Kampung boy prospers in Thailand

Kampung boy prospers in Thailand

Francis Foo, president and managing director of Universal Food Public Co Ltd (UFC), and also chairman of the Singapore-Thailand Chamber of Commerce, started out as a kampung (village) boy who grew up on a coconut plantation.

His successes were made possible by a decision - bold at the time - to relocate to Thailand back in 1994. This enabled him to advance his career and led him to where he is today.

As an ambitious young boy, Mr Foo, 59, set himself a target: by the time he hit 40, he should be general manager of a medium-sized company. When opportunity knocked on his door in 1994 (when he was 38), he knew for sure he had to take it.

He took up the position of director and general manager at New Zealand Dairy Board (now known as Fonterra), and relocated to Thailand as an expatriate, two years ahead of his target.

It was not an immediately easy decision for him to make, however, as he had to leave his aged parents in the full-time care of one of his sisters. A supportive network of siblings and gracious parents helped make the move easier.

Throughout his career in Thailand, Mr Foo faced multiple challenges. As with most expatriates working in a foreign country and despite the fact that he spoke Thai, he had to grapple with language nuances and subtle differences.

Because English is not the native language there nor widely spoken, there is a tendency for miscommunication whenever comments are passed in English, said Mr Foo.

He cited an example where a phrase like "it's a shame that you let the opportunity pass" could easily be misinterpreted as "shame on you that you let the opportunity pass".

While many of his colleagues understand functional English, they often fail to capture the meanings of more colloquial phrases, figures of speech, proverbs and idioms.

Mr Foo advises others in a similar situation to clearly state all instructions, especially deadlines, to avoid confusion and miscommunication.

"'It's not urgent' may be construed as 'it's okay to do it next week' - even if what you meant was that they don't have to complete it today, but tomorrow is fine," he offered as an example.

Another area that proved to be a challenge was the difference in management style. Having had tertiary education in both Singapore and Australia, Mr Foo had been used to the typical Western management school's teaching that "people may not do what we expect, but will do what we inspect".

However, he found that this approach may not be the best fit in Thailand. He explained that inspecting employees or their assigned tasks may be perceived by the locals as a lack of trust in them.

Apart from dealing with concerns of leaving family behind and overcoming differences in language and management style, he also had to face a whole host of challenges that are rather unique to Thailand.

For example, the country's capital city is particularly notorious for its bad traffic. He said that it is possible to get caught at a single traffic light in Bangkok for 45 minutes, joking about scenarios where one may need to use the bathroom urgently and be unable to do so.

But perhaps one of the biggest hurdles he has faced (and still continues to face) is managing ambiguity. He explained that Thais and Singaporeans can have very different understandings of whether or not something can be done.

"A trademark that was previously approved may be disapproved later. Sometimes, it's 'cannot also can'. Other times, it's 'can also cannot'," he elaborated. "Singaporeans who thrive on absolute predictability and clear-cut transparency will find it mind-boggling."

According to Mr Foo, Thai people have a great sense of personal pride (sak see), which may make it difficult to implement certain changes.

Back in 1994, he tried to combine two tasks into one job position in order to improve efficiency and provide more financial reward to the junior staff. However, the change was not well received since one of the tasks was regarded as too junior, and he had to dump his "clever" idea quickly.

He also said that the Singaporean brand is respected by Thais, as it is perceived to convey excellence, professionalism and high productivity.

The flip side of this, however, is that Singaporeans may also be perceived as cold and too logic-driven. This is in contrast to the Thai values of nam chai and kreng chai - which have no English equivalents but can be loosely interpreted as magnanimity and graciousness.

He also highlighted that the challenge for Singaporean managers is to earn the locals' respect by displaying that they are able to balance their tough requirements for peak performance with being sensitive to this aspect of the local culture.

However, despite the many challenges Mr Foo has faced throughout his time abroad, he managed to pull through and his career has only progressed since his move.

The high-flying executive played a pivotal role in the launch of UFC's most successful product to date: UFC Refresh 100 per cent Thai Coconut Water.

At UFC, he implements his own management approach, encouraging himself and his employees to "do well and do good".

"A simple morning greeting or holding of the lift button by the towkay for the most junior staff goes a long way. That's a simple illustration of nam chai," he said.

Mr Foo is always mindful that most of his Thai staff have at least two family members depending on them for support.

"I always remind my colleagues of this. So they know that when the company doesn't do well, it's not just the 1,000 people who lose their jobs; 3,000 lives will be affected. So, no choice - we have to do well," he said.

"But not just do well; also do good. Do good means do the right thing. Respect one another, treat one another as colleagues, contribute to the community, assist wherever we can assist, and encourage one another."

Mr Foo hopes to be able to continue cultivating this environment to "do well and do good" at UFC.

"Once you've got people with that kind of mindset, together with good strategies and focus, then the business can truly grow and prosper into the next generation."

This article was first published on July 7, 2016.
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