A New Way of Working

Written by Cassie Lim, Be Movement issue 1 – SINGAPORE, published October 2012

A logistics company is not supposed to look like this; not with witty quotes lined up all across the hallways, a world map created using names countries and an outdoor garden with a veranda to boot. What’s more, the 30,000 square feet office has a recreation room, equipped with a billiard table and table soccer. There is also a Yoga Room where yoga, aerobics and boxing classes are available for the staff. The spacious, open concept seating seems more at home in a cutting edge tech or media company, rather than one dealing with transport and logistics.

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Like its office, Pan Asia Logistics (PAL), one of the fastest growing logistics company in Asia, is obliterating the notions and preconceptions attached to the logistics business. Its two founders, Christian Bischoff, Managing Director, and Susan Tan, Executive Director, are dynamic individuals, full of energy as they bustle about the office communicating with various staff. Monika Bischoff, Business Consultant, is responsible for the contemporary design of the office and marketing materials, adding a touch of artistic flair uncommon within the industry.

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From left to right – Susan Tan, Executive Director; Monika Bischoff, Business Consultant and Christian Bischoff, Managing Director of Pan Asia Logistics

It is refreshing to watch Christian hanging out with his staff by the bar counter during lunch, bantering cheerfully, and Susan walking and chatting with staff in the corridors. Other than the chic design and layout, this air of easy conviviality is what makes PAL different from many other logistics companies.

Both coming from corporate backgrounds, Christian and Susan set up PAL to get away from the stuffy aspects of a big corporation. In a no-holds barred discussion, both Christian and Susan shared their unconventional way of doing business and what shines through is really two straight talking people, with very big hearts. What began as a co-operation between two enthusiastic individuals to strike out on their own has evolved into a global company in less than a decade and they have never looked back since.

Interviewer: During your nine years’ journey, did you envision where PAL will be today?
Christian Bischoff: Not really, at least not that fast.

Susan Tan: I think in the beginning, no. We were just two people fed up with the corporate world.

Interviewer: Why were you fed up with the corporate world?
Christian Bischoff: You know what it’s like, in a corporation you live a life like you’re handcuffed and put in a straitjacket.

Interviewer: Can I quote that?
Christian Bischoff: Yes, of course you can quote that. With every set of corporate policies you always have to compromise, and then you have people making policies who are so far away from the reality of what’s happening and giving you unrealistic directions to follow. Regardless of the outcome, even though you know it’s all wrong, you still have to follow the rules. Before you know it, when you live in this kind of environment for a long, long time, your spirit dies. Therefore, we decided to build up our own company and free ourselves from the bureaucracy.

The irony is large companies always say they want entrepreneurs. However, if you deviate from their policies, they will decide that you do not actually fit into their company culture.

Metaphorically speaking, they then cut off your legs, if you still do not fit properly, they cut off your arms and, if that still does not work, they cut off your head and put you in a box. “Just don’t think. Follow orders and you will be fine.” However, that is not entrepreneurial spirit. That is exactly what we do not want to happen to our people. Now that we are free from straitjackets, we do not want to put our people in straitjackets. We mean it when we say we want them to be entrepreneurs.

Interviewer: That is a real shift in mind-set from large corporations.
Christian Bischoff: Exactly, and that is what we are trying to achieve here. Of course, people make mistakes and we have to overcome them. However, that is also where people learn and we encourage them, although there are cases where people are more comfortable being sheltered in a large corporate environment as they realise that they are not cut out to be entrepreneurs.

Susan Tan: Personally, I feel if you are a real entrepreneur, working in a big corporation, your life is not so easy. There you are bursting with ideas and you work long and hard, but you feel like you can’t do a lot of things. Over here, if you are an entrepreneur with good ideas, we will take notice of you. On the flipside, if you are not an entrepreneur, you may feel that you have to make too many decisions here and you may not like it.

Christian Bischoff: We have a lot of funny encounters. For example, this person whom we hired said he wanted to be free from corporate shackles and yet he wrote an email to request for our approval for a day off. In my mind I was thinking, “You are a country manager. You do not need to ask us or anybody if you want to take a day off, so long as you manage your responsibilities.” In a large corporation, you usually have to file customer reports. Imagine, we have over 600 staff and, if each staff sends us customer reports to read, we will never get any real work done. If there is anything important, we would rather our staff give us a call with a one minute brief and that’s it. We are finished and we are happy. Now they don’t send us reports, we phased that out, and instead what we have are guidelines.

We feel that when a corporation wants to micromanage everything, they cannot grow their staff. Here we trust our people with our life, because we also trust them with millions of dollars and if they run with the money we would have a problem.

Interviewer: So far, what has been the result?
Christian Bischoff: We never had a problem and our success proves us right.

Susan Tan: We have measures in place, so it is not like somebody can just sign our cheque and abscond with the money. Also, we have been in this business for so long that we would notice if there is something wrong.

Interviewer: What is the core difference between PAL and other logistics companies?Christian Bischoff: I can’t tell you, really. We are not looking too hard at our competition. Of course we have our intelligence in place and get market research information, but we are not so much concerned with what our competition is doing and how they manage their companies. We are more keen to work with our clients, to make our customers happy and to gain more customers.

We have found our own way of doing things and we are successful in many ways. The results and support from our clients have been proving us right.

Interviewer: What has been the most important success ingredient here?
Susan Tan: What is most important is that we always listen to our customers and consequently tailor to their specific requirements.

Christian Bischoff: I absolutely agree with Susan. We also have the speed and flexibility which big corporations may not have as they are too system driven, whilst for us the human being remains the most important element and service is the centre of attention.

Interviewer: Do you think you will lose this personalised service when you grow too big?
Christian Bischoff: No, because we live this with our people every day.

Susan Tan: I think this is a concern people may have, but we will always tailor to the customer. A lot of companies standardise to save costs. We would rather keep our internal processes lean than to compromise our service. Even though we invest a lot in new technology, we never lose the human touch.

Christian Bischoff: Even though our business has grown from a million to hundreds of millions, we will not lose this touch. That is what service is all about. We train our staff to treat customers equally, whether their turnover is $2,000 or $2,000,000. When customers call you, you can’t say, “Oh, I am in China now and can I call you back next week?” No, he calls you because he needs an answer now. That should never be an issue.

Interviewer: I think it takes a lot of courage to be so unfazed by competition, because you’re looking a bit into the unknown and you are not following a manual.
Christian Bischoff: Exactly. A lot of things that we have done are really through intuition and gut feeling. Of course this must be backed by experience, you must know your business, customers and the market very well, and we do. We were very focused. When we branched out on something it had to be logistics related. Currently we are strengthening our contract logistics services and moving into recycling, re-manufacturing and life science logistics.

Susan Tan: We try to persuade our customers to incorporate recycling in their logistics processes, where we don’t just throw away damaged or rejected goods, but we explore the best way to dispose of them to minimise environmental impact.

Interviewer: I find it very interesting that what you are incorporating in terms of recycling is helping PAL to live up to its mandate as a corporation to safeguard nature, so what have you done in that area?
Susan Tan: We want to do much more and that’s why we ventured into this sector. We want to strengthen our expertise in recycling logistics and due to our good reputation people come to us to explore recycling opportunities. We are always open to opportunities. If our partners come up with a better idea we would rather use their idea and work together. No point reinventing the wheel just to prove something, right?

Interviewer: It seems like you both are really open. Have there been especially difficult challenges?
Christian Bischoff: We have constantly had challenges (Laughs), especially at the start.

Susan Tan: Definitely, though we were fortunate to be busy from day one.

Christian Bischoff: Actually the people who really supported us from the beginning were mostly Asians. Generally Asians are more willing to give chances to newcomers. Europeans may have done business with us when we were in our corporate jobs. When we set up the new company, they would congratulate us on our good courage and wish us well. However, they would wait and see our results for a year or two before talking to us about business again.

Asians are much more open and if they like what we do, they are willing to support us. Although I must emphasise that they are equally quick to take things away if it doesn’t go well, so they gave us a chance and it was up to us to prove ourselves. Europeans on the other hand, despite their reluctance to give you a chance initially, once you convince them, they will not take their business away as easily as the Asians.

Interviewer: What was your intention starting out with the business?
Christian Bischoff: It was not like we started out wanting to make millions of dollars of turnover. We just wanted to do something on our own. We wanted to service our customers in a free, non-corporate manner. Therefore, we have to constantly instil the same attitude in our people.

Interviewer: How do you do that?
Christian Bischoff: We communicate a lot. We lead by example.

Susan Tan: They can see our strong faith in the company. We also pull up our sleeves and do everything with them, and it’s not like we are sitting here telling them what to do and we knock off at 6 p.m. sharp. We believe in staying together and finishing the job together.

Interviewer: What time then do you get off work, in general?
Christian Bischoff: (Smiles) For me, work never stops. Usually I start at 8 a.m. and finish between 10p.m. and midnight.

Interview: Why do you choose to work such long hours? As the boss, you could choose to work less?
Christian Bischoff: For sure, but it is also fun.

Susan Tan: But in our previous job we were also working very hard.

Christian Bischoff: That has not changed, but instead of working for somebody else —

Susan Tan: We are working for ourselves. Even in rough times we still find reasons to laugh and celebrate because, if we take ourselves too seriously, then we might really have a problem.

Christian Bischoff: Yes, it’s a very good atmosphere here.

Susan Tan: Do you know that, when we first started out, two months later there was the SARS epidemic and it was totally unexpected.

Christian Bischoff:  We had friends telling us we were out of our minds to start the company during this time, but how were we to know in advance?

Susan Tan: (Laughs) Christian even took that opportunity to travel, because it was so cheap and he got the whole plane to himself!

Christian Bischoff: Yes, I remember flying to Beijing for only SGD 100! (approximately USD 80)

Interviewer: How did you sustain the business during that period?
Christian Bischoff: It was hard work, reputation and luck. In our industry, if you have been around long enough, you know plenty of people who trust you and who are more accommodating. A lot of things are done on good-will, and of course you have to live up to your reputation.

Did we think we would turnover SGD 20,000,000 (approximately USD 16,000,000) in ten months? No, but that was what happened. We turned over almost SGD 20,000,000 in that year when everything was collapsing around us.

Susan Tan: We were fortunate. Everyone was telling us their business dropped drastically. However, we were a new business and we started from zero, so our business increased drastically.

Christian Bischoff: Another factor is the recognition in the market of us as reliable and trustworthy people. Our customers know we are a hardworking bunch and took a chance on us. We delivered and many customers who started with us in the beginning are still with us today.

Interviewer: How did you fare during the 2008 financial crisis? How badly were you affected?
Christian Bischoff: It affected us tremendously, but we did not back down and we didn’t lose customers. Our volume and turnover dropped significantly, but we took it as a good chance to grow. We came up with three approaches: First, we got talent.

Susan Tan: We hired people who had lost their jobs.

Christian Bischoff: In the industry, although we were quite well-known, we were considered a local company. When you look at the real Singaporean talent, they usually prefer to work for large companies rather than a Singapore start-up company. The downturn gave us an opportunity to hire these people and give them a home.

Interviewer: Why did you choose to do that when you were facing so much difficulty?Christian Bischoff: Because we knew it was the right time. We didn’t know how long the financial crisis would last, but we knew it would not be forever.

Susan Tan: We kept the faith.

Christian Bischoff: We were prepared to lose some money, but this was a single chance now to get great talents to push up the company. We believed that when we came out of the recession, we would have the right people to grow. We also decided to invest in IT equipment as the prices had dropped enormously, plus the government gave subsidies during that time and we leveraged on it.

Interviewer: What was the third approach?
Christian Bischoff: It was to buy land and construct our current office and warehouse. In early 2008, when we approached the government, we were too small to gain attention. However in 2009, when the market plunged and the demand for land plummeted, we successfully tried again. We started constructing in 2010, just towards the tail end of the recession, and the construction costs were at least 30% lower than today.

Although it was millions of dollars of savings, it took a lot of courage to say, “Just do it.” If anybody would have forecast back in 2003 that we would grow like this, we would have dismissed it. It would have felt presumptuous.

Susan Tan: We had a first five years’ vision on which we were very accurate, but beyond the five years, it was not so clear. By 2008, we knew where we wanted to go.

Christian Bischoff: We had the advantage of knowing by then that our approach is the right approach and that our customers like us and our business will continue to grow.

Interviewer: Was there no hesitation during the financial crisis when you took on the three approaches?
Christian Bischoff: Hardly any.

Susan Tan: Come to think of it, actually, no.

Christian Bischoff: (Smiles) We are a fearless gang of people. Even now, when a recession looms ahead of us, we are investing as much money as we turn over and our peers think we are totally crazy.

Susan Tan: You know, we are not doing a project just for fun, prestige or ego. When we build our buildings, we do our numbers first and go ahead only if we have ample support from customers. Actually for this building we were absolutely amazed at how successful it became. We attracted so many customers and we realised that many of customers are hungry for a good quality and well-managed warehouse! Now they demand for new buildings to increase the capacity.

Interviewer: So you’re building another one right now?
Christian Bischoff: Another two are under construction. One in Tuas, Singapore and one in Malaysia of about 400,000 sq ft each. Another two of similar sizes are in the pipeline, one also in the Tuas area and one in Korea.

Interviewer: What makes your warehouses different from others?
Susan Tan: Design and functionality. Everything is impeccably organised, clear defined, transparent and well arranged.

Christian Bischoff: People like our open concept. The interior with its many details is bright and inviting. It’s so unlike a freight forwarding company.

Interviewer: That was exactly my first impression.
Christian Bischoff: Great! I’m happy to hear that you like it, too.

Interviewer: Why did you choose to do it in this way?
Christian Bischoff: Because we want this for ourselves. We come here every day of our lives, and we would like our staff to wake up in the morning and look forward to coming to work because it is a nice environment. We also give our staff a lot of freedom here, and anybody can use the facilities. There is no hierarchy.

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Rooftop garden at Pan Asia Logistics

When it comes to CSR, we want to give back too. However, I do not want to squeeze my clients and people and then make a big donation to poor children just to look good. We would rather start with our people first and make their lives easier. Imagine we have staff from Malaysia who work here for 10 to 12 hours and then have to cross the causeway to go back to Malaysia. They have hardly any life for themselves and we want to give them some rewards because they are working so hard.

Susan Tan: I think charity begins at home.

Christian Bischoff: Yes, exactly! We also participate in the Manufacturing Step Scholarship Programme (MS2). Conjoining WDA and TUM (Technische Universitaet Muenchen), as well as other strategic industry players to support students of disadvantaged background who can’t otherwise afford to study.

Interviewer: After they graduate, do they need to work here?
Christian Bischoff: No. We invite them, but there is no point if their heart is not in it. We help them to have a chance in life, but they need to make their own choices. We don’t expect anything in return.

Susan Tan: I truly support that.

Interviewer: I can really hear the sincerity in what you have both said. So how would you like people to think about PAL?
Christian Bischoff: We are honest people, so I would like people to associate us with honesty and truthfulness.

Susan Tan: We feel a lot of the younger generation are losing passion in what they do. They must believe that, if they do things well, it means something and they can achieve something and that there is a possibility to start from the bottom and move up. How high you can go is really up to you, but you must believe that you can achieve it. Not everybody may become the CEO, but when you do something and you do it well that is already an achievement.

Interviewer: Well said. It is about the journey, not the destination.
Susan Tan: Exactly. So true.

Christian Bischoff: It is also not necessarily about the background. You see, I was a difficult student and not exactly a diligent overachiever at that time. I dropped out of school prematurely without even having O-levels.

Interviewer: Why did you drop out?
Christian Bischoff: I was very obstinate and headstrong and fought with the teachers. I was rebellious and lazy too.

 Interviewer: How did you get to where you are today?
Christian Bischoff: Well, I took on an apprenticeship and vocational training with a top freight forwarding company in Germany. I was just 16 years old and did not even know what freight forwarding was. I completed a three years’ training programme and liked it from the very first day. Freight forwarding was what I really wanted to do in life. It just clicked. Later I went to university.

Interviewer: After the apprenticeship?
Christian Bischoff: No, after I started working, so I went to university at the age of 28 to study economic sciences.

Susan Tan: I can still remember he had to fly back to Germany to do it.

Christian Bischoff: Yes, it took me five years of study because I worked and had a family and kids. I could not simply close shop and study. Besides, I needed the money. I was studying at night, every night, even on business trips. The weekends were also dedicated to my studies. I sacrificed the biggest part of my private life during those years and flew back to Germany for my exams.

Interviewer: Why did you want to go through all that?
Christian Bischoff: Because I thought I needed it for myself. I wanted to and gain as much theoretical knowledge as possible to complement my practical application. It was a tough time, but I made it. I grew up disadvantaged. My family was poor. We were eight children. Sending one to university was out of the question.

Although there are millions of disadvantaged people around the world, we cannot solve the plight of everyone, but we can pick a few and make their lives easier. That is what we are aiming for with our scholarship programme.

Interviewer: Frankly, I have so much more respect for someone who goes back to university after they have started working. It is that much harder.
Christian Bischoff: Yes, it is.

Susan Tan: Especially when you have a family. Unfortunately, I couldn’t do that and so I finished at A-levels.

Interviewer: What was it like for you, Susan?
Susan Tan: I must say my childhood was fantastic in the sense that, although I was not rich, we never went hungry. I had to go through school, but there was not so much pressure. After A-levels I went to secretary school, as that was the norm for girls back then. I started working in a small company where I learnt everything and was basically a “one man show”. It was a good learning experience, but I soon outgrew it and moved on to a large corporation.

There, everything was in a cubicle and I remembered I could not even send faxes myself. I had to give it to a person designated as the “fax operator” and I was like, “I can’t live this kind of life.” I went into freight forwarding and really enjoyed it. Then the whole Merger & Acquisition (M&A) business started again. This was when we decided to control things ourselves. So I started the company with Christian. That time I thought “I will just go along with it”. I am someone who, given a task, will make sure it gets done.

Interviewer: Do you find that, as you go along, you get more confident?
Susan Tan: Yes, of course.

Christian Bischoff: You also get more experienced.

Susan Tan: I think what is very important is that you can learn along the way. You can get advice, but first you must believe in yourself that you can do it. If you don’t have the confidence, you will fail. For us, when we grew from managing $20,000,000, $50,000,000 to $100,000,000, we have to listen carefully; listen and appeal to common sense.

If something doesn’t pass your common sense, then something is definitely wrong.

Christian Bischoff: The other reason we are successful today is because we keep questioning and challenging. If people say “No”, we ask, “Why not?” We do not just accept the status quo, especially when it defies common sense, and we would rather reason it out. For example, the government rejected our offer to bid for land five times, but we never gave up and finally we succeeded.

Interviewer: So what would you say to someone younger, who has the passion and drive to succeed?
Christian Bischoff: I would say, ‘‘Go for it. You can do it. Work hard and don’t be discouraged by setbacks.’’ Basically it took me a long time to realise what drives me. I grew up in a very poor and unstable family. We never had enough to eat. I was that skinny little boy who was always hungry.

If you go hungry for the first 15 years of your life, you are marked and you keep this hunger and this is what drives you. It is impossible to relay this deep hunger to other people. You always try harder to make a difference, you are hungry to achieve, to grow, to do things better, to succeed, to never go hungry again in your life.

Susan Tan: That is why China and India are coming up so fast. The hunger in them is very real.

Interviewer: How about Singapore?

Susan Tan: Singapore, I think people have become too comfortable.

Christian Bischoff: If you look at Singapore back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, people were really hungry and they achieved a lot. Therefore, the previous generation invested a tremendous amount of work and many of them have gained riches that the current and younger generation are enjoying. I say this about my kids, too. I have good kids. They are well-educated and they turned out very well, but of course they don’t have the same kind of hunger as I did.

Susan Tan: It’s not the same. They don’t understand.

Christian Bischoff: It’s not the same, because they have never experienced what I experienced and I’m actually very grateful for that.

Interviewer: They always say that what doesn’t kill you certainly makes you stronger.
Christian Bischoff: Exactly.

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