Every year, The Singapore Women’s Weekly shines a spotlight on inspiring women who are shaping our world. We call them the Great Women of Our Time. In 2022 the list includes Elaine Heng, who is CEO of FairPrice Group’s retail business as well as Deputy Group CEO of FairPrice Group, which includes NTUC FairPrice, Kopitiam, NTUC Foodfare and NTUC Link. She shares what it’s like running a huge, multi-faceted business and how it’s possible to balance all this with family.
If anyone thought FairPrice was just about groceries, they’d be very very wrong. Especially upon speaking to Elaine Heng, a woman who juggles two roles as the CEO of FairPrice Group’s retail business and Deputy Group CEO of FairPrice Group.
After a 20 year career in banking, Elaine made the decision to join FairPrice Group five years ago. “It wasn’t a decision I made lightly,” she recalls. “I had a long career in banking where I’d taken up different leadership roles, mostly in consumer banking, including Chief of Staff to the Group CEO in London. When I thought about switching, I looked at what transferable skills I could bring – and putting people first has always been my focus.”
WATCH OUR VIDEO:
Elaine speaks to playwright and lawyer Amanda Chong.
Elaine was also very much drawn to FairPrice’s social mission and giving back to society. “It has a beautiful ecosystem of Doing Well and Doing Good,” she says. “When we deliver on the business in financial performance, everything gets poured back into the community and society. I feel very strongly about giving back to society and how to impact lives to make a difference.” She also adds with a laugh, “And I love supermarket shopping! There has to be a passion point when looking at a new job. I love visiting supermarkets when I go overseas and seeing what’s new. So when the FairPrice role came about, I was excited about it.”
In a short five years, Elaine has helped spearhead innovative practices and transformation at the company. One such initiative, which was borne out of the need to better serve seniors during the circuit breaker period at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, is FairPrice On Wheels.
“When the government announced the circuit breaker period in 2020 and people were filling up their trolleys with essentials and bulky items like noodles, bags of rice and toilet paper, we were concerned about elderly customers having to stand in line at stores or jostle with the crowd, especially seeing the number of Covid-19 cases reported every day. We wanted to bring our supermarket to elderly customers instead of having them come to us – that is how FairPrice On Wheels was born,” Elaine explains.
“We identified estates with a higher concentration of seniors, then curated a list of daily essential items and brought the supermarket to them via specially outfitted trucks. This initiative was widely lauded by the community and we started receiving requests from various estates for our vans to serve their residents. The trucks even served the healthcare workers at Changi General Hospital for a period, to ensure the needs of our healthcare workers were also being met. To date, we have served 22 estates. To me, this shows how we collectively work together – to innovate and create magic for customers”
Naturally, joining a new company has not been without its challenges, as with all transitions. “But for me, when there are moments of doubt, I always go back to the purpose and what fundamentally drives my decision. For me, it is about making an impact and serving the community. My colleagues, especially at the frontline, demonstrate this daily. They have so much pride in their jobs and this inspires me. I have never been in an organisation where people have stayed upwards of 40 years. I think it really speaks a lot about the organisation and how much of a family it is. So when I think about doubts, or having to unlearn what you’ve learnt in a different space, there’s always a strong support system here to get you by.”
And this was even more important given the Covid-19 pandemic hit hard, three years into her time at the company. “I’ve been very moved by the courage and the resilience of my colleagues,” she says. “They work tirelessly, long hours, rain or shine, with masks on, keeping shelves stocked and ensuring our stores remain open and ready to serve customers. Our product teams also have to source from more than 100 countries to diversify food sources and ensure there’s no disruption to our food resiliency. For me, this is how we turn a crisis into opportunities to serve.”
“When the pandemic struck, there was no playbook for the extreme levels of panic buying we saw. Singapore imports the bulk of our food, and to have disrupted supplies across the globe was a major issue. While we had contingencies and business continuity measures in place, no one could have predicted such an extreme scenario. Standard operating procedures were insufficient and we had to be agile, think on our feet and reconfigure everything. I’m proud that despite the odds, we were able to minimise out-of-stock situations and ensure essentials remained available and affordable for all.”
Elaine also believes in the importance of mentoring and makes time to coach the next generation of leaders. “One of the things I do is mentor other young leaders in various industries. I had a very strong and supportive mentor who has journeyed with me for 15 years. She once told me, “We are here because we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, so let us do what we can to pave the way for others”. This has served me well when I look at what I can do to support other talents and individuals.
With two children, a son and daughter aged 10 and 12 respectively, Elaine works hard to balance work-life and family life. “At different stages, the needs of your children evolve,” she muses. “So when they were young, I had to ensure I was around any time of the day. But now that they’re older, it’s more on their terms. So now it’s about how I make myself available when they need me or they’re ready to open up to talk.”
Elaine’s solution for this is to ringfence her time. “Between 7pm and 8.30pm I don’t take meetings and will get back to work when they go to bed. If I have to work, I make sure I make up for those nights at a different time. I also start my day very early to balance the time.” As a mother with a busy career, she has always seen it as a juggling act. “Did I have to work hard to balance everything? Definitely. Ultimately it requires very deliberate methods, and honest and open conversations with the people you work with. This also sets the tone for the people and colleagues who work with me.” A strong support system is also important, she acknowledges, “My mother helps with the kids during the week, which gives me great peace of mind when I go to work. I am extremely grateful to my parents who have provided me with this strong support system through the years.”
She notes how office environments are changing and how this can benefit working mothers. “It’s not about being seen in the office anymore; there’s more empowerment and trust. All my bosses have been extremely supportive and understanding. They know that giving this form of empowerment actually brings out the best in people.”
With regards to empowering her children, she looks to impart a strong work ethic, the importance of giving back to society and community and a sense of commitment to see things through. “I think the biggest gift we can give our children is to help them find something they enjoy doing that plays to their strengths… this way, they will not have to “work” a single day of their lives,” she says. Elaine hopes to show her children they can have both family and career. “I feel that for them, knowing that they can have a demanding job and a family and make that work, is important to me. Family and work – both worlds bring out the best in each other.”