Giving the people what they want is the foundation of good business practice. But what happens when the people in your company’s immediate vicinity aren’t buying? Exporting is the way businesses and countries alike take their strengths to the world to discover – or be discovered by – new audiences.
The business of exports poses a significant logistical challenge, never mind the environmental considerations. The industry is full of players attempting to spirit goods around the globe in the most cost-effective and sustainable way possible, but Malaysian export leader Pacific Inter-Link (PIL) has made that more than a mission. Instead, General Manager and COO Sriram Iyer says it’s the company’s purpose.
"When you’re in the commodity business of palm oil as we are, transparency surrounding social responsibility and sustainability is very important," he points out. "I want to be very open about this, especially when it comes to social issues like deforestation."
The palm oil industry has come under fire worldwide for the impact it has on tropical habitats. Deforestation is a very real concern for any company in the palm oil space, and PIL is no different.
"We’re constantly thinking about how we can do things in a more ethical and sustainable way compared to how things were done in the past," Iyer says.
"Being a private group, we aren’t mandated to report anything, but we’ve made sure on our website we’re upfront about our sustainability charter – who we buy from, what’s our vision when it comes to doing the right thing in sourcing, what actions do we take against tainted suppliers. Complete disclosure."
For PIL, business isn’t simply a matter of profit or cost or volumes. "I want to be the kind of leader who provides the right platform for an entire ecosystem to thrive," Iyer explains.
"The stakeholders should feel like they’re part of a family working for a group that looks after them. Customers should want to be associated with us and take pride in partnering with PIL. That’s what I see as my personal purpose."
But palm oil is not PIL’s entire business. "We have three verticals," he says. "Bulk trading is roughly 80 percent of our top line. We charter vessels and take palm oil to destination markets. We also have consumer pack, which is cooking oil and specialty fats." The third line of business is fast-moving consumer goods, including home care, personal care and dairy products.
The company’s skills run a wide gamut, from manufacturing to refining to shipping; as such, PIL’s corporate structure is atypical for the industry. "We’re a family business at heart," Iyer reveals. "We are part of the HSA group that started in Yemen in 1938."
Part of the bigger HSA Group, PIL itself has existed in its current state since 1988. "In that time we’ve gained market share and customers by focusing on certain markets," he says. "The shareholders are very clear about what they want and we achieve it by forging strong relationships."
Brand loyalty in the industry, particularly pertaining to palm oil, is almost non-existent, he admits. "There are no brands. So loyalty comes from efficiency, delivering on our promises and making sure we have firm relationships with key stakeholders."
The forging of a solid relationship is something of a rarity in the industry now, Iyer says, and is more valuable than ever for it. "In big corporates, if a Sales Vice President builds a good client relationship while they’re with the company, they may take that relationship with them when they leave the business," he reflects.
"That doesn’t happen here. The owners are actively engaged, very hands on, and they work very closely with our customers. That’s not only unique; it’s actively helping us to get to where we want to be in the future."
It’s this family connection that forms the foundation of PIL’s operations. "It’s our mantra, actually," Iyer confirms. "We’re a ‘family within a family’."
And what a family it is: the PIL team is made up of almost 20 nationalities, and Iyer believes the diversity definitely improves performance. "We wouldn’t be where we are today without such a diverse team," he adds.
This element of PIL’s success is a testament to its commitment to one of its core beliefs. "One of the biggest challenges we face is getting the right people," Iyer says.
"People are our assets; they can make or break a plan. With the right team, even the most difficult plan can work. With the wrong people, the best strategy will fail miserably."
Unable to tap into the talent pools of local or even regional recruitment firms, PIL has to work that much harder to fill its seats. Sometimes that means looking to the past, and so it was in Iyer’s case.
Iyer was hired by PIL Group’s Chair as a professional to run the global operation. He’s certainly the right person for the job, having had two stints with PIL. After time at VMware, KPMG and EY, he first arrived at PIL in 2012, but shifted to the tech industry after five years.
We wouldn’t be where we are today without such a diverse team.
"I came from tech, so I was returning to my strengths," he explains.
When the role of General Manager and COO came up in 2019, Iyer was quick to return to the fold. "I had remained in touch with the company Chair," he reveals. "The board reached out to me about this role, which until then had always been carried out by a member of the family."
Upon accepting the role, Iyer became the first professional COO for PIL. "I think the board realized that in a fast-changing world, you need life experience to meet the challenges," he says.
"The group has a vision for PIL, and I’ve used my skills and experience to realize that vision. To a large extent, it’s come true in terms of growth, streamlining operations, risk management and finance."
Even the worst of the COVID-19 lockdowns couldn’t stop PIL’s expansion. Beset by pandemic panic early on, the company was able to bend and flex to work around the associated restrictions to keep the supply chain running smoothly.
Optimizing for agility
"COVID-19 actually taught us a lot about what we weren’t doing right," Iyer concedes. "We’d taken certain processes for granted, and a lot of our processes were pretty rigid."
In response, PIL created a new team, Business Process Optimization. "They were tasked to look at our operations and make them more customer-centric," he says. "We’ve seen great results and the team has worked continuously ever since."
In fact, the entire COVID-19 experience left PIL in a much better state than before. "We didn’t just survive, we kept growing," he says. "And our top priority is now to simplify.
Once there is collaboration, you see people breaking barriers, thinking outside of the box and making things happen. That's when ideas flourish.
"When you question what you do, inevitably you’ll ask if you can do something different to make the process more efficient. There’s always an answer and that, I think, is our goal.
"Wherever we can add value for our customers, we’ll be doing that. So it’s fair to say we’re quite excited about the years ahead."
The demand for palm oil hasn’t dipped in recent years; if anything, it’s increased. "We have three refineries in-house, but they only meet about 60 percent of our requirements," Iyer says. "The other 40 percent we source from reputable third parties."
The latter point is closely tied to PIL’s desire to be the largest ethical destination player in palm oil and related products.
"Every day, we practice doing the right thing, the right way, via the right platforms for our stakeholders," Iyer stresses. "It’s engraved in our DNA and in this industry, it can’t be any other way. Once you start doing the right thing, once there’s transparency throughout your organization, it spreads to the industry."
Transparency, he adds, is one of the strongest assets a company can have. "Without transparency, there cannot be collaboration," he says. "Once there is collaboration, you see people breaking barriers, thinking outside of the box and making things happen. That’s when ideas flourish."
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A leading vegetable oil processor with an expanding global footprint, focused on sustainability.