Onno was formerly the Regional Managing Director of TNT Asia. Having spent more than 24 years working for the company and participated in various innovative projects that led to the company’s rise in status and growth in the industry during his tenure, Onno has since set out on his own. Besides running MNX - a global provider of specialized, expedited transportation and logistics services – he is also involved in various ventures as director and investor. These include companies in the remote monitoring of Coldchains, Reverse Logistics and an innovative Biopharm packaging solution.
Onno moved to Singapore in 2005 to assume a senior Regional position for a European multinational and foresaw the biggest growth of the region during his tenure, whereby the company’s revenue grew almost 3-fold over a 5 years period. With his new status as an entrepreneur and investor, Onno shares his thoughts on Asia, particularly in the areas of innovation and talent development of supply chain management.
What is your current role in MNX and other business opportunities that you are working on?
MNX is my full time role today whereby I do everything since it is a small startup. After 25 years of corporate life, I had a strong desire to go back to my entrepreneurial roots. Whilst I got offers from several major corporations in logistics, I decided to focus on building and innovating infrastructure. In MNX, which is a 30-years old privately owned company, I see that opportunity since they are new in Asia but rather established in the USA with a substantial turnover. Their current presence in Asia was opportunistic driven and confined to Hong Kong and Australia to support current customers. My role is to proactively drive their expansion plans in Asia and convert agencies infrastructure into MNX owned as well as open more centers in Asia with implementation plans to expand its 4 core businesses in biopharmaceutical, life science, medical device, aviation and entertainment industries. As a board member in MNX, we have an aggressive expansion plan to grow the Asia Pacific business substantially in the next few years. I am also personally involved in driving a global expansion plan for our biopharmaceutical business.
Do you think you will be affected in your developmental plan without the backing of a global company like TNT in your entrepreneurial work, especially when it comes to financial backing?
I don’t think so. Whilst large corporations have the advantage of having large resource basis, smaller companies can be nimble, agile, flexible and responsive to changing market conditions much faster. When you move a company over a certain level of turnover, the level of complexities changes dramatically. I see that in MNX but with the experience I have gained throughout my career with large corporations, I am able to leverage what I have learned to professionalize the company to meet these new growth challenges. 12 years ago my previous company gave me the opportunity to push through an initiative that grew from an idea to over a couple of hundred million turnover project for a specialized segment of the business. Today in MNX, we have many new ideas as well, that are all being turned into exciting new innovative propositions to the market, we may not have that abundance of resources, but it will not stop us from finding smarter ways to get things done and being small it means that we can be more flexible and be able to move faster in bringing these ideas to the market much faster.
When did you first come to Asia and when did you move here? What’s your view of Asia?
I first came to Asia around the early 1990s whereby I visited Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong and China and quite often after that to manage business opportunities. I officially moved to Singapore in 2005 when I came over to head up a large business as its Regional Managing Director. Over the last 20 years I have seen massive changes in this part of the world, especially witnessing the early years, where there was a “gold rush” when many companies started exploring opportunities in Asia, particularly China. But not understanding the “cultural differences” and bringing wholesale Western-style of business management, many companies essentially failed, got burnt and lost lots of money.
To me, Asia is more than just China and while I did see highly dependent on the West for consumption, I am also seeing Asia growing out of this dependency. This could be due to the growing consumerism and rising middle income in this part of the world.
Since my first trip to Asia, I have always wanted to be a part of the economic dynamism of this part of the world and I have made my desire known to the company before they let me have a go at it in 2005.
Two-third of the world’s population is living in Asia and about 1 billion of Asians are emerging from low income to middle and high income and that process has accelerated over the last few years and it makes this region so exciting for me.
Do you think there is a particular Asian work ethics?
Yes, definitely there is. It is most obvious when I go back to Europe where you can feel and see that everything is reasonably mature to a certain level. However if you go around every corner of the street in Asia, people mean business! I call them “busy beavers” here in Asia, whereby everyone wants to do business. The degree of opportunisms here are far greater than in the West. The willingness to look at business opportunities and the eagerness to learn and grow here versus the rest of world is the reason why this place is much more exciting for people like me who wants to be a part of it. That level of productivity is hard to match back in the western world.
One of the key observations I had since I came here is the lack of perception of how Asians worked from Western leaders. While they can read Asians developments and news from reports and papers, it is not the same as being here. The transformation are so real when I came here that I frequently invited my previous management to come and see and learn about what is actually taking shape here in Asia – that it is beyond just China and India. I encouraged them to learn about understanding the different cultures and the speed of transformation to a potential economic powerhouse.
How do you view SMEs in Asia in terms of their ability to compete in the face of global competition? Could you identify this in your work in MNX as a SMEs and your ability to compete against the likes of the global logistics players today?
Being a European and sent here as a regional leader, do you see that most Western corporations will rather send their own people to head up their operations here in Asia rather than appoint Asians as leaders for the region? Do you think you will ever see more Asians rising to the top of Western organizations?
Of course I do. When I first came to Asia to head up the TNT Asia’s operations, I went around all the countries and I saw with my own eyes there are an abundance of talents in the company already, and utilization of its potential could be developed and more optimally utilized for the group. For me, it was more about creating an environment for this company to become successful, to accelerate its growth and be able to move the talents up the corporate ladder and attract more talents to join us.
As an expat, I see my role as someone who can create something, make it successful and then you create an environment that attracts talented people so that you can move them up and then you move out.
What do you see are the key logistics and supply chain challenges in Asia?
To put this into context, I should relate my views to what I see in Asia in the early 1990s whereby many European and Western companies were already sourcing in Asia but there was still a lack in terms of infrastructure developments. As such, many of them set up European Distribution Centers to sequence their distribution to the markets, whereby they sort and deliver directly to their customers. Those long stretch supply chains then are much more difficult to manage than today whereby infrastructure, technology and people – the 3 basic components to the success of supply chain management - are much better developed to enable a more efficient logistics and supply chain operations management.
This is one of the biggest transformations that I have seen since coming to Asia.
However, the challenges I see for logistics and supply chain in Asia are much more complex since every country and region are driven differently due to the different level of economic maturity. In addition, the level of influence over the infrastructure and regulatory environment is different with the fragmented governments in Asia As there are massive funds committed infrastructure development in Asia, I feel that sub-standards structure will slowly become a non-issue over time. The biggest challenge today will be the regulatory regime in Asia, which can be subjected to different interpretation by different government bodies and even within different states in the same countries.
To me, the logistics environment in Asia is a level playing field since all logistics service providers must manage the same infrastructure and regulatory complexities here. This is where I see opportunities for corporations to differentiate themselves, as there are just too many “me-too” companies here. Many times, companies complain about the problems created by customs and infrastructure when they could have discovered new and innovative ways to improve the logistics propositions here in Asia. A classic example for me would be when we embarked on developing a Asian wide Road Network whereby we had to work with different customs across several boundaries to come up with new rules and regulations for an Asian transportation network. The project certainly had influence to infrastructure enhancements that did not even exist when we first started our network in 2005.
Clearly, there is still further leadership improvements needed in terms of making things happen for logistics here in Asia.
Do you see a lack of innovation adoption in Asia? Do you attribute this to the lack of funds or something else?
It is very obvious to me that our industry is not known as an innovator. We have been rolling out the same business models for the last thirty years. When companies from the West come to Asia, they have to deal with the challenges of operating in Asia but instead of finding new ways to operate here, they bring with them the same way of operating in the West. That practice may work here but to a certain degree only as that may not be the most effective way of operating in this environment. There is a need to understand Asia inherently and not just from research papers and articles. You need to feel this region and be part of it to be able to understand that culture plays a far greater role here than anywhere else in the world.
I moved from not understanding how Asia operates to sufficiently becoming a part of the Asian development since I relocated here. I still remember in my early years as the Director of Global Accounts based in Amsterdam and chasing a major computer manufacturer account in Taiwan. One day, I received a call from our Taiwanese account manager who instructed me that we are at a stage whereby I might have to come over to Taipei on a short notice when needed. True enough, a few days later, I was asked to come over to have dinner with a group of senior executives from this company. During the dinner, nothing with regard to the contract or terms was discussed. Two weeks later, we were awarded the contract. I remembered calling the account manager and said that we have not even talked about the rates. Yet this is one of the key differences in how Asians conduct business. Sufficient trust was build up over time and that was the key difference and reason why we were awarded this deal – something different from the Western world, which are driven by facts first.
Do you see rising awareness towards innovation in this industry?
Again we need to see this in the right context. Singapore is a much more mature economy in Asia and being small and there is a need to invest in long-term strategies. Therefore Singapore has reached a level of maturity that makes this country more aware of innovation in this industry. For the rest of the region, we do have countries that China, with a centralized government, who can make things happen because they have a clear vision on the enablers of the economy and what are needed. India is a far more complex country than China and even though they have a centralized government, it almost seems that the country is run like 28 states.
Singapore plays a unique role in mentoring and working with countries in Asia to develop the economic enablers for this region to growth – of course, this is also in the interest of the economy of Singapore. I remember vividly that when I started expanding in Asia, we got support from the ministers in linking us up with the Vietnamese government and customs to discuss the challenges of setting up our Road Network. This form of collaboration at a country level will facilitate more initiatives that will lead to further enhancement in economic developments in Asia.
Many professionals in our industry are classified as “incidental professionals” as we did not have a formal background in training for this industry. What do you think this industry need to attract more young talents to join?
It’s interesting to note that during the 1990s there was hardly any role that specifically identifies a supply chain person, such as “Supply Chain Manager”. At the most, you get a “Transportation Manager” or “Warehouse Manager”. However, with sufficient growth in the market, the “how” becomes more important than just doing something right. If you can do it more efficiently, that would be a differentiator and Apple is a classic example. The entire machinery in Apple is geared towards it supply chain with its lean operations. With the rising recognition towards logistics and supply chain, transport managers became logistics manager and supply chain managers and directors and today, this position is even in the board level. This change occurs in less 25 years and it is what makes this interesting for talented individual to want to join or study in this industry.
In addition, we are assisted by the fact that the banking industry is in some form of disarray over the last 10 years, whereby traditionally, they are the main attraction as a course of study for students in universities and polytechnics. Today, that attraction is diminishing, giving opportunities for industry like supply chain to shine and attract more talents into it and making this industry “more sexy”. To me, if there is ever a moment to position this industry to attract young talents, it should be now. With more and more companies such as Apple focusing on supply chain to boost its success – of course they must already have the right products in place almost as a hygiene factor - we are definitely an industry that has full potential of growth and career progression for talented individuals.
What do you think are the “sexy” part of this industry?
For a start, we are global in reach, scope and outreach. Secondly, we see careers in this industry rising to the board level in major corporations – especially in Fortune 100 companies. If you start from the bottom of the career chain, you realized that there is no limit to how high you can rise. This is no longer just a job-based market but could support a career-based proposition for young people.
For young people who join this industry, I have another advice for them. Forget about the books and concepts that you have learned from school. Don’t misunderstand me, their studies are important and they provide the basic foundation for their entry into the working world. The reality of our industry is that we are dealing with so many moving factors that the interpretation of it is always different. For young people who wants to succeed in this industry, you will need to roll up your sleeves, prepare to get dirty and inherently understand the intricacies and business of supply chain management, at various levels of its chain.
Finally, what’s your short and mid term view of this industry?
If you asked me this question 2 years ago, I would probably given you a different answer. 2 years ago was all about being green and CSR. While this is not gone, it is much more embedded into an organization overall strategies. What I see is that many organizations are going to move back to regional sourcing, while managing their need to be more efficient and environmentally friendly. I remember saying in a conference a few years ago on the process of how a phone get assembled where it moved from China to Vietnam and back to China then to Brazil and then China and to the market. That is a inefficient and undesirable process but how can it be that it still pays to do that. That is the question that we all need to answer. If we can find an answer to that, we will be able to find the answer on how we can become more sustainable while at the same time efficient without going through the phone assembly process.
So where is our industry going? Unfortunately, we are still driven by low cost labor and in this instance, we will continue to see companies moving to inner city of China now, then to North Vietnam and maybe to some parts of Indo-China and even to Africa ultimately as resources gets more expensive and depleted. Don’t get me wrong as I do see this as economic sustainability but as long as low cost production is a driver, this will always happen. And in the midst of all these developments, supply chain will remain a given in ensuring movement but this does not raise any hopes on being kinder to the environment.
For me, business will become much more global and Asians will be far more involved in this economic development and growth as the center of growth opportunities.
I am still waiting for companies in this industry to change the way it conducts business over the last 30 years. While I am not certain will happen in the next few years, I am still looking for an “Apple” in our industry who can create the next “iPod” or “iPhone”. Today, we are all selling the same thing but calling it different names and I believe significant changes and innovation in our industry will only arise through a major paradigm shift to change the pace of development and recognition for professionals in supply chain.
Finally, I believe there is a strong possibility whereby an Asian player will rise to compete with the likes of the integrators on a regionally and global level. While I do not envision a takeover of the BIG 3 integrators by an Asian company, I do believe there will be consolidation of the mid-level players – with a possible acquisition by an Asian-based company. But as long as there is a need to move things, this is an industry that will remain – and we will continue to learn to do this with a better understanding of the global business environment and doing it better and faster than the past.