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Hearts and minds: Tesco CEO reveals a culture revolution

PHUKET: An excellent ensemble of Phuket business figures turned out at the Outrigger Laguna Phuket Beach Resort in Cherng Talay last Thursday night (Aug 10) to hear guest speaker John Christie, who heads Tesco Lotus operations throughout Thailand.

By Chris Husted

Saturday 19 August 2017, 11:00AM

Over the past five years Tesco has undergone a fundamental change from a UK-based global business to a local business originating from the UK, Mr Christie explained. Photo: Chris Husted

Over the past five years Tesco has undergone a fundamental change from a UK-based global business to a local business originating from the UK, Mr Christie explained. Photo: Chris Husted

Mr Christie explained to the guests not just what Tesco has achieved since its arrival in Thailand in the past 20 years, but more importantly how it has achieved its ever-deepening connection with its customers and communities throughout the country.

Specifically, Mr Christie revealed how Tesco Lotus expanded their footprint across Thailand and more importantly how they engage with local partners. To the latter, Mr Christie highlighted the critical aspect of “earning trust for the social license to operate”.

“In the West, we have ‘functional loyalty’. It’s a simple matter of product and price,” Mr Christie explained. “In Asia, that is not enough,” he said blankly.

Over the past five years Tesco has undergone a fundamental change from a UK-based global business to a local business originating from the UK, he explained. “The key factor is emotional loyalty... Trust…” he said.

Tesco is currently in 10 countries with 6,800 stores staffed and supported by 460,000 employees worldwide. “In Asia, Thailand is at the centre of where Tesco global wants to invest,” Mr Christie noted, highlighting the Kingdom’s role for Tesco’s overseas operations.

However, he cautioned, “Size does matter, and can play a detrimental role in a company’s growth in a region very different than the company’s originating home country. There is a danger of arrogance, that you don’t have to listen.”

Realising this culture trap, five years ago Mr Christie began re-strategising the company’s operations.

“We must work harder on our emotional connection with partners. There must be a relationship of sustainable growth,” he said.

To this Tesco defined its core purpose as: “Serving Thailand’s shoppers a little better every day”.

In this, in every thing the company does, every decision considered, the underlying question of what good thing does this do for customers, communities must be answered, Mr Christie noted.

“Previously we had too much focus on product and price,” he said, later adding during a very candid Question & Answer session, “The investment landscape was quite different just a handful of years ago. At that time there was a big risk of legislation retail outlets in plan to prevent opportunities of foreign businesses. A lot has changed since then.”

To bring forth the core shift, first key stakeholders were identified: customers, colleagues, communities, suppliers and even the government.

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“The issue of customers was already well addressed – Tesco already had a very good culture and practices in place to gather feedback from customers, and to review and act where necessary in response,” Mr Christie noted.

“But there is always more,” he said. Underway is a drive to bring more value to Tesco Club Card members. “We must make it valuable to a person’s life not just their shopping,” Mr Chritie added.

As for colleagues, in Thailand that one took a little more work. “You have to offer more than pay. Thais like to have fun, go out eating together, they like being rewarded for good work they do – there has to more than just the compensation package,” Mr Christie said.

“This is very important,” he stressed.

And it must come from the top. Leading by example, Mr Christie himself leads a staff get-together every month where awards recognising contributions and achievements are bestowed.

Regarding communities, Mr Christie explained how the company is perceived by local communities is critical. He highlighted how Tesco employees are empowered to “do the right thing” in times of crisis without waiting for management approval, as exemplified by staff making the decision to immediately dispatch bottled water to stranded victims hard hit by the recent floods up north.

To this, management must be willing to accept mistakes, he added. “They must know they will not get into trouble if they make a poor decision. As soon as you criticise an action, it (the goodwill and all that comes with it) is gone,” he explained.

Asked later during the Q&A session how to encourage a Thai employee beyond the cultural reluctance to take ownership of a decision, Mr Christie noted, “Getting one employee anywhere in the world – here in Thailand, in Europe or back home – to take ownership of such a decision is not easy…

“One person will not make a decision, but a team – a team – will make a decision,” he sagely pointed out.

The event, organised in collaboration with the Netherlands-Thai Chamber of Commerce (NTCC), the Australian-Thai Chamber of Commerce (AustCham) and the Franco-Thai Chamber of Commerce, was part of the British Chamber of Commerce in Thailand (BCCT) Multi-Chambers Phuket Business Dinner series. The event last week was sponsored by Captain Hook’s Smokehouse and Image Asia.

The Phuket Business Dinner series is proudly sponsored by The Phuket News and Khao Phuket



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