Handling it with military precision

Kerry Logistics' new chairman George Yeo hasn't been in this business long, but being a ex-politician, soldier and even life saver helps

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 October, 2012, 5:19am

The city's stock investors may know George Yeo only as the new chairman of Kerry Logistics, a unit of Hong Kong-listed Kerry Properties.

But a simple Google search would turn up photographs of Yeo with political dignitaries such as Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Yeo, also a vice-chairman of Kerry Group, which publishes the South China Morning Post, was in politics for most of his life before he joined the private sector. He is a former Singapore member of Parliament and minister for foreign affairs but retired from politics after he lost his seat in the general election last year.

Prior to entering parliament, Yeo, who studied at Cambridge University and Harvard, was a brigadier-general in the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF). He served as the chief of staff of the RSAF from 1985 to 1986 and as the director of joint operations and planning at the Ministry of Defence from 1986 to 1988.

That experience has stood him in good stead in his new role at the head of a logistics firm. In January this year, he accepted Kerry Group chairman Robert Kuok's invitation to join the company as vice-chairman and took up the chairmanship of Kerry Logistics on August 1.

Yeo feels he has long been connected, indirectly, with the logistics industry. In his youth, he helped his father to take care of a rubber godown. Later, he was involved in logistics planning and operations during his time in the air force. While he was trade minister and foreign minister of Singapore, he kept an eye on the logistics industry in member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) from a policy perspective.

But Yeo, 58, has a more personal reason to appreciate the services provided by the industry. Once, the global logistics firm FedEx, based in Memphis, Tennessee, helped saved his son's life by delivering bone marrow to a hospital for a critical operation.

What made you become a businessman?
I was in politics for 23 years until I lost in the last election. The opposition leader who beat me, when he was interviewed, said: "We won not because my opponents [meaning me and my team] did not do a good job, but because people wanted us in Parliament." I thought if there was not something that I could change, because it was not something about me, maybe it was time to open a new chapter of my life.

Do you know the logistics industry well?
I cannot claim to know it very well at all. But I do have some knowledge of logistics. When I was a teenager, I helped my father, who was a rubber godown stock keeper: sometimes I looked after his godown, sometimes I helped him deliver goods. Then in the army, I was involved in air force logistics. When I was in politics, I was in the trade ministry. Free-trade negotiations were a very big part of our portfolio. As foreign minister, I was involved in Asean activities, both between Asean and China and Asean and India, that is the backdrop of what we are talking about.

One of my most memorable [brushes with logistics] is when my younger son had leukaemia and needed a bone marrow transplant at St Jude [Children's Research] Hospital in Memphis. I got FedEx to help me.

There is a direct flight from Taiwan to Memphis every day, but the doctor could not be on the flight. So he flew Singapore Airlines to Los Angeles. FedEx put him on a corporate jet [with the bone marrow] from LA to Memphis for me. After that, my wife has been very loyal to FedEx.

What do you see as the outlook for Kerry Logistics amid the global economic slowdown?
We are staying true to our strategic position, which is to be Asian specialists and to focus on China. Europe will go through a prolonged period of difficulties. The US economy is still at an uncertain stage. But Asia is still growing, and intra-Asian links have become more interesting. We are well positioned for this pan-Asian role.

The slowdown in economic growth affects the industry at one level, but you also see the opportunities. Because companies come under stress, they have to look at cost cutting. They've got to be more creative to provide new products and services. Whether they cut costs or move to new areas, logistics organisations become very important. We are very good at providing customised services to companies.

We [now] also have more acquisition opportunities. We will continue to grow despite the downturn. The challenges for us are digesting our acquisitions so that the internal systems are efficient and maintaining strong local presences.

How do you describe your management style?
Cope with people. First you must respect them and understand their perspectives. Very often, when you respect somebody and there is trust, you will find ways to work together.

If you don't respect each other, you will see no possibility of finding solutions that are win-win.

And you must always be part of the larger flow. If you want to fight the flow, you will be very tired. It is always important to know where the big flows are and to move to the big flows, then you can do a lot of things.

In all my responsibilities from a young age, I always tried to know what was the flow and be in the flow, rather than trying to fight the flow.

If you ask me now for Kerry Logistics what the big flow is, the big flow is the growth of Asia. Within Asia itself, three major flows are Greater China, India and Southeast Asia.

Which role do you prefer: businessman or politician?
I am still as busy [as before], which is a bit surprising. In addition to [heading] a ministry, I was also a member of Parliament. In politics, you deal with all kinds of everyday concerns of citizens.

One day, I was travelling in Europe on some mission; one of my constituents called me, saying: "My neighbour's dog is barking all night, driving me mad. Can you do something about that?"

As a member of Parliament, you cannot say, "I am too busy for you". You are representing them, and you have got to look after your constituents. It is a big part of your time.

In the private sector, you are more focused on doing things that are more connected with business.

Objectives are more focused. In terms of intellectual [content], they are actually the same, as you are dealing with the same reality - you are working with people.