Supply Chain Management is a newly emerging field and the importance of it in Sri Lanka has never been discussed so much till the covid pandemic hit us. It is a crucial function in a business and the absence of it will impact our daily lives – In fact as she says No Supply Chains No Life! We spoke to Ms. Gayani De Alwis who is a well-known Supply Chain Professional with a mission to promote supply chain education in the country. She is also a strong advocate of women empowerment and currently the Chairperson of Global Women in Logistics and Transport (WiLAT) forum. In this edition, Exposition brings Ms. Gayani De Alwis into spotlight to share her thoughts on this buzz-worthy topic; Supply Chain Management.
Q: We would like to know about your educational background which led you to become one of the leading Supply chain management professionals in the country? In the sense, what made you interested in supply chain management than chemical engineering?
A: I studied mathematics for my Advanced Level at Visakha Vidyalaya, Colombo, and entered into University of Moratuwa to study Chemical Engineering after passing my Advanced Levels. Due to the civil unrest in the country at that time, universities were more closed than open and during my third year, I applied to University of Reading to complete my degree in the United Kingdom and graduated with an MSc in Food Process Engineering. After two years, I returned to Sri Lanka and started working as a Food Technologist at Uswatte Confectionery – still famous for Glucorasa! After two years I joined Unilever Ceylon as a Management Trainee in the Foods R&D department and in a few months, I was appointed as the Quality Assurance Manager and within a short period of time I was promoted as the Corporate Quality Assurance Manager responsible for all four factories of Unilever. During this period, I was also nominated as a Regional Quality Auditor and within three years I was chosen as the Lead auditor and I was the first to hold this position from Asia from Unilever, where I gained a lot of exposure and led a team of three from different countries auditing Unilever operations around the world. This was an international role that I had to perform while carrying out my local company role as the head of R&D and Quality Assurance at Unilever Ceylon.
I was considered a high performer in the company and was sent overseas for an expatriation role in Hindustan Unilever Regional Innovation Centre in Bangalore for two years. The turning point of my career was when I returned to Sri Lanka in 2002 when the Supply Chain Director at the time invited me to join supply chain department. Although this was a totally new area for me, I felt the opportunities in supply chain were far greater to progress in my career and accepted the offer. I worked hard to understand the processes from the ground level and soon was given additional responsibilities in managing different areas of supply chain. In 2008 I was promoted to the Board responsible for supply chain at Unilever. I then followed an MBA at Postgraduate Institute of Management, of University of Sri Jayewardenepura. I am also a Certified Supply Chain Manager from International Supply Chain Education Alliance (ISCEA) USA. I am a Fellow of Institute of Supply and Materials Management (ISMM) and a Chartered member of Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT). After completing a five-year tenure at the Board, I took early retirement in 2013 to start my own consulting and lecturing career.
I got into supply chain by chance and being there I realized the important role that supply chains play in creating value in our lives and to society. The value it adds to an organization and to the economy is immense.
Since leaving corporate life my main missions had been to promote Supply Chain education in the country and to work on women empowerment.
Q: According to your perspective, how should a supply chain professional link their academic career with the professional career?
A: The term supply chain became known only in 1982. It is still at a nascent stage. After many years it is now recognized as a profession, and people have now started talking about it. The supply chain is relatively a new field in Sri Lanka. Yet, there are so many opportunities. In 2006, University of Moratuwa started an undergraduate degree program in Transport and Logistics Management and since then, many other universities have started programs at public and private universities at undergraduate and postgraduate levels.
Those who have become successful are the ones who have an external orientation while having a decent academic track record. The Industry looks for young supply chain professionals who have the right attitude and are all-rounders, not only the academic orientation. You need to be a part of professional bodies and engaged with other student societies to develop your personality.
I would say university education alone will not help you to achieve your career success. However, remember that the university will only give you a passport. You need to develop professional affiliations as well. You need to make the most from your internships where you will get the industry orientation. You will be exposed to real-life situations. How you react to the given situation will be based on how you tackle problems, your attitude towards it, and the exposure you get out of that. When I look back, if I were given another chance, I would have started it all over again being more externally oriented than what I used to be during the early stages of my career.
I joined Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT) in 2011 to get externally oriented and expand my industry network. Since then, I have been an active chartered member of CILT. I held the position of Vice-Chairperson of CILT for 4 years before being elected as the Chairperson of CILT in 2018 and held the position for 2 years. In 2013, I co-founded the women’s forum of CILT and Women in Logistics and Transport (WiLAT). I served for four years as the WiLAT Sri Lanka Chairperson. Later I was appointed as a Global WiLAT Vice Chairperson for South Asia. Last year, I was appointed as the Global WiLAT Chairperson for three years.
If someone wants to pursue a career in Supply Chain, first follow the relevant academic path. At the same time make sure to get involved in external oriented activities as well. If you are able to do that, there are ample opportunities available for you. By the time you enter the industry, this exposure would help you to make you stand out from others. Apart from that, you need to have a first-class attitude and a mindset. Problem-solving, analytical thinking, and good relationship orientations are very important skills required when working in supply chains. Do not consider language as a barrier, but work hard to learn language skills as it is an essential part. Be positive and passionate in whatever you embark upon. Anything is possible if you put your mind to it.
Q: How do you see the impact of COVID-19 on supply chain industry in Sri Lanka?
A: As I have mentioned before, supply chain is a bare necessity for anything that we do. If there is no supply chain, then there will be no life on this planet. When we were all confined to our homes during the lockdown, we know how much we were struggling to get things delivered to our doorstep. People were loosely using the word supply chain management without realizing how it can benefit the society and economy. That is why it is very important to understand what are the key drivers in managing a supply chain. People had to order stuff online. Although the younger generations are familiar with it, the older people had difficulties as they were not tech-savvy. The impact on the supply chain was quite huge. We did not have the support system needed around the country to do the delivery especially as the entire logistics setup was also disrupted.
People were hygiene conscious and did not want to venture out even after the lockdown was lifted. Therefore, food items, groceries, medicines had to be delivered to the doorstep. Even the financial supply chain was disrupted, and banks also had to come to our doorsteps, and we witnessed rationing withdrawals at ATMs.
Some banks used ‘Pick me’ to send money. Due to the adverse situation, people started to think differently compared to when things were operating smoothly. The supermarkets also had to upgrade their systems to cater to a large number of orders during this period. There was a resurgence in the e-commerce industry with a lot of small players in the neighborhood chipping in to supply the demand.
In view of the fast-spreading nature of the virus in different parts of the country, inter-district travel was prohibited and there was a shortage of labor to carry out transportation as well. This led to congestion in ports and airports. There was a huge backlog leading to shortages of materials and products in Sri Lanka.
There are a lot of inter-relationships and inter-dependencies in a supply chain. For example, the government gave approval for export companies and essential item deliveries during the lockdown period. Although LPG gas companies were given approval, they had not given approval for companies producing caps for gas cylinders, so the entire supply chain had to be taken into consideration for a smooth supply. Globally inventories were drying up as during pre-COVID times everyone’s focus was cost efficiency by working with fewer suppliers for scale advantage. Inventory was low in the pipeline. They did not consider the other risk factors. COVID-19 taught everyone to manage supply chain by focusing on risk factors to make supply chains agile and resilient. You may see Covid-19 as a Black Swan event and there is much to learn as we move along as this definitely is not the last of such events!
Sri Lanka is not a manufacturing-based economy. 52% of our economy is service-oriented. During this crisis, the government tried to locally manufacture products like masks but unfortunately, we had very limited raw material supply sources. COVID-19 created a major disruption to supply chains. If there is no visibility and end-to-end knowledge on your supply chain, it is very difficult to ascertain the impact.
In supply chain management we should have backup plans to ensure business continuity. China is the factory of the world and the disruption due to supplies from China had a huge impact globally as most countries were having their supply locations in China. Some countries are contemplating shifting operations out of China now to be closer to consumer markets. China+1 strategy is emerging in this backdrop. Globalized supply chains that took years to set up cannot be changed overnight. COVID-19 pandemic has expedited the trade shift towards nearshoring and onshoring.
Q: Why do you think that more women should pursue a career in supply chain management and logistics?
A: Female labor force participation in Sri Lanka is 36%. The global average is 48%. I was part of a task force to increase the female labor force participation in the private sector a few years back, where we looked at why women are not getting to the world of work. There are situations where women are willing to work but they are not given an opportunity due to societal pressures and various biases. These can be conscious and unconscious biases and also policy regulations in the country which prevents women from getting into what she is capable of. A person should be able to pick and choose the right role considering the areas that they can contribute irrespective of the gender.
When it comes to logistics, women are reluctant to do operational roles. At my final Unilever management trainee interview, I was asked whether I am willing to work in the factory which is all male and I would be the only female in the factory. I smiled and said that I came from an engineering background and I knew that I will have to work in a male dominant environment as not many females pursue a career in engineering and I have no qualms over that. My confident answer got me the job! I am a strong believer that gender should not define what you want to do and should not limit one’s aspiration.
Supply chains involve dealing with many stakeholders and managing relationships which is a key aspect. Women are known to have good emotional intelligence and are relationship builders. This makes them an ideal fit for supply chain management. Especially in situations like this COVID-19 pandemic, where it is very much important to have good supplier relationships to secure your supplies.
Once Jack Ma said when he was asked why he has 42% women in his company, he said that men are considered to be high in IQ while women are considered to be high in EQ. He also pointed out that women do things with love and care and women have high LQ, so he feels it is the right decision. In the future, people will be replaced by machines. But machines cannot manage emotions. This ability of women makes them a good fit for supply chains. We have seen women excelling in male-dominant environments in our country, for example, female gantry crane operators work in the port of Colombo which is the first in South Asia. It is important to mentor young women and give them the confidence to take up roles in supply chains. The logistics industry has only 3% women. However, through interventions we have made in WiLAT, we have seen an increase in females at 21% within CILT membership.
Q: Why has Sri Lanka not yet realized the value of supply chain management?
A: I do not think we have realized the value yet, mainly because the awareness is lacking about the field. There are only a handful of companies that have a department for supply chain let alone having a board position! Most companies do not have a separate supply chain management function and they are under finance or administration. We cannot derive benefits through supply chain activities if we do not have specialists managing the particular function in companies. Unlike before, now there are many qualified professionals in supply chain management. If you really feel the value of supply chain management for your company, you should identify supply chain as a function and recruit the right people who are qualified and can create value for the company.
We have many issues in the country due to poor supply chain management. Let me pick one area which is very important to our daily lives. Post-harvest loss of fruits and vegetables in our country is 30% to 40%, which is due to ineffective planning from seed to harvest till it reaches the end consumer. Improper transportation, storage facilities, and suboptimal packaging solutions, absence of value additions etc. are main issues that we face in supply chains. We spend Rs 200 billion on food imports. Also as per census data, we spend 52% of our salary on food which is way too high when compared with global data. There are many things that can be done about this issue. We need to reduce the wastage during transportation, storage, and packaging and have proper data on what to grow, when to grow, where to grow, and when to harvest. Also, we need to give the farmers visibility on market prices. If we can educate our farmers and train them on good agricultural practices and improve the end to end supply chain of Agri produce, we can control the wastage and reduce the importation of foods and the foreign exchange drain while improving our self-reliance on Agrifoods.
If the government is trying to reduce the cost of living, supply chain management is the area that they should focus on. We have a lot of capable individuals in the country to help in this. Qualified supply chain professionals will give the right inputs to solve these problems and create value. We must develop an interest in all aspects of supply chain management to create awareness at the school level. Once awareness is created, more school leavers will get interested to study supply chain management and enter the workforce.
Q: How would new technologies affect supply chain management?
A: Visibility and transparency are important aspects in supply chain management, especially when supply chains have now gone beyond borders and become international. Technology adaptation is crucial. It is essential to understand the opportunities for automating the supply chain. Most organizations are now adopting ERP solutions which is a good starting point. As supply chain professionals, we can use the positive aspects of technology to improve data mining and data scanning. There are other technologies like 3D printing, drones, and robotic operations that are being used in supply chain operations. I had the privilege of visiting the Amazon warehouse in Poland a few years back. It was simply amazing to see how the entire operation is handled by robots really efficiently. Only a handful of people were there only to feed the items to the mobile racks. Normally pickers go to the racks, in this case, racks are mobile.
Pandemic expedited digitalization and we saw Sri Lanka’s 130-year-old tea auction, which is the world’s oldest tea auction moving to an e-auction platform. Rubber and coconut auctions also went online. South Asia Gateway Terminals (Pvt) Ltd. adopted the blockchain technology for their operations by collaborating with TradeLens platform jointly developed by Maersk and IBM. Also, Atlas developed a robot to deliver medicine to the COVID-19 affected patients in the Homagama hospital. We saw a lot of companies pivoting using technology during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some companies are using drones to do stock counting in warehouses. However, the adaptation of technology is still at a lower level in Sri Lanka and that is simply because our labor cost is cheaper than technology. However, we see the adoption of GPS and RFID technology by companies for tracking deliveries and for inventory.
Q: How should an organization embed CSR in its organizational strategy?
A: I am a board member of CSR Lanka PVT (Ltd). Most people think that giving donations is CSR. That is charity. When organizations earn profits, they should consider people, the planet, and the profit which is called 3Ps. They should not only focus on profits but also on the impact on the environment as well as on society. Organizations must consider all three at the same time to achieve sustainability in the environment, society, and economics. We must look at CSR in a holistic manner. Your work must uplift the living standards of the society that you are impacting. For example, if you are in food retailing you may educate the farmers on good agricultural practices, offer a decent price to their produce, provide scholarships to farmer’s children, etc.
Strategic CSR means you embed and integrate your activities that are impacting society and the environment into the company strategy. You work with the stakeholders and support them to improve their standard of living while supporting the environment by minimizing resource depletion. CSR should not be an eyewash but carefully orchestrated meaningful actions that are embedded into the strategy and are part of the organizational DNA!
Q: What are the main objectives that you intend to achieve during your tenure as the Global Chairperson of Women in Logistics and Transport?
A: WiLAT is a relatively young organization that was set up as the women’s forum of CILT in 2013. CILT is a 101-year-old professional body headquartered in the UK present in 36 countries. Currently, WiLAT is present in 25 countries. Our main objective is to increase more women’s participation in our industry globally by promoting the art and science of supply chain, logistics, and transport. Our main objective is to drive our strategic agenda through leadership, mentorship, entrepreneurship, and empowerment.
I have identified five main priorities for my three-year tenure. Due to the low levels of women in the industry worldwide, growing the membership base is the first priority. We are also planning to broaden the confines of women who are limited to few sectors only. We want to attract members from all sectors such as maritime, aviation, land transport, and supply chain. The second priority is to increase the reach locally and globally. Last year four new countries, Bangladesh, Madagascar, Egypt, and Turkey joined the WiLAT family. South Korea, Oman, Kazakhstan, and Indonesia will be joining within this year. The third priority is to develop global partnerships. Capability building is another key priority. Being part of a professional body like CILT helps to develop programs. Finally, make sustainable living a way of life. Through these priorities, my intention is to develop a more capable group of women in the industry locally and globally and develop their leadership capabilities to take up higher roles.
Q: What is the advice that you can give out for women who are willing to hold positions in Supply chain management?
A: Logistics and Supply Chain industry involves long working hours, a physical effort at operational levels, perceived as male-dominated and female unfriendly. The general perception is that women are the weaker sex (which I do not agree with at all!) and cannot work in tough environments, so invariably they are being discouraged to join our industry. Sometimes, women also underestimate their capabilities and put barriers for themselves. Before you start a job, you need to understand whether this is a career that you want to get into. You should not get carried away with the conscious and unconscious biases and succumb to external pressures. If you like action and want to be challenged then supply chain is the place to be!
Supply chains fulfill the customer demand in organizations. This field is very exciting and you have a wide range of roles that you can fit into based on your preference such as procurement, demand planning, supply planning, manufacturing, logistics, customer service, etc. Supply chain management is all about managing upstream and downstream relationships. Women are good at managing relationships, have the ability to manage crisis situations, pay attention to detail, and are multi-taskers. These are skills that supply chain professionals should possess. The digitization of supply chains has become a great equalizer for women. This has enabled more women to overcome the barriers and work remotely with less physical effort and join the industry.
In WiLAT, we create awareness on career opportunities in supply chain among young females and mentor them in their career journey. This has really helped many to join the industry and face challenges with confidence.