Volunteer, CEO, crusader against food insecurity, mother of four – Nichol Ng wears an impressive number of hats. Now, global leadership community YPO has given her another: she’s been named Global Impact Regional Honoree for the Southeast Asia Region. Ng’s tireless efforts in the field of food distribution, mainly through her work with The Food Bank Singapore (FBSG), earned her the nod, and she says it’s an honour to represent her Asian heritage.
“As a business leader, you have to be honest, inspirational, aspirational. Sometimes there’s too much sugar-coating, but by being very real, my employees feel it’s OK to be genuinely themselves.”
“I hope that winning this award can influence others to take that tiny step and consider the impact they should be creating as well,” Ng says. “I think it’s also important for a Chinese lady to show she can do something so impactful amid drastic changes in the world’s dynamics.”
In a way, the win is a culmination of Ng’s life work. Every chapter of her career has been dedicated to unseating that most nimble of the four horsemen – famine. As CEO of X-Inc, Ng is in charge of an US$57.7 million food distribution and logistics company; it’s also the family business, and one she’s worked hard to build over the past 20 years. “In 2002, my dad asked me to help him digitise the business. I’ve been here ever since,” she says.
After five years with the business, Ng acquired it and transformed it into one of Singapore’s biggest food distribution networks. “We serve over 5,000 food and beverage establishments from Shake Shack to KFC, and we’re a distributor for large international brands like Unilever and Nestle.”
Champion of Change
It was through working with these multinationals that Ng became aware of the excessive amount of wastage going on in the industry. “The traditional thought was that you only start doing charity work when you’re filthy rich,” she says. “But I had a very different mindset; my wealth doesn’t define what impact I can create in my industry and the world at large.”
Having decided to be a champion of change, and in the absence of any apparent action by the larger players in Singapore, Ng instructed her drivers to pick up excess food during their runs. “We started using extra warehouse space to store donations; we didn’t charge anyone for anything,” she recalls. “My dad would tell me I was wasting the drivers’ time.”
Even worse, Ng’s eldest uncle gave her a corporate death sentence upon her arrival at the company. “He actually gave me a year to survive the business,” she says. “Because chief executives, current traders and wholesalers, CEOs and directors, they’re mostly male-driven. Even in Singapore today, I’m still one of the few female leaders in the business.”
Once the operation hit the five-year mark, however, things began to get serious. “Everybody started to realise the impact of what we were creating and suddenly, nobody was questioning anything,” she says.
Except the clients, that is. One of them, a large supermarket chain, initially rebuffed Ng’s advances on financial grounds. “The CEO told me it was cheaper to dump excess food. They saw food donation as an expensive exercise,” she says. “Two years ago, that same chain inked a contract with us to run active campaigns and pledge all their excess food to us. It took eight years, but we convinced them.”
“Everybody started to realise the impact of what we were creating and suddenly, nobody was questioning anything.”
Even the biggest companies, such as Nestle and Unilever, didn’t have food donation policies when Ng started her journey. “But we’ve done a lot to champion the cause and we’ve been very open and candid in the media in calling out other businesses to step up and do more, and they have.”
And impossibly, so has Ng. As President of ONE (Singapore) she works to raise awareness of poverty at home and abroad and fights to end it. X-Inc and ONE even hold a pair of annual food drives designed to help hungry Singaporeans.
Never one to rest on her laurels, Ng felt more could be done. “My brother and I knew how much food was still being thrown away, and there are still hungry people out there,” she says.
In 2012, the siblings founded FBSG, the first of its kind in Singapore. “We started with redistributing two tonnes of excess food,” she says. “In 2020, at its peak, we handled 1,600 tonnes of food.”
Close to 370 charity organisations around the world are beneficiaries of FBSG’s considerable efforts, which take the form of everything from soup kitchens to door-to-door hampers. “My kids think I’m a full-time food banker,” Ng laughs. “But I spend a lot of time getting them, and other children, involved because I felt there was a distinct lack of opportunity for very young children to start volunteering. It’s certainly brought my family closer together.”
An Honest Leader
At this point, you’d be forgiven for wondering just how it is Ng is able to keep so many plates spinning. Her answer is, simply, honesty. “As a business leader, you have to be honest, inspirational, aspirational. Sometimes there’s too much sugar-coating, but by being very real, my employees feel it’s OK to be genuinely themselves,” she says.
This philosophy is at the heart of a company culture Ng says has drastically reduced the average age of the team. “We’ve got so many young interns coming to us because they feel our business is just so interesting,” she says.
With so much at stake, Ng is showing no sign of slowing down. “If Singapore has such a rich, tight-knit and big-hearted population, why haven’t we eradicated food insecurity? I’m very confident that by harnessing today’s platforms, technology and innovation, we can certainly reduce 90 per cent of that insecurity, if not 100 per cent,” she says. “We can even feed people better through healthier choices and enable them to break the poverty cycle.”
It’s the kind of optimism that’s not only earned Ng the YPO’s latest honour, but has defined her career. “My uncle was wrong; I’m still here 20 years on. I think I must have gotten something right,” Ng says. “I really hope that I continue to inspire others, female and male, that despite being a parent and juggling business and personal commitments, we can still create an impact for good for the world around us.”