SGS is one of those companies that operates on the periphery of public consciousness and yet provides a hugely essential service to countless industries. Though it may not be recognisable to the layperson, the global company has not only been around for more than 100 years, but is an essential facilitator of exports and imports across the world.
Steven Du, now Managing Director of SGS China, wasn’t familiar with the company before he started working with the group, but he was quickly impressed with the crucial services it provided. “What’s interesting is, before joining SGS, I had no idea about this industry, which we call the TIC industry – Testing, Inspection and Certification,” he says.
“After being in the company for a few months, I found what we offer is interesting, because what we do helps local manufacturers to fulfil international safety and quality standards. China is a big production base for many global businesses, and the services we offer help exporters and facilitate international trade.”
The company’s legacy stretches back to 1878, when some enterprising individuals in Europe began to inspect grain shipments on behalf of exporters. In 1919, the organisation was registered as Societe Generale de Surveillance in Geneva, and in the decades following, has expanded its customer base far beyond grain shipping.
From energy, oil and gas to construction, engineering and transportation, SGS supports many diverse customers. Steven has been with SGS for 20 years, so it’s fair to say that he now has a good understanding of the company. He spends his time touring SGS’s nearly 80 locations across China and Hong Kong, while meeting with senior clients.
Besides this, Steven sets strategic plans, charting SGS China’s expansion and growth. One of his most crucial tasks, however, is ensuring the SGS team prioritises supporting its customer base. “I always say to our sales staff, our business people, that the goal of our services is to help our customers to win, to be successful,” he says.
“The goal of our services is to help our customers to win, to be successful.”
“Otherwise our service won’t be sustainable. The value we are adding to our customer is safer products, higher quality or improved quality control systems. We help them shorten the time from product development to market, or we help them facilitate the trading, export or import.”
Though it broadly services both importers and exporters, Steven says there’s been a shift in SGS’s client base. Where once it was more focused around assisting local manufacturers in exporting to the US or Europe, there’s recently been more emphasis on small to medium international importers into China.
In aid of this, SGS China participated in the first China International Importer Expo, and will have a booth in the upcoming Expo this year. Despite the shift, there’s still a focus on local manufacturers, due to a national drive towards quality.
“Because of growth in the middle class, the people are expecting better-quality products, so the government is emphasising upgrades to quality,” Steven explains. “In this regard, we have a lot to contribute. We ensure the product design meets specific quality standards and regulations by inspecting, testing and auditing to evaluate product performance. All these services will contribute towards improving product quality.”
Steven has been with SGS China for five years, after a brief spell in Vietnam. Over the past three years, the company has seen a growth rate higher than that of the GDP. Steven hopes the team can maintain that momentum, thereby exceeding estimates.
At the same time, he believes any company, no matter how influential, is a small part of the economy, and needs to align with that economy. In particular, he hopes to work alongside China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ policy, an economic effort to connect China with Europe, as well as Oceania and Africa, via land and sea.
“If company strategy can align with national strategy,” Steven says, “it’s much easier to be successful. “Another important strategy is diversification. We’re not just serving a few industries, we’re serving a huge group of industries. Sometimes it’s a cycle; one industry will go up and others will go down, but with a diversification strategy these ups and downs can be evened out. Another of our strategies is staying active. We need to look ahead at trends. For example, we’re not waiting for 5G to be fully deployed to invest in the 5G testing capacities of our facilities.”
An equally valuable skill for Steven is the development of people within the organisation. He believes developing the skills of younger employees is critical, aiming to make them the “future stars of the company”.
SGS China’s HR division organises talent programs, while Steven himself makes the effort to support employee development. Though SGS welcomes hundreds of new staff on board each month, Steven says he still makes the effort to meet as many of them as possible. “Critical to remaining a leader is the people,” he says.
“To see both the business and the people succeed is a huge return.”
“The most enjoyable thing I see is people developing their talents. They can take management positions. They’re even able to take on full project management with sub-units. That small thing might be one of my biggest achievements. At SGS, we give a lot of freedom to the management staff to let them run the business. Once they can create good business trends, the company will support them to continue this. To see both the business and the people succeed is a huge return.
“As an individual, I don’t think I make a very big contribution. To me, it’s all about the platform. The company gives us the freedom to act, and the team is very important. We have a solid and stable core team and, to me, that’s the most critical factor to be successful. Nothing can be achieved by myself alone. We have a strong team in China.”