Antonio Lam has always been committed to his father. So, when he was asked to lead the family air freight ground logistics business, there was not a second of hesitation. Despite working at a finance company and running his own business, Antonio always had plans to return to Forward Transportation Company. “In my heart, I wanted to keep the relationship with my father,” he reflects.
Growing up, Antonio didn’t see much of his father, who was busy building up the company that Antonio would one day take over. “There was not much time to hang out with the kids. So, I committed and made a promise that, someday, I would come back,” he says.
“In Asian families, we have a practice that the father will give the company to the son.” But it wasn’t easy for Antonio. “While I was at the finance company, I was receiving recognition and building a team. Then, suddenly, my father said, “I’m tired. I want to retire.”
It wasn’t until realising that he didn’t have to start again that he began to feel more prepared. “The platform was built in 1975. Our company has the longest history in airfreight ground logistics,” he says.
But taking over a well-established company at 25 amid a financial crisis was not easy. “I took over the company one month before the financial tsunami in 2008,” he says. “I took the greatest financial course of my life. I was very attentive. At 25, I had no management experience.”
“I took the greatest financial course of my life. I was very attentive. At 25, I had no management experience.”
Suddenly, at the end of 2008, Forward Transportation lost CEVA Logistics – a critical account. The company was also facing around HK$1 million (US$128,000) per month in deficit. “I felt terrible because of what happened,” he says. “I didn’t know what to do.”
To recover the company, Antonio and the team searched for another big client, but to no avail. “This is one of my life lessons. We had no choice but to lay off the staff. They had been with us for many years, so it was a big hit for us.”
After five years of 15-hour days, major company restructuring and enforcement of technology, clients gradually began to trust and partner with Forward Transportation again. “I put a lot of effort into developing warehousing and transportation systems,” Antonio explains.
“How could we survive such a deficit for so many years, you may ask? The key is, my father trusted me to invest. Therefore, we could receive a strong backup by the bank.
“After six to seven years of turning the company around, we were at our peak. I was managing 600 staff and turning over about HK$200 million (US$25.7 million) a year. I was 32. This is one of the milestones in my life.”
The next milestone will be to develop the first automated warehouse for the air freight industry. “Our industry is labour intensive. We use a lot of manpower to serve the handling procedures,” Antonio says. “I want to develop an automated warehouse so we can reduce many human errors, and the workforce, decreasing costs.”
Leading the company through thick and thin, Antonio is now ready for any setback. But one challenge which will always be there is staff. “The most difficult entity to manage is human,” he notes.
“In our industry, there are different stages of management. Also, most employees possess minimal education. Therefore, they struggle to manage their emotions and attitudes. These are widespread problems.”
Antonio, who studied psychology at university, believes in the power of communication. “I love understanding people,” he says. He encourages staff to attend psychological and personality training so they can learn more about themselves.
“I promised myself and my management team that I would provide more benefits and allowances to my staff than other competitors. Since they have a low level of education, their money is key,” Antonio explains.
“There is not only one way to succeed.”
Alongside company benefits and ensuring a healthy work–life balance, Antonio says a good leader inspires staff to communicate and share their opinions. “I don’t like micromanagement,” he says.
Instead, Antonio wants to encourage. He aims to influence employees to figure out the answers on their own, to be confident and form their own opinions. He adds, “There is not only one way to succeed.” When employers succeed, they’ll feel “confident and self-recognised”, he says, adding that he wants his team to feel that Forward Transportation is their business too.
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