Ken Lee is using his people skills to send DHL Express to new heights in the region
Since Ken Lee became managing director of DHL Express Hong Kong and Macau in 2010, the regional arm has exhibited a notable jump in fortunes. Its 2012 revenue was more than double that of 2009 and along the way it has received a number of awards, covering areas from supply chain to customer service to green initiatives.
Lee attributes this success to one factor: effective management of employees. “When you come to a complex operation like this, I think you have to get the right people in the right jobs,” he says. “You can’t see to everything yourself. It’s the structure and the people that you have to get right.”
Dealing with people is something Lee loves to do. His skill communicating with customers and managing teams of employees has helped him establish a highly successful career. It has also propelled him through the ranks of DHL to his current position, which includes being head of commercial for Asia-Pacific.
Lee first discovered his passion for dealing with people while training to be an officer during military service in Singapore. “I realised at the end of the day that wherever I go, I want to manage people,” he says.
He got into logistics somewhat by chance. After completing his military service, he studied engineering as he saw it as a qualification that did not commit him to any particular career. On graduating, he applied for jobs with a bank, an airline and with Singapore Airport Terminal Services (SATS). SATS was the fastest to offer him a position.
Lee soon saw that logistics was a good field to be in. He thought it had a secure future because people always need to transport things, and when he joined it was developing fast, meaning there were lots of opportunities. “I had stepped into a gold mine,” he says.
He also found that logistics involved dealing with customers and managing employees, allowing him to work extensively with people in ways he was passionate about.
After getting a taste of logistics with SATS, Lee moved to Jardine Transport Services to begin building a longer-term career. His role involved organising the transporting of goods for exhibitions held in Singapore, giving him broad training in different areas of logistics. “It was a very good learning experience,” he says. “You got to do everything.”
The role particularly allowed him to develop his people skills. He gained experience in sales, where he competed for business, communicated with customers and developed his management skills. Because extra manpower was hired for each project, he learned how to source temporary staff and quickly engage them.
After almost two years with Jardine, Lee was keen to advance his career, so he moved to DHL’s operation in Singapore to become a business service manager. The position was attractive because it combined sales and operations, allowing him to use his skills handling customers and managing employees.
He immediately got to prove himself when he was asked to deal with an important regional account DHL risked losing. “The customer was not happy with the Singapore management of the account,” Lee says. “[The] clear direction to me was that they would have another review in six months. It was hoped they could then say they could keep the account.”
Lee drew on his people skills to turn things around. “The person who had been managing the account before … had been focusing only on what was actually required by the customer,” he says. “They were had been treating the customer like a machine. So I got to know the customer better.”
Finding out the customer was a football fan, he used this to build a closer connection. His more personal approach to managing the account saw him not only succeed in retaining the customer, but also in encouraging him to give DHL more business.
Lee’s success led to him being asked to run DHL’s Singapore hub. The role was appealing because it meant focusing on managing employees and leading more people. “It was going back to dealing with hundreds of people,” Lee says. “That’s what I like most.”
Lee proved highly successful in overseeing DHL’s Singapore-based logistics. He helped the hub significantly enhance its effectiveness and earn a Singapore Quality Class award. In 2005, recognising his achievements in Singapore, DHL asked Lee to move to Hong Kong as general manager of its expanding Central Asia hub. The company’s booming regional business meant the hub needed to grow and Lee was tasked with overseeing this expansion.
He initially found it difficult as the Hong Kong employees were often more outspoken and critical than their Singaporean counterparts. “Dealing with a group of people who freely express themselves – if they like you, they really like you, if they don’t, then they really don’t – was a big challenge for me,” Lee says.
However, he managed to win his employees over and successfully lead the hub, ensuring operations ran smoothly during the expansion, which was completed five years ahead of schedule. Under his leadership, the hub won the Service and Technology Innovation Award at the Logistics Awards Hong Kong 2009.
In 2010 Lee was promoted to managing director of DHL Express Hong Kong and Macau. In this role, he has helped its express delivery arm achieve major growth in the region. Looking ahead, he says that he hopes to further grow DHL’s Asian business and continue capitalising on the region’s booming economy.
THE PERFECT LEADERSHIP PACKAGE
Ken Lee offers his advice on how to be a successful leader.
Focus on talent “Get the right people. Be decisive in recognising the good performers, and equally decisive in dealing with bad performers. Yes, you can give everyone a good chance, but don’t think too long.”
Be transformative “Challenge the norm. Don’t be satisfied with the status quo. When I look at a process, I think it’s good today but it may not be tomorrow. A lot of people do the same thing today that they did last year, expecting a different result.”
Learn from everyone “I have met good and bad bosses in my career, but I always say that whether they are good or bad, there are always lessons to learn. I learn from people around me … sometimes you can learn from people working for you.”