SINGAPORE (June 5): The road to recovery is both exhilarating and unsettling. Covid-19 has spared no nation but, as long as there is life, there is hope. We ask two corporate personalities in Shanghai and Taipei about how things are going and how they are faring 

Shanghai

JUNE NEOH, SENIOR DIGITAL + MARKETING DIRECTOR, ERMENEGILDO ZEGNA GREATER CHINA

“I have been living in China for 13 years, having transferred from Kuala Lumpur to Shanghai to head the marketing team for Moët Hennessy Diageo China. In 2012, after 20 wonderful years in the wines and spirits industry, I embarked on a new adventure in fashion retail with Ermenegildo Zegna Greater China, the country’s market leader in international luxury menswear.

I landed in China not knowing how to speak, read or write Mandarin. Although I am Chinese by ethnicity and speak Hokkien, and working in KL required knowledge of Cantonese, I am as Western as can be. I lived a large part of my life in England, New Zealand and Malaysia. If you had to rate it by proficiency, Chinese would be my third language! In short, I was completely unprepared for the ride on the bullet train that is China. China is every marketeer’s dream. Everything is about scale and speed.

You have to consider not just its sheer size and population, but also the diversity between its regions and cities. Every day is a perpetual race to the finish line. And while it is open to change, the Chinese also value heritage and craftsmanship greatly. If you are fast enough and get the concerto just right, you can influence and change customer perception rather quickly. This has much to do with the mindset of the Chinese people, who are hungry for progress; hungry to be recognised as equals and not be looked down upon.

Not long ago, many thought this could be achieved through status and success, but that quickly evolved into the new rich seeking sophistication. This led to the Chinese soon possessing a level of discernment that would shame many much more developed countries today. The Chinese millennials and Gen Z have grown with such nationalistic pride as they try to rediscover their roots. The Chinese naturally possess great agility and have an openness towards change.

They are brave in exploring the new, yet resilient in failure. In my 13 years here, I have been fortunate to witness this amazing evolution of the Chinese people. Being first is not always the best as China discovered, after being the first country to be hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. Other nations subsequently affected had the benefit of knowing what to expect, as China shared her struggles, challenges, findings and experiences. The government’s lockdown of Wuhan on Jan 23 led to an unimaginable level of confusion and speculation.

No one knew much about this virus or what was going on, let alone what to do. New cases were popping up everywhere and social media was ablaze with frightening videos: hazmat-suited personnel reminiscent of the recent Pandemic documentary sealing off premises and residential compounds. My own mind was gripped with fear and confusion. I had decided to stay in Shanghai over the Chinese New Year holidays and not travel. I struggled with fear for my personal safety and the responsibility of my staff during the state of crisis. Do I pack up and leave? My friends had all left. My boss and leadership team were away too. I was all alone.

After four days of deliberation, I decided to stay. [Talking] to my mother helped me put things in perspective, as I had wasted enough time dwelling on things beyond my control. If she could muster the strength to not overly worry for me, could I not do the same? So I decided then to make a positive impact and initiate crisis management actions. Safety of people and staff tops the agenda in any crisis and even more so in the Covid-19 situation. By this time, it was impossible to buy face masks or hand sanitisers anywhere in China.

The malls, except in Wuhan, also remained open which meant our retail staff risked exposure every day. Fortunately, our HR team had the foresight to source for and distribute masks before closing for the Chinese New Year break. But we were fast running out. The situation evolved every day. The uncertainty of ‘what next’ meant being agile enough to respond instantly. We alsohad to filter facts from unfounded speculation. None of us were medical professionals. Even doctors got things wrong. But instinct told us somehow that masks were important for protection.

So, I filled the new role of mask procurement officer, adding corporate donations officer to that later. All of us felt compelled to contribute to the frontliners to help keep them safe even as they provided critical services to the public. The second most important thing to implement was containment. As traffic diminished and malls began closing one by one, plans had to be reviewed to keep costs at a minimum. Only the most important essentials for short-term preservation remained. By the time the holidays were extended to Feb 3, we were ready to activate emergency contingency plans and get all teams involved. Internally, I watched my team in China spring into action as we fought a national and corporate cause.

Everyone just rolled up their sleeves and got to work. We very quickly realised that we were fighting for the survival of both country and company. Externally, I watched the nation come together as one — united by love, kindness for their fellow man, and the spirit of togetherness. You must remember that China was the first country to be publicly affected by this pandemic.

The culture and history of China made it easy for the people to accept lockdown status as ‘the right thing to do’. There was no hoarding of goods in Shanghai. Sure, things ran out from time to time but, with patience and resourcefulness, you could still get all you needed. Many people were caught off-guard, but stories abounded of strangers coming forward to share what they had while others were spurred on to give and help. When Malaysia first implemented the Movement Control Order, I shared a new skill I learnt in China, amassing online platforms for friends and family here. I was most happy to see Malaysia’s online food support network set up within a month, with delivery times always improving.

Now, I drool every time I log onto Facebook. Nothing tastes better than Malaysian comfort food. I hope this network thrives and does not dissolve post-lockdown. It would be a shame to return to our comfort zones and regress on progress. I saw restaurants quickly reinvent their business models into distribution companies. I saw mom ’n’ pop shops become online-savvy, thriving as an online mini-market.

Reinvention and opportunity are everywhere. Only the reluctance to change is the real enemy. I absolutely loved working from home. I didn’t think I would have the discipline for it but, now that I’ve tasted it, I no longer want to return to the old ways of working. Truth be told, it wasn’t a smooth transition. It took lots of trial and error. I had to set a routine for waking, working and sleeping. I would dress up like I would for the office. I set up a conducive workspace.

I would always start with breakfast and coffee in order to be ready for my working day online. I also learnt the great importance of planning — for online meetings, WIP reports with clear accountabilities, and deadlines with updates the following day. It became so efficient that we managed to deliver three months of work in just one month! When our stores finally reopened in March, we had equipped the organisation with a digital makeshift tool, a soon-to-be permanent feature that enables our team to conduct sales even when there is no traffic in-store.

Our boutique assistants became influencers overnight. It is now May, almost 17 weeks since the Wuhan lockdown. We are now living our lives in Shanghai, just not exactly as before. We still continue with protective precautions such as wearing masks and practising social distancing. I see my favourite fried dumpling uncle and his familiar queue of customers now all patiently waiting, a slight distance apart. To enter a public building, including a mall, you need to download an app, scan it and input your mobile number.

The app tells the guard at the entrance that you are ‘green’ and have not travelled to an infected area in the last 14 days. Some complain it is an invasion of privacy, but I feel safer because of this. Schools are slowly reopening and Shanghai just held a city-wide Double Five shopping festival over the May holidays. We are off to a strong start.

We too are affected by imposed leave and pay cuts as businesses try to recover. Many have also closed down but, instead of dwelling on what is no longer or which may have been an eventuality anyway, why not focus on the opportunities available? For me, I am finding my four-day work week a welcome change. I enjoy a longer weekend and there is more balance between work and personal life now. I am even pursuing my long-overdue certification in wellness.” 

 

Taipei

TERENCE ONG, MANAGING DIRECTOR, PERNOD RICARD TAIWAN

“It has been 3½ years since I relocated to Taiwan from Malaysia, and Taipei, to me, has always been a dynamic and vibrant city. My family and I spent Chinese New Year in Malaysia this year, so it was only upon our return to Taipei that traces of the pandemic began to surface. This was because of Taiwanese businesspeople who returned home from Wuhan. But things moved quickly. School holidays were immediately extended by two weeks to help contain the situation, as many Taiwanese had been holidaying in China.

Adults who had travelled to the country in the last 14 days were immediately asked to report to the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control (CDC) or any hospital nearby, and all were asked to practise self-quarantine for a fortnight. I must say that the level of self-discipline, awareness and cooperation was extremely high among all Taiwanese.

Naturally, industries such as travel, tourism, retail, hospitality, entertainment and F&B have suffered the most so far. Daily life is probably less affected, although most Taiwanese would instantly avoid congregating in crowded places. Wearing a mask and constantly sanitising or washing hands have also become the country’s new normal. This practice of demonstrating social respect and self-discipline through wearing masks actually came about after Taiwan experienced SARS in 2013. Also, a mask is as much to protect yourself as well as others. Pernod Ricard Taiwan didn’t close our offices at all.

During the height of the pandemic in March 2020, we practised working in shifts between the home and office to physically limit the number of employees in the office. In addition, we made it mandatory for employees to keep their mask on at all times while in the office. We also made temperature-taking and sanitisation of hands a must before entering the premises.

We conducted most meetings digitally during this time. Taiwan never had to have an official lockdown, thanks to the quick response, efficacy and efficiency of the measures put in place by the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC), empowered by the CDC, and which enjoyed the support of all government agencies as well as full cooperation of the public.

The Taiwanese government fully leveraged the power of digital social innovation. When the country first detected reports on the Covid-19 virus spreading in December 2019 on social media, the government took immediate action to ban all flights and incoming passengers from Wuhan and, subsequently, from all over China and beyond. This came about as a result of health officers’ visiting Wuhan personally to verify and assess the situation and its impact on Taiwan, given that both countries are separated by a mere 200km.

Nationally, there was a lot of transparency and trust between the government and its citizens. The CECC held daily press conferences to update the nation on the situation while measures and restrictions were shared widely and clearly through social media platforms, livestreaming, television broadcasts and mobile notifications. The CECC constantly engaged with the public and even set up a hotline where anyone could call in to ask for assistance, pose enquiries, report their own observations and/or offer suggestions on how to manage the situation better.

There was also a strict implementation of fines amounting to TWD100,000 ($4,716) for those defaulting on self-quarantine directives; and the CECC used digital tracking of mask supplies in all pharmacies nationwide after a ‘three masks per citizen per week’ policy was enforced and all mask exports banned. This eased people’s fears and avoided unscrupulous traders trying to sell them at exorbitant prices. Manufacturers also came forward to increase mask production almost instantly to meet the nation’s needs.

Today, every Taiwanese can easily buy 18 masks each month through an online government platform by registering their National Health Insurance card number, after which the masks will be delivered to your home. The CECC also commissioned a large number of humorous caricatures to educate the public on the importance of social distancing, symptoms to watch out for, where and how to seek assistance and so on. These messages were then widely forwarded and shared digitally.

The government realised the younger population were more blasé about the pandemic and, therefore, created these tools as a means to more effectively educate and engage with this demographic. Taiwan is extremely fortunate to have leaders who are proactive, willing to shoulder responsibility, make sound judgments and react quickly. I still remember, when all this was unfolding, how so many NGOs, legislators and members of the public were challenging the government for ‘overreacting, wasting the nation’s resources and affecting the economy’.

The government remained calm and persistent to focus on the incoming waves of the pandemic despite all false and unfounded accusations. Today, these same groups of people are the most cooperative community after having witnessed how other countries have suffered. I was deeply concerned to read about the growing numbers of people affected by Covid-19 and the staggering number of deaths globally but also truly inspired by the medical frontliners. Thinking about their courage and determination to do daily battle to save lives helped me stay strong and positive for my family and employees during this difficult time.

This made me equally determined to keep the health and safely of the team at Pernod Ricard Taiwan the top priority. Besides following CECC directives, we also proactively stepped up safety measures through weekly disinfections of company premises. We also implemented working in shifts and restricting visitors to the office. In order to keep morale high, we had regular video conferences to come together and perform as best we could. We have been preparing post-Covid recovery plans ever since the beginning of the outbreak.

We have been giving full support to our customers to maintain the buoyancy of their businesses and invested in many consumer-related programmes to support our partners. We truly believe our customers need us more than ever in this critical time and only by weathering this storm together can we emerge stronger in our lifetime partnerships. I also made sure to send a monthly newsletter to all staff to keep them updated on the situation, highlighting the potential impact on the business and pragmatic action plans to put in place to minimise risk. I’d always make sure to end with a motivating statement or encouraging words.

Once this pandemic eases up, I cannot wait to have a convivial moment and gathering with my team — something we have not been able to do since January. I earnestly yearn to give each of them a big hug and compliment them for their persistence, perseverance and commitment despite all the difficulties faced in the last couple of months. One important thing I have learnt since the Covid-19 outbreak is the magic of the human touch and how social interaction is so important for the mental and physical health of the human race.

This cannot be replaced with any kind of advanced technology. So, I would remind us all to treasure our loved ones and constantly tell them how much you appreciate their love, affection and the joy they bring into your life. Life, as we have since learnt, is indeed so fragile."