Managing from the dugout

He has held senior leadership positions in many organisations for over more than 20 years, but the career trajectory of Lee Meng Tat, CEO of Non-Alcoholic Beverages for Fraser & Neave, has been anything but orthodox. He tells HRM Asia he likens his leadership philosophy to being a football manager.

You’ve held diverse positions in many companies. How would you describe your working life thus far?

It has been interesting.

I studied engineering but never practiced the craft. At the end of my studies, I realised that I couldn’t be an engineer. That was when I started to look around and realised that being in business was actually what I liked to do.

With that, I applied and got my first job at DBS in corporate banking. After three years on the job, I decided I wanted to be an entrepreneur. So I tried that for about one and a half years, albeit unsuccessfully. I then went back to corporate life where I joined the Economic Development Board (EDB) and thereafter the F&N Group.

My working life has been interesting because it was at F&N that I was seconded to the beer business in China, the toughest beer market in the world. I was in China for slightly over six years. And during my three years as CEO of Wildlife Reserves Singapore Group, I had to deal with angry visitors who queued three hours to get into the Night Safari.


Before the beverage sector, you spent considerable time with EDB. How did you end up working in that space?

Back then, EDB was looking for people who could help Singapore companies venture overseas. So I applied and got an interview. At the interview, they told me I wasn’t a fresh graduate. I told them that they had not stated that they were looking for one. EDB then said I didn’t have a Second Upper (degree). I guess it was important for them. But I told them that their recruitment advertisement said they wanted someone “different”. I told them I studied engineering for four years, became a bank officer and then an entrepreneur; how different can one get from that? They were stunned but told me I was indeed different and gave me a job, albeit an entry level position.

With all credit to EDB, that’s where I learnt a lot of what HR practices are supposed to be. Their HR practices are top-notch. EDB constantly assesses and monitors the performances of their staff. They are very willing to take chances with talented employees. And if you add value to the organisation, they do not wait for annual appraisal to promote you. Over a period of 18 months, I rose from an entry-level officer to one that was handpicked by the then MD to join him at the Singapore Tourism Board as Assistant Director.


What is your leadership style?

It’s just about being myself. I’m quite clear that I’m not a specialist in any area; which means that I need to have some value-add whenever I go to any organisation.

Due to the fact that I have been seconded and sent to many organisations, I think I have found out a way to try and add value to wherever I go. That is to fully recognise that I do not know everything about the business I have joined, and that there are many good people who know the business and functions better than I do.

My role is to look at the whole organisation, and at what issues it is facing, and how can I help it to progress from where it is currently, to where it wants to go. I think my value-add comes in looking at the issues, mapping out a plan to bring the organisation forward, and then putting in place a team who can work together to achieve that objective.

I always tell people that my management style is like that of a football manager who has never played football before. When I go in, I need to find the right players who can be the strikers, midfielders, defenders and goalkeeper; the best in their respective positions. Then, I need to work with them on the tactics to win the game. The players have to work as a team on the field. If anybody is not playing well, then as the manager, I have to make the change, regardless of whether the player is a superstar or not.

If I have to substitute the star player, I don’t care whether he comes out feeling angry. I will substitute the star player if he’s not contributing to the game plan as we have agreed.


How would your employees describe you?

They will say I’m very tall and have a very serious face!

Wherever I’ve been, after a while, my employees will tell me that they were scared of me when I initially joined the company. I do have a serious face; I can’t help it as I was born with it!

But, after a while, all of the employees realise that how I look and what I do are actually different. In all organisations I’ve worked with, the first thing I do is get to know the people. I’m actually quite a joker. I’ve been told by some of my bosses not to joke too much. Usually, at board meetings.

But, I’m just trying to be myself.

The point is that we cannot be too stifled. We just have to be ourselves. For me, I think people will say that “he’s just one of us”.


What are some key HR challenges for Fraser & Neave?

F&N is a long established company. Although we’ve been around, are steady and stable, and everyone knows about us, the flip side is that people will call us an old-economy company. People nowadays are very attracted to the new-economy companies. We’re talking about the Google and Amazon types of companies.

First of all, it’s about where they want to work. The name is the first thing. Our challenge is that we have a good name, but an old name.

It is also the products that we are in. We are doing soft drinks, dairy products and ice cream. It’s something that you see and need and you buy every day. But, it is a steady, established business.

So, our challenge is getting people to understand that we do also offer an interesting and varied experience for people and that there’s a lot for them to learn. We are also a regional company, so an opportunity to work with us is not just about only working in Singapore. In fact, a lot of our employees here are also out in the region most of the time because that’s where we are expanding.

Like all companies who are not in the new world, challenge number one is getting people to join us. Challenge number two is, like all companies in Singapore, it’s particularly difficult to get people in Singapore. That’s a fact of life.


How do you balance your business needs along with the public health issues associated with soft drinks?

We are fully aware of the public health concerns associated with soft drinks.

We started out with 100 Plus during our 100th anniversary. It has become the number one drink in Malaysia and is up-and-coming in Singapore.

The key is balancing the needs (and wants) of consumers and businesses.

To achieve that, besides relying on market research, at F&N, we also work closely with the regulators such as Singapore Health Promotion Board (HPB) to promote healthy living.

By working closely with HPB, we want to engage and educate the community and influence the consumers to choose products labeled with the “Healthier Choice Symbol”.

Today, many of our F&N products are labeled with this symbol because they meet HPB’s Healthier Choice Symbol requirements for “Lower in Sugar” or “No Sugar Added” categories.


What kind of career progression programmes do you have in place?

All organisations have these, in terms of setting up processes whereby they look at an appraisal of how well the person has done, where they can improve and where they can go to. We do track staff developmental progression as we go along and I take a personal interest in this area.

Over the last 11 months, I have actually looked at the career progression of a number of key staff and how they can move to areas that can actually enhance their skillsets and also move them in their career path. I spend at least 40% of my time on HR issues. The process is there. More importantly, other than a process, somebody needs to make a decision and move it forward. That is something that is ingrained in F&N.


How do you interact with your staff?

I am responsible for not only the business in Singapore, but also in the region. I will meet my staff – top management and general staff - in different countries at least once a month. I strongly believe that sharing a meal or having a drink create a closer bond between people. So everywhere I go, I will have a meal with my staff. During my last trip to Myanmar, the country manager told me that the local staff were too afraid to talk to me. I went over to them, with a translator, and started chatting. We managed to break the ice and at the end of it, we exchanged laughter and soon, they started to share business matters with me.


What’s the most challenging aspect of your role?

Putting together strategies is not the hardest part; it’s the implementation that is. Implementation comes through finding people who know what they are doing and who can work as a team. The implementation of what has been formulated is the most challenging aspect.


What is your top tip for aspiring leaders?

They have to be true to themselves. At the end of the day, as long as you’re true to yourself, as long as you help others as you move along, you will rise up naturally.

I dislike people who step on others to go upwards. You don’t have to do that. To me, leadership is about helping the team to move along. If we agree on something, go ahead and do it. If you succeed, it’s your effort and full credit to you.

If it fails, I will take the responsibility because I decided.


Bio Brief

Lee Meng Tat was appointed as CEO, Non-Alcoholic Beverages of Fraser and Neave, with effect from May 1 last year.  He is responsible for the performance and driving the expansion of the division, with operations and investments in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Lee has extensive experience in consumer-focused industries, having carved out a 25-year career in several fields, including banking, tourism, and beverages.  He has previously served 12 years within the F&N Group, including as Chief Corporate Development Officer of the food and beverage division; and sat on the boards of several of its subsidiaries.

Prior to re-joining  F&N, Lee was CEO Wildlife Reserves Singapore, where he was responsible for the management of world-class leisure attractions in Singapore, namely the Jurong Bird Park, Night Safari, River Safari and Singapore Zoo.

Lee holds a Bachelor of Engineering (Mechanical) from National University of Singapore as well as a Master of Business Administration from Imperial College, London. He also attended the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School.


Me  Myself  I

I love: To develop people to their fullest potential

I dislike: Inconsiderate people

My inspiration is: Singapore’s pioneer leaders and pioneer generation. They built the Singapore of today by trusting each other and working together as a team

My biggest weakness is: I do not have any hobbies

In five years time I’d like to: Take a back seat or do something different, as the team that I am building now would be ready and able to take the organisation forward

Favourite quote: “Don’t do to others what you do not want others to do to you”


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