One of Herbert Vongpusanachai’s priorities in the coming weeks is to get out on the road, partly to meet key clients and business partners in his recently assumed role as managing director of DHL Express (Hong Kong). But his primary objective will be to see first-hand how operations work in the local market by spending time with the company’s drivers and couriers, asking questions, hearing viewpoints, tuning into frustrations and observing everything as it happens.
“The best way to learn is to jump in a van and spend half a day doing deliveries and pick-ups,” says Vongpusanachai, who has done so regularly since joining the firm in 2003. “It is a chance to chat, see what the customers look like, and understand how everyone interacts.”
Looking for incremental improvements in three key areas – productivity, efficiency and waste reduction – he also plans to sit in with the customer service team for an hour or two at least every quarter. Listening in to client calls, he explains, provides the feedback needed to detect trends, effect change, and put in place the support and training needed to ensure that over 1,500 employees keep meeting expectations.
“To be successful, I need to make sure my team is successful,” says Vongpusanachai who, last year, spent 26 days training different groups and giving talks on management style and development. “I spend a lot of time instructing, motivating and mentoring. As the biggest air cargo hub in Asia, Hong Kong has amazing opportunities today, and we must be ready to make the most of that potential.”
For a company originally built to handle overnight parcels and documents, much now centres on the growth of online commerce and integrating the attendant technology. There have to be specialised solutions for clients in expanding sectors like life sciences, healthcare, energy and high-end retail. And with local operations in Hong Kong now involving 200-plus vehicles and over 220 network flights a week, the focus is on keeping everything fast and flexible.
But with a background in IT, Vongpusanachai relishes the challenge and, in continuing a family tradition in the modern idiom, feels he has found his niche. His grandfather ran a fleet of trading junks on routes in Southeast Asia from a home base in Shantou in eastern Guangdong province. His father, after attending school in Hong Kong after the second world war, was sent to open a cargo business and travel agency in Bangkok, where he subsequently met and married a Singaporean.
Vongpusanachai himself had no initial thoughts of following a similar path. Growing up in a home environment where conversation switched between Thai, Cantonese, Putonghua and English, Vongpusanachai went to an international school in Bangkok from the age of 12, before graduating from the University of Mount Union in Ohio in 1989 with a degree in computer science.
Returning to Bangkok, he began selling PCs and printers for a computer company, but then won a scholarship to do a 20-month MBA in the management of technology at Thailand’s Asian Institute of Technology. That led neatly to a job with a Thai bank, where he started in research before rotating through credit card, retail and investment banking. Overall, though, the experience proved less than electric. “It paid well, but I had no passion for it,” he says.
However, the none-too-taxing work schedule did allow time to maintain a sideline business, begun at the age of 16, writing reviews of the latest hardware and software for the Bangkok Post. One interview with a senior Microsoft executive had an unexpected twist: an offer in 1996 to join the enterprise sales team as an “internet pioneer” promoting new versions of Windows and Office, and training customers in their use.
Seven years on, one such client was DHL, who employed similar recruitment tactics. They offered him the post of country manager for Thailand, coinciding with the launch of a major rebranding exercise, and the role was simply too good to turn down.
“They wanted my organisational skills and understanding of multinationals working in different industries,” Vongpusanachai says. “I had a mentor for three months to explain the structure and how the business works. After that, I was managing around 700 people. It was a good challenge because in the tech industry you don’t have such big teams.”
Success brought extra P&L responsibility in 2007 for Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam and, with it, the chance to work in markets at different stages of development. Next came a stint as managing director in Singapore and, this year, a move to Hong Kong as part of a corporate reshuffle aimed at capitalising on developments in e-commerce and B2C transactions. “The volume of business is growing, so we are looking to expand our facilities in Hong Kong and build new infrastructure all over Asia,” he says.
“Also, I’m still intrigued by how much technology you can bring into this industry and the amount of data that can be ‘injected’ into the system,” he says.
In other respects, he senses fate may be taking a hand. “I feel like my career has been mirroring my heritage,” says Vongpusanachai, whose spare-time reading includes everything from tech journals to books on oncology and genetic inhibitors. “The different moves, to Singapore and now Hong Kong, have been a chance to reconnect with the two sides of the family. My father was a very proud person who believed China would ‘rise again’, and that Asia would become what it is today. That’s why he wanted me to learn Chinese and I can see he was right.”
Herbert Vongpusanachai gives his top management tips.
Be full-bodied “As a manager, you’ve got to have three components: the head to think your way around problems, the guts to make mistakes, and the heart to connect with people from all kinds of background doing every kind of job.”
Win your spurs “Leadership is something earned, not acquired just through having a certain title. You have to keep learning as you go.”
Get engaged “I tell our executives that in order to offer great service quality, we must have motivated employees. That’s what makes everything else possible.”
Stay on point “Advances in technology used in the air express industry are allowing us to look at new opportunities.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as The whole package.