in the company. We’ve also recently welcomed two more women to our board recently.

I find our female board members very thorough thinkers, but their contributions are unique not for their gender, but for their professional expertise. For example, a female board member who has worked in the Singapore Food Agency could share insights on regulations.

The influence women have isn’t limited to the board – the female workers within the company all have a part to play in helping the company grow with their contributions and ideas. Not to forget too: in the supermarket business, women employees outnumber men!

Apart from diversity, what do you see as another important quality of an effective board?

The ability to listen is critical. I often play the role of the listening ear for others, and seek to find the root of the issues that they raise. This is how I improve on certain systems and processes within the company so we operate in a more efficient and safer manner. Similarly, a board needs to be able to listen to feedback from all directions, and to each other.

Does being a family enterprise shape the leadership within the company?

We have always filled roles with people based on their abilities and merits: the most competent person gets the job. After all, we listed the company to grow – and we only have so many within the family, while the world is huge. That said, I still encourage family members and those in the next generation to get involved in developing Sheng Siong together, alongside external talent that they can also learn from.

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