French by birth, Stephane Coum has had his fair share of international leadership experience. From Turkey to Malaysia to Italy, he has most recently settled in Bangkok, Thailand as CEO of Central Food Retail Group (CFG). “This proposition was exciting,” he recalls.
“I told myself that it was time for a new challenge.” Stephane says a career abroad teaches you to walk, speak and think differently; you see yourself as a guest in a new country. “You discover new things and must observe what’s happening,” he explains.
“As a leader, you must ask yourself, ‘Why is the company organised like that? Is it due to the culture of the company or the culture of the country?’” In the first 100 days following each new move, Stephane begins to understand his team.
He asks his team to teach him about the company, why it is the way it is, and begins his discovery plan and strategy. When he arrived in Thailand in 2019, CFG was set up in a different aggregation of companies. The first thing he decided to do was implement a simple, open organisational structure.
“I observed and saw how different businesses worked together,” he recalls. “It meant I could create synergy for the strategic areas. For example, now we are speaking about one marketing team across the board. It will help us to be more customer-oriented and to focus our energy on new product creation and a new partnership with our suppliers.”
I believe we can become not just a retail food company, but a social food company.
Reorganising the company occurred just in time. Because of the new omnichannel the company has developed, it has better handled the COVID-19 pandemic. “It is easier technically and operationally but, at the same time, customers can find our services on multiple channels,” Stephane explains.
“For example, you can phone and shop, which means that you contact a call centre and give your different orders by phone and then all your orders are sent to your house. We also have something called Chat & Shop, where customers can chat, ask questions, get advice and purchase their products through an instant messaging service. We have Click & Collect with various pick-up points, and a contactless drive-through where customers can stay in their car and get shopping delivered to them. We are also on GrabFood and GrabMart to accelerate our omnichannel experience.”
These initiatives didn’t exist before 2019, but Stephane made it a priority to implement them. The company has had great success during the pandemic. “When I set up this strategy, I didn’t plan a disruption like this virus has caused,” he reflects.
“But it will help me to think about the new organisation of the company post-crisis. We need to honour the differences in the world and reorganise the relationship with our customers. I’m thinking about a further reset of the organisation to become a stronger part of the food position in Thailand in the future.”
Stephane believes that in the wake of the pandemic, people would like to be more engaged and really be part of a community. “This is what I try to express to my team, to continue to develop a family mindset inside the company,” he says.
“We need to be more people-oriented and have a clear vision of what could become of the new modern world. The new generation will care more and more about the environment, about the earth. And these causes we’ve already been engaged in for the past five years will accelerate.”
The team is working on a quality food line project, where product transparency will not be only about the ingredients, but also about what percentage of the selling price goes back to the farmer.
“It’s what customers are expecting from me,” Stephane explains. He also believes the industry will see an increase in market consolidation, and in the long-term, companies will reconsider the supply chain organisation.
“We would like to be more agile and to create a flexible stock format,” Stephane says. “Before, when you were visiting stores, they were bricks-and-mortar, and the stock was moving offline only. The customer will continue to buy much more online and stores will move towards online hubs, and we need to consider how we can change the layout of the stores immediately.”
Three months ago, Stephane would have described his customer as one who liked to enjoy their shopping experience with fresh, imported items, which make up 25% of the company’s sales.
But he has noticed a significant disruption in the way that a customer is consuming today.
“We can see that community commitment is more important and Thai consumers are trying to be more responsive to the farmers and each other,” Stephane reveals.
“Customers are thinking more about societal impact and how they can support their fellow citizens. It’s the reason we’re supporting more organisations in the community who help people facing difficulties during the pandemic. People are reverting to more frugal shopping behaviours. They are buying more commodities. It’s the reason I launched a lock-price campaign.”
For 90 days, CFG locked its prices to support the consumers. “During the lockdown, more people began eating at home,” Stephane says. “There was no eating out. So we used digital platforms where customers could communicate with other consumers and with us concerning the future of society. Retail food is a new platform where customers can share their ideas about the new world.”
Before it was a society of consumption. But because of the crisis, there has been a more reasonable consumption and this impacts the way customers are shopping. “They want to know the traceability of the product,” explains Stephane.
“They want to know where the product came from and how the product was grown by the farmer. And we need to ensure total transparency concerning all the products we sell at the store level. We are moving from globalisation to a geographical position and local consumption.”
The company’s original target was to become the leader of the food experience. It developed a store format named Central Food Hall that is a food destination and a leader in customer experience. Now, Stephane wants to add a more responsible food experience.
“We need to support our customers by moulding the products to suits their needs,” he insists. “They are buying healthier products. And during and after COVID-19, the customer’s health will become more important to them.”
Stephane believes that amid a pandemic is the time to be more agile and flexible. All of CFG’s stores were previously offline only. Now, workers at the store support centre are much more flexible in their work.
“They don’t have only one position, one job,” Stephane says. “At the store level, they can switch from the offline position to the online location. It’s essential right now. We need to be flexible in the functions that we are operating today.
“We need to work in anticipation of the future. One of the main targets for us in CFG is to prepare all the employees to have a strong mindset concerning change. When they’ve been working for 20 years with the same habit, it’s difficult to ask people to change. This is one of the human resource team’s responsibilities: to develop training about agility.”
This means training employees to accept that one day they could work in the marketing team, then support the online fulfilment centre the next.
“In this organisation, we don’t have any borders between the different departments; everyone supports each project. We have only one common motivation, which is to meet the customer’s expectation.”
Stephane notes that the world is in a volatile situation right now, which means business is unpredictable. “The reality of today could be different tomorrow,” he says.
“There is uncertainty about what is happening, and when you aren’t sure, the most important value in the company is your employees and your customers. We are now focusing on them. Bringing them more happiness and support during these days and in the future is my priority.”
At its heart, the CFG is a family business. Its vision is simply to improve the lives of its customers and their experience across not only in the food business, but in hospitality and shopping businesses too.
We’re committed to being a driving force in supporting the government to minimise food waste and food poverty.
“The most important thing is how we can leverage the customer experience with innovation and sustainability,” Stephane says.
“Inside the company, we have created a shared value project, thanks to the different foundations that we have as a company. In 2019, we worked on optimising the food waste and how we can distribute any surplus food in our stores to associations around the community.
“The second project was how to support the farmers’ markets, and the third is how to get rid of plastic bags. We were one of the first companies in Thailand to highlight this; to increase the usage of re-usable shopping bags in Thailand.”
The company also commits to supporting vulnerable citizens. “We’re committed to being a driving force in supporting the government to minimise food waste and food poverty,” Stephane explains.
“We have a clear motivation in the Group to support the economy to bring a better GDP and standard of living for all Thai people.” Stephane encourages his colleagues to think of different ways to support the customers, as well as other colleagues.
“The more you’re open to this world, the more people will give you back this love and support,” he explains. “Customers are the heart of our story. All our store formats – Central Food Hall, Tops market, FamilyMart and Matsumoto Kiyoshi – provide strong support for elderly citizens. We support all the different communities who need help in their activities.”
The company has one target: to deliver the best service and the best quality to all its customers. “I believe we can become not just a retail food company, but a social food company,” Stephane beams.
“We need to develop a community that people are happy to live in. And before creating that environment for our customers, I try to develop it with all our employees. It’s not easy because it’s something new for our industry. But my daily motivation is to create this feeling; to be a part of a big family.”
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