Inspiring Women Leaders

Growing Through Authenticity, Courage and Determination

An interview with Dan Luo, Independent Director at Yeo Hiap Seng and General Manager of Strategic Business Development at Fonterra

Growing Through Authenticity, Courage and Determination

An interview with Dan Luo, Independent Director at Yeo Hiap Seng and General Manager of Strategic Business Development at Fonterra

In the dynamic world of fast-moving consumer goods (“FMCG”), stagnation is an ever-lurking danger. Little wonder that industry veteran Dan Luo preaches the importance of challenging oneself.

“Courage is required to take on challenges and get out of your comfort zone, so that you continue to learn and are able to move on to the next level,” says Dan, who is currently General Manager of Strategic Business Development at Fonterra and an independent director at Yeo Hiap Seng.

For instance, Dan shares that she has had to learn to speak up in the boardroom despite being a naturally private person because she recognised that doing so was a “non-negotiable” aspect of her responsibilities as a director. Growth rarely comes without mistakes, she says: “Success often does not happen at your first try. Most importantly, learn what you can do differently, then continue working on it.”

But Dan’s wide-ranging experience in various parts of the world and in different roles – including leadership positions at LEGO Singapore, Heinz ASEAN and Heinz Long Fong Frozen Food in China – has also taught her that leaders should not try to go it alone.

“Board work is a team sport! Most of the work of board members takes place outside board meetings,” she says. “I also learned that getting to know other board members and creating allies is an effective way to contribute – this is why networking doesn’t just get you on the board, it also helps you to perform well in your duties.”

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I was impressed with her overall knowledge of the FMCG business, and as a director, what I appreciated most about her was her ability to ask insightful questions, challenge management assumptions, and provide her perspective on alternative ways of looking at a problem or issue.

Singapore businessman and investor Koh Boon Hwee, who recruited Dan onto the board of Yeo Hiap Seng when he was its board chair, describes Dan as a diligent director who was “thoroughly prepared” for meetings and who “challenges without being over-bearing”.

How have your cross-cultural experiences moulded your expertise and shaped your leadership style?

I am fortunate to have lived and worked in many different parts of the world. These experiences have helped me tremendously in understanding cultural differences, dealing with different communication styles, as well as appreciating diversity and inclusion.

For example, speaking forcefully is seen as showing determination in China, but it can be viewed as being rude in Japanese or Western cultures. While being direct is a virtue in Danish and New Zealand cultures, it can come across as bluntness in Asia. Being sensitive to these differences is especially useful when I manage a business with a diverse team across markets.

The world is changing rapidly. No single person has all the answers. I learned how extraordinary leaders leverage a team of people from diverse backgrounds with complementary skills, building a strong competitive advantage to achieve a high-performance team. Creating an inclusive culture and including team members in discussions can add value to the business by leveraging diversity. It is the leader’s role to create that type of culture.

Over the course of your career, you’ve garnered broad experience from global brands, adapting business strategies to both local and regional markets. How have these skills equipped you to add value in the boardroom?

As a board member, I need to contribute to decision-making for the company at a strategic level. This requires a broad understanding of the business, and a clear view of implications for the business as a whole.

Throughout my career, I built skills in different business functions, which has allowed me to look at a business in its entirety. Experience across different markets also helps inject global and regional perspectives into the boardroom discussion, which in turn contributes to the development of a strategic view. Financial knowledge is extremely important in understanding how the business is performing, and how decisions create impact for the business. Having experience in different areas helps me to bring a strategic view into boardroom discussions. The ability to appreciate different viewpoints and collaborate with others is also an important skill for a board member.

How has your experience in managing troubled businesses and loss-making companies helped you in your board roles amidst pandemic-induced uncertainty?

Both my life and work experiences have made me a resilient individual. I bring that to what I do, including my board roles.

The pandemic hit everyone, every market, every industry, hard. It brought many unknowns into the world and disrupted all our lives. But I think eventually mankind will be able to live through this, although we will have to undergo a long period of understanding and battling this virus. Just like Jim Collins’ Stockdale Paradox, which was introduced in his book Good to Great, we should never lose faith that eventually, we will emerge stronger from this.

At the same time, we must change the way we operate our businesses to reduce the severity of the disruptions. Initiatives such as providing temporary housing for Malaysian employees and offering flexibility in working locations have helped Yeo’s continue its operations during the pandemic. Holding on to our unwavering faith, we pressed on with our strategic goals – in mid-2021, we started commercialising products under a long-term partnership agreement with Oatly.

Dan acknowledges the need to change the way we operate our businesses to reduce the severity of disruptions. Photo by: Dan Luo

You’ve been an Independent Director of Yeo Hiap Seng Limited since January 2017. How have you grown into this role? In what ways has your board experience rewarded and/or challenged you?

To prepare myself for my first board role, I took training courses at the Singapore Institute of Directors, and continued even after I was appointed. In the third year of my board role, I also attended the International Directors Program at INSEAD. I learned a lot from these training courses, including the fact that board work is a team sport! Most of the work of board members takes place outside board meetings. I also learned that getting to know other board members and creating allies is an effective way to contribute – this is why networking doesn’t just get you on the board, it also helps you to perform well in your duties.

The board role has challenged me to get out of my comfort zone. I’m a rather private person, but the fiduciary responsibilities of the board require me to speak up in the boardroom – this is non-negotiable. Over time, I also learned the importance of getting to know fellow directors, understanding their decision-making styles and working with them effectively as a team.

What advice would you give aspiring directors?

The first step is to let people know your aspiration to become a director. Very often, aspiring directors, especially professional women, wait for others to offer them board roles. This seldom works. Even before you are fully ready, let people know of your aspiration and ask for support to prepare you to be a board-ready candidate.

Secondly, invest your time and effort in networking and building relationships. Many people worry that they are not good at this. In a way, networking is artificial and against our instincts. I’m often not at ease when I go for networking events. But the good news is that networking is 1% inspiration and 99% hard work. You do not need to be gifted to network – do your homework, plan ahead, follow up with diligence, and you will go a long way. You may also want to focus on quality instead of quantity. Developing deep conversations and following up frequently will help you build stronger relationships.

Lastly, continue growing your career expertise. Build your personal brand with at least one area of specialisation, be it digital marketing, technology, or general management, and make people remember you. Join SID or other organisations to learn about board roles and responsibilities.

Dan travelling during her executive tenure at Heinz. Photo by: Dan Luo

What gets you out of bed every morning?

I enjoy helping people pursue whatever they choose to do, both in my personal and professional capacities. I enjoy reflecting on my own experiences and helping others avoid detours during their journey.

What personal values would you want to pass on to the next generation?

Authenticity, courage, determination, and the willingness to learn are values that will allow us to continue growing and developing, even when we are faced with the most difficult circumstances.

I am a simple person. I found that being authentic makes me well accepted and respected by others. When you lie, it’s difficult to ensure consistency and you lose credibility when your lies are discovered. This is important at all stages of your career.

At times, courage is required to take on challenges and get out of your comfort zone, so that you continue to learn and are able to move on to the next level. I was told that it’s a good sign when I feel uncomfortable doing something new as this means I am making the effort to keep learning. This is true for my board journey as well.

During setbacks, have faith in yourself and hold on to your determination. Trust that you will eventually succeed as long as you continue working towards your goals. That does not mean you do the same thing again and again; if you fail, adjust what you do, check again and continue. Eventually, you will get there.

Dan while studying for an MBA in Switzerland. Photo by: Dan Luo

When you look back on your life and career journey, what would you tell your 21-year-old self?

Set your goals and work towards them. Never give up and you will succeed! Most importantly, enjoy yourself during the journey!

From my personal experience and observation, putting in effort in something you enjoy will eventually pay off. Success often does not happen at your first try. Most importantly, learn what you can do differently, then continue working on it.

A young graduate is like a clean sheet of paper. When setting goals, consider what you are passionate about (your interests), what you enjoy doing (that’s usually what you are good at), and what the world needs (to ensure your marketability). Think about what makes you different from others. Your uniqueness and personal interests could pave the way to your dream job. Be bold and ambitious in setting your goals. If you aim high, you will achieve more. Then, the next step is to make the effort, learn the skills to better yourself and build your expertise.

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Dan Luo is a senior FMCG leader based in Singapore with global experience. She is an Independent Director at Yeo Hiap Seng, and General Manager of Strategic Business Development at Fonterra, Active Living business unit.

From humble beginnings in China, she built a distinguished international career spanning multiple geographies – Thailand, Switzerland, the US, Australia and Singapore, driving business growth for a number of global iconic brands.

Dan was formerly the Managing Director of LEGO Singapore, a subsidiary of The LEGO Group. Prior to that, she worked for Heinz for over 13 years in the US and the Asia Pacific region, where she held various positions, including Managing Director of Heinz ASEAN, based in Singapore, and Managing Director of Heinz Long Fong Frozen Food in China. A well-rounded, collaborative leader, Dan has a strong track record in driving both top- and bottom-line growth (revenue, profits, market share) as well as business restructuring (turnarounds and cost re-engineering).

Dan holds a Bachelor of Computer Science from Wuhan University in China, and an MBA from IMD in Switzerland. she was certified as an International Director after completing the INSEAD International Directors Program in 2019. Dan is fluent in Chinese and English, speaks Thai and some French.

The Council for Board Diversity (CBD) believes that board diversity catalyses robust governance and responsible stewardship, and is a valuable driver for growth.

Having diversity in the board brings together the diversity of judgement to chart the best course through uncertainty, challenge, opportunities and risks – applicable to both for-profit and non-profit organisations. The mix of knowledge, skills, experience, gender, age and other relevant features is harnessed to devise strategy and manage its execution. Against this backdrop we believe that including women on boards, in particular, adds a powerful lead-in to the other forms of diversity that bring value to the board’s role in the company.

CBD, established by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, endeavours to promote a sustained increase in the number of women on boards of listed companies, statutory boards and non-profit organisations as a stepping stone to broader diversity.