CEO of Retail Business at FairPrice Group
Elaine Heng becomes emotional as she recounts an incident just last month. It had been the end of a difficult week for the chief executive officer (Retail Business) of FairPrice Group, and the caller on the line sounded hesitant, unfamiliar.
To Heng’s surprise, the “wrong number” turned out to be a customer – and one she was familiar with. The woman, a widow who lived on her own, had become especially close to staff manning the FairPrice on Wheels van outside her home and Heng had personally gifted the older woman a set of her favourite colouring books just weeks earlier.
“She wrote a poem in Mandarin, recited it and made me paper flowers as well. It struck an emotional chord with me, in terms of what we do and the impact it has,” says Heng, eyes glistening at the memory.
Poignant encounters with customers are part and parcel of her work with FairPrice, which is grounded in its founding social mission to moderate the cost of living in Singapore. Heng worked in banking for two decades before joining FairPrice in 2016, where she is responsible for its overall business strategy, management and success of its chains of supermarkets, hypermarkets, pharmacies and convenience stores.
“In terms of ensuring our producers and farmers, for instance, stay motivated, a sustainable food system has to be one that cares about people, the planet and profit,” says Heng, whose projects rethink traditional retail.
These include the openings of a FairPrice Xtra with a unique, multi-zone concept featuring vegetables that are grown and harvested in-store in Vivocity and FairPrice Finest at two condominium complexes – ARTRA, next to Redhill MRT Station, and Le Quest in Bukit Batok West – that retail curated offerings such as ready-to-cook meals, artisanal bakes and a wider range of “free-form” products, as well as provide concierge services.
Just like other businesses, Covid-19 proved the ultimate stress test for the group, too. On Feb 7, word leaked that Singapore would raise its DORSCON level to orange. “All hell broke loose,” Heng says candidly, describing the panic buying that followed. Fortunately, FairPrice had earlier diversified its supply sources to over 100 countries – supplementing, for example, its Malaysian egg supply with those from Poland and Ukraine. Also, contract farms in Chiangmai shipped over vegetables when flights were disrupted.
Purchase volumes more than tripled and FairPrice went from five warehouses to building 26 more – one of which was built in an “unheard-of” five days. “When Covid-19 struck, it was all hands on deck,” says Heng, who also faced having the first employee – from a Bedok outlet – to be diagnosed with the virus.
“Frankly, there’s no playbook for this,” says Heng, for whom a key concern is the safety of FairPrice’s mature workforce and customers. To give the vulnerable access to daily essentials at the height of the pandemic, FairPrice on Wheels or specially outfitted grocery vans were deployed to selected mature estates. Heng says this initiative was inspired by old-school “roti vans”. These have since been upgraded.
To enhance food security, FairPrice also carries over 6,500 locally-produced products and has committed $2 million to its SME Suppliers Support and Development Programme this year that will benefit some 470 SME suppliers.
On the zero-waste front, the retailer has just announced that it is extending its super-successful No Plastic Bag initiative, which saw 15.6 million plastic bags saved, and nearly 8 million bring-your-own-bag transactions made. What’s more, unsold wholesome food is redistributed to over 30 charities and slightly-blemished but perfectly good fruits and vegetables are repackaged and sold at a lower price to reduce food waste.
Last year, FairPrice launched a $1 million Sustainability Fund, which aims to address sustainability issues through supporting innovative ideas and initiatives, fostering strategic partnerships, building awareness and public education.
“It’s about making a difference in people’s lives,” says Heng, when asked about her definition of success. “Even if it’s just that one person, that’s success to me.”
Browse previous years’ lists here