WHEN it comes to training her employees, Greenpac founder and CEO Susan Chong is not afraid to lead from the front. Even as she spent the last 12 years building up one of the region's leading makers of environmentally friendly packaging, the entrepreneur has found time to pursue leadership and management programmes here and abroad.

She took up a two-year executive MBA programme at the National University of Singapore (NUS) in 2009, and more recently has attended management courses at Harvard Business School as well as one conducted by management consultants McKinsey & Company.

Ms Chong also strives for self-improvement outside the classroom. She is one of the founding members of the Business Leaders Alumni Club and has taken part in Spring Singapore's Business Advisors Programme, where external consultants were assigned to mentor the company on its operations.

"It is important as business leaders that you keep upgrading. A lot of SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) think it is a waste of time but if workers are smart, they would want to work for smart bosses," she said. 

This drive to constantly upgrade applies to the rest of her organisation, where 45 hours of training are allocated every year for each employee. This can be in the form of product, skills or cross training. She also leads selected staff on learning trips abroad, such as a recent one to study the operations of Ikea in Sweden.

Her commitment to talent development is part of a broader strategy to achieve excellence that she has been pursuing for the past eight years. Using the Business Excellence framework as a guide, she identified having a high-performing workforce as the key ingredient for the company's recipe for success.

"We have a strategy map that guides us on how we are going to grow our revenue. In order to grow, we need a high performance workforce to continue to innovate," said Ms Chong. "Learning is a very important part of that."

Indeed, innovation has been a key part of Greenpac's success, and it sets aside 6 per cent of its yearly operational budget for research and development efforts. The company manufactures environmentally friendly packaging that help its clients reduce waste and cut costs. Demand for the company's products has grown as social responsibility becomes more prevalent in the corporate world, and more stringent environmental standards and regulations emerge.

While Greenpac uses more expensive eco-friendly materials in its packaging, these eventually translate into savings for customers across other parts of the supply chain. For example, the company redesigned a crate for advanced medical instruments that not only offered adequate protection during transportation, but was also sustainable, collapsible, reusable and returnable. This resulted in estimated savings of S$1.37 million on freight cost and reduced storage costs by half. The redesign also allowed for twice the amount of equipment to be shipped by stacking.

The firm services many Fortune 500 companies - such as energy giant Exxon Mobil - and some have appointed the firm as their sole local partner in fulfilling their packaging needs.

A STRONG FOUNDATION

Reflecting its success in adopting and implementing the Business Excellence framework, Greenpac is a winner of this year's Singapore Quality Award, the only SME to receive this honour. Ms Chong said that she chose to go down the Business Excellence route as she was determined to grow her firm quickly.

"I wanted to make sure we had a strong foundation, otherwise if we kept adding employees it would become very messy. We wanted to set up a framework so that when people joined, they immediately know what to do and how to perform, and what to deliver," she explained.

Such clarity is especially relevant to the younger generation of workers who, unlike their predecessors, need to understand the motivations behind their actions. "Today, the young people want to know their job description precisely. So the company needs to have a very clear road map and vision."

To help ensure that it has a regular pipeline of fresh talent, the company puts new graduates whom it hires through a structured training programme under the Spring-supported Management Associate Partnership. Last year, Greenpac also launched a scholarship scheme for students at Nanyang Technological University and the National University of Singapore. The scholarship bonds successful applicants to the company for two years after they graduate.

However, the journey to adopting the framework was not without its road bumps, revealed Ms Chong. "The hard part was changing mindsets, and moving people out of their comfort zones. Suddenly, there were KPIs (key performance indicators) that people had to achieve."

Despite the changes, the CEO has managed to keep the business humming along by fostering a family-like culture within the organisation, which involves regular staff lunches, family days and incentive trips to destinations such as Bangkok, Hong Kong and Penang.

GREEN FOOTPRINT

Going forward, Ms Chong is focused on the development of a new manufacturing facility in Johor, which is expected to be ready in two years' time. The facility will be based on the blueprint for its existing factory in Singapore, which reflects the company's holistic approach towards sustainability.

Dubbed Singapore's first "green" factory, the 180,000 square foot Green Mark Gold-certified facility in Jurong is the first industrial building here to quantify its carbon footprint during construction. Beyond that, the plant's operations, energy sources and even its furniture are all environmentally friendly in nature.

Ms Chong is also looking to expand into new customer segments, such as the biotechnology sector.

"We are moving into cold chain packaging, which is used to store vaccines and stem cells. It is a new business area but still within our core business of packaging," she said.

FIVE WAYS TO SAVE COSTS

As part of its pursuit of business excellence, Greenpac has put in place a five-prong cost savings approach that is at the heart of its mission to help its key customers achieve bottom-line savings.

  • Sourcing for the latest and most technologically advanced packaging
  • Re-engineering processes to help customers improve their operational efficiency
  • Reducing wastage of materials by designing the packaging
  • Continuous efforts to innovate new packaging materials and designs
  • Helping customers comply with international standards and regulations for packaging materials 

A JOURNEY OF GROWTH

SUSAN Chong, founder and CEO of homegrown packaging firm Greenpac - a winner of the Singapore Quality Award (SQA) 2014 - explains why her company chose to adopt the Business Excellence framework.

"Business excellence is an important journey that started eight years ago. We had already adopted the ISO 9000 and 14000 standards, but those were very process focused. The SQA is holistic, looking at leadership, planning, operations and financials.

"In any successful business you need planning . . . how are you going to reach your vision. We needed both short-term and long-term planning to be where we are today. That is something lacking in many SMEs.

"Many companies are too involved in firefighting, and fail to look at things from a strategic point of view. But with this framework in place, everybody knows what they need to do and what they need to deliver."