The retail scene in Singapore is vibrant and competitive. However, manpower issues constantly threaten to dampen growth. “Productivity growth is still not at optimal levels as FMCG businesses are intricately dependent on manpower,” says Carol Yong, HR Director, Dairy Farm Singapore. “Work processes and technology have yet to be fully-leveraged to reduce manpower dependence.”
Despite the on-going local labour and talent crunch especially in the service sector, Dairy Farm Singapore, the country’s largest retail group and one of the biggest employers with nearly 10,000 employees across the different retail chains, has adopted innovative people strategies to remain competitive.
These innovative strategies and the energy, passion and pride in performance that staff have has resulted in the retail group being the first and only retail company in Singapore to clinch the prestigious People Excellence Award. The award is the highest accolade given to any organisation through its people system.
By far the biggest challenge that HR at Dairy Farm Singapore faces is recruitment. At any one time, the retail group must deal with a shortage of 800 cashiers and sales service assistants. “Whenever we hire someone, we need to train them in the shortest time possible, and we aim to groom the top performers to become store leaders to cope with the business’ growth and expansion,” says Yong.
“These challenges are made even tougher by the competition for service workers from the two integrated resorts and the near full employment rate in Singapore, and the tightening of the foreign worker quota and increase in foreign worker levies.”
To overcome manpower constraints, a recruitment taskforce is set up specifically to focus on optimising every possible channel to bring in more local staff. The HR team conducts aggressive recruitment of locals of all ages, including mature workers, women re-joining the workforce and mid-career transitions.
It has also launched management trainee and scholarship programmes from pre-tertiary to tertiary levels.
Another substantial part of the retail group’s talent mix is mature workers. Dairy Farm Singapore has had a long history of being an age-friendly organisation and its subsidiaries, including Cold Storage, Guardian Health & Beauty, 7-Eleven and Shop N Save, have been employing mature workers for decades, long before the re-employment law was enforced in Singapore.
“Since the 1990s, we have been officially offering re-employment contracts to all our retirees to re-join us on full-time or part-time yearly renewable contracts. We never really retire our people,” says Yong.
“We call our employees aged 62 years and above, ‘Golden Employees’. They are indeed gold to us, considering their age and that they choose to enjoy ‘retirement’ by working with us. What a privilege to have such valuable employees!”
Dairy Farm Singapore has 1,700 employees aged 50 years and above, making up 22% of the total workforce. Of them, 280 are aged 62 years and above. Yong says the group’s experience with mature workers has been inspiringly positive.
“Not only are they responsible and dedicated, but they are usually punctual at work and hardly fall sick,” she says. “They are not as physically agile or as fast as younger employees but, given their experience and attention to detail, their quality of work and service is often outstanding and exemplary.”
Yong attributes having regular customers to this group of workers as well, saying it is one of the reasons why customers keep shopping with the retail group.
Many Golden Employees have risen from the ranks and continue to shoulder supervisory and managerial responsibilities despite their advanced age. This is invaluable to Dairy Farm Singapore as they continue to impart their knowledge and skills generously to the next generation of employees.
Dairy Farm’s family culture keeps its Golden Employees engaged and motivated at work. “They have said that they are touched by the sincerity and consistent warmth, care and concern showered upon them by their bosses and colleagues, especially during times of personal hardships and illness,” says Yong.
“This motivates them to continue working with the company. They are appreciative of the training opportunities and the trust and confidence in them, even in their golden years.”
The retail group recently held a celebration lunch at a prestigious hotel in Singapore to thank 275 Golden Employees and their family members for their contributions.
Over the years, many productivity and age-friendly initiatives have been introduced by various business banners at Dairy Farm Singapore. Some of them include: auto-replenishment (reduces manual replenishment ordering); radio frequency receiving (reduces manual checking and errors); simplified point-of-sales checkout processes (reduces work load); flexible work arrangements (part-time, split shift, etc); and free health screening.
“Importantly, the company must have a family culture in the workplace with supportive bosses and colleagues,” says Yong. “This is critical so that during challenging times at work or at home, staff are still motivated to persevere, as all things become possible and bearable with strong encouragement and support at the workplace. This principle applies to all generations of workers, young and old.”
Dairy Farm Singapore also looks towards providing staff a career roadmap, fast-tracking training and enlarging job scopes to optimise existing staff strength, ensure employees grow with the organisation and achieve sustainable growth and expansion of the company.
To ensure that new recruits are retained especially in the first year, a ‘train before work’ policy was executed with other touch points like having a ‘buddy’ at the workplace, structured On-the-Job-Training (OJT) and first anniversary celebrations.
In the first three years of service, employees are put through a structured development roadmap as per their job scope. This roadmap is further tailored to individual needs based on an annual human resource planning review with their direct supervisor, where they are assessed against core competencies. Through this regime, top performers are identified early and put on a fast-tracked programme.
“It is not unusual to find top performers being promoted twice a year and being moved rapidly through the ranks,” says Yong. “To grow their breadth and depth of knowledge and leadership, they are constantly given exposure in group and banner projects, including being sent overseas to help start up a new business.”
On top of the usual promote-from-within opportunities, Dairy Farm Singapore has many leadership activities available to employees. These include the Management Trainee programme, project leader for Dairy Farm Group projects like talent development, supply chain optimisation, and project leader for banner business projects like Cold Storage Kid’s Run and 7-Eleven’s 500th store celebrations. Talented trainees are also sent on secondment overseas to open new stores and help train the staff there.
As one of Dairy Farm Singapore’s biggest challenges is its ability to develop strong leaders fast enough to keep up with aggressive business growth, there is a need to create a continuous and adequate pipeline of talent and successors to fill all key positions in the short term of one to three years.
Hence, nurturing future leaders has been a key strategic goal since 2002. CEOs from different banners rotate to drive the talent development initiative on a yearly basis. A pool of 25 talents are identified and groomed each year, specifically to prepare them for higher responsibilities at the end of the programme.
They are trained in financial/business analysis, leadership, influencing, and project management skills. To hone their retail acumen, they are given real business projects and are empowered to execute changes to deliver quantum results.
“Of all the talents trained to date since 2002, we achieved a strong 60% retention rate and an equally strong 33% success rate in placing these talents in higher job appointments,” says Yong.
At a glance
+ Total number of staff: Under Cold Storage, Market Place and Shop N Save supermarkets, Giant hypermarket, Guardian Health & Beauty and 7-Eleven - 9,700 full-time and part-time employees (including franchisees)
+ Size of HR team: 50
+ Key HR focus areas: recruitment, retention, productivity, sustainability
Case Study of a Golden Employee
Oldest & Longest Serving Employee award winner: Tan Kim Hai
Tan Kim Hai, 77, has had an impressive 54 years of service with Dairy Farm Singapore. Currently a storekeeper at Cold Storage Takashimaya, he is the Group’s longest-serving employee.
Tan is affectionately known as ‘Uncle’ by all his colleagues at Takashimaya. He has also served in the union branch committee for many years.
Tan first joined Cold Storage in 1957 as a despatch clerk with the first Fitzpatrick branch. His sharp sense of hearing helped him catch a supplier in the act of taking an item from the store. He had heard a light thud and saw the supplier discarding a store item into the supplier’s box. Also, his punctuality is second to none.
“I like to work at Cold Storage as the working environment is very comfortable, with friendly colleagues. I am also appreciative that my managers take good care of me,” says Tan. “As a union branch committee member, I have learnt a lot. I treat Cold Storage as my family and will continue to do my best to contribute.”
Tapping on diversity
Not only is Dairy Farm Singapore a big proponent of employing mature workers (refer to Case Study), the organisation also promotes diversity by employing people with disabilities. Oh Siew May, born in 1971 with cerebral palsy, is one such former employee of the group, joining Cold Storage supermarket in Chancery Court in 1996.
Oh was responsible for stacking and displaying products and also serving customers. Most of the customers were expatriates and she befriended them through her excellent service and jovial mannerisms. Due to her efforts, she was given the best employee award every year and also the excellent service award.
“I felt motivated to work hard as my manager was very kind to me,” says Oh. “I experienced great joy and fun while working there.”
However, an unfortunate accident brought her career at Cold Storage to an end. She slipped a disc while unloading a box of vegetables.
Who’s who in HR?
Human Capital Manager (Cold Storage)
Human Capital Manager (Giant & SNS)
Human Capital Manager (Guardian)
Human Capital Manager (7-Eleven)
Human Capital Manager
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