Swire Group

Tradition and training key to Swire Pacific's future profits

John Slosar finds that months into his role as Swire Pacific chairman, no day is ever the same with its many subsidiaries all needing attention

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 July, 2014, 4:26am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 July, 2014, 6:21pm

Four months into his new job at the helm of soft drinks to ship salvage conglomerate Swire Pacific, John Slosar is getting to grips with being a hands-off manager - and is arguably the busiest he has ever been.

As a career Swire manager who, over 34 years, has variously run the group's beverages business, worked in its shipping services operations, headed aviation engineering and was most recently chief executive of Cathay Pacific, each of his previous roles has required sharp focus on a single business area.

"In this job, no two days are the same," he tells the South China Morning Post in an interview at the group's Pacific Place headquarters.

A morning spent on board approval for a major property deal might easily be followed by an issue in the beverages business - Swire is one of the world's biggest bottlers of Coca-Cola with a global franchise of 450 million customers - or a multibillion-dollar plane deal at Cathay, or examining the investment needed to help extract oil and gas from some of the world's most hard to reach reserves.

"The nature of the beast is that you can't really focus on any one thing for too long because there is a whole bunch of things to focus on," Slosar says. "It's a transition."

But it is a transition that Swire managers are groomed for - and one that Slosar continually thinks about in terms of the generation of chiefs that will follow him.

"If we don't believe that we can develop world-class management that can work within our businesses, within our context and our strategies, then what are we saying about the future of Swire? That is front and centre of my plate all the time."

The future matters a lot in a company that is pushing 200 years old - an anniversary it celebrates in 2016 - and focused on "old economy" businesses.

"Real businesses - things you can reach out and touch," is Slosar's definition.

"People still need to get from A to B and you can't yet transport them like in Star Trek, so they get on a plane. People need to live in flats and we think we're really good at that. People work in offices, we think we're good at that. Anything to do with energy is going to require real things to deal with it. Businesses that have a real component to them are the things that suit us best and the long-term orientation we have as a company," he says.

Adding, of course, that there are plenty of e-commerce edges to Swire businesses too.

"We are not blind to the fact that businesses change and we need to change with them," Slosar says, pointing particularly to the group's retail operations which include more than 300 outlets across Hong Kong and the mainland as part of the group's HK$10 billion Trading & Industrial division.

Online is one area where Swire is more relaxed about bringing in external talent to help develop businesses.

Mainly though, the firm's focus is on growing its own expertise. "I take that very seriously," Slosar says.

Training people for a career in Swire management involves a 15-year programme of coaching, courses, mentoring and career steps.

The focus on the long term is reflected in the way the group handles struggling businesses, Slosar adds, using Swire Pacific Offshore as his example.

"For years and years it was a troubled business that was going nowhere fast. But the family, the company, everybody believed in it so we stayed with it and now it is the third largest profit contributor to Swire."

Emphasis on the long term means questions about short-term profitability and investment plans get indirect answers.

"We take a long-term view and will do what we can to make our businesses good and prosperous and that will attract customers over time. We believe if we do that and we do it well, our businesses will thrive. We tend not to say that by 2018 we have to do 'X'. That's just not the way we work," Slosar says.

"The one thing that really is such a core part of the group is this focus on building long-term quality into our businesses. There isn't something in our mentality that says let's do something quick, make a buck and move on," he adds.

"There has to be a component where customers will perceive and appreciate a quality difference and that an active management pushing towards quality will be a defining trait."