Name: Willis Phua
Company: Jardine Schindler Lift Co Ltd
Position: General Manager (Myanmar)
Brief Background Summary:
Willis received his executive education at Harvard University and has worked for Schindler for nine years. He served in differ-ent roles in Singapore and Vietnam before coming to Myanmar.
MI: When was the first time you visit-ed Myanmar?
I first visited Myanmar in 2012 with the Remaining the number one lift brand in Myanmar: Willis Phua interviewed by Charlie Greene management team of Schindler Singapore to discuss details of Schindler Myanmar’s business expansion. As the Director of In-stallations at Schindler Singapore, I had the opportunity to examine various areas of op-erations, ranging from technical to operation support, to which my Singapore team could contribute.
MI: What was your experience back then?
My first experience was very positive – even inspirational. On my first trip to Myanmar, I saw the obvious commitment and willing-ness to listen among our Burmese colleagues. They made genuine efforts to understand the practices in other countries, and adapt them to their work here.
My impression of the Burmese was that they were very friendly and positive people who were eager to learn. Having the opportunity to learn new skills and develop themselves seemed to drive their work.
One particular incident that touched me deeply was the case of a Schindler Myanmar employee who had been fighting cancer for several months. Days before he passed away, he asked his visiting colleagues to bring him a brand new Schindler uniform to wear during his final rites. He was proud of Schin-dler, a company to which he had dedicated 13 years of his life, and he wished to leave the world decorated in its uniform. I was deeply moved by the spirit of these people who take such great pride in their work.
MI: What are your impressions of the country now? There is great potential for development in all sectors of business in Myanmar. Schin-dler has operated in the country since 1999, and for 15 years of those years, has func-tioned as a 100% foreign-owned entity. We have been present here during good times and bad, reflecting both our commitment to the country and our belief in its future.
We are dedicated to building a strong team in Myanmar and providing employment opportunities for local Burmese people. In-stead of hiring expatriates, we are investing in people and capital to build a strong foun-dation for future expansion. For example, we have sent Burmese staff for overseas train-ing on more than 20 occasions in the past eight months alone. We have also brought in an experienced technical trainer from Sin-gapore to assist in bolstering the technical skills of our technicians.
MI: Is it easier to settle in as far as business is concerned, given that Schindler was established as a ful-ly-owned foreign company 15 years ago?
Schindler has indeed developed strong roots in Myanmar since entering the market 15 years ago. Our passion for quality and pre-cision engineering has driven us to a leading position in the Myanmar lift and escalator market. Customers have come to rely on Schindler to provide excellent customer ser-vice and premium quality.
With a rapidly growing portfolio, my focus is to build up the technical capabilities and capacities of our people, allowing us to deliv-er a consistently high level of service to our growing customer base. I strongly believe in providing what customers really need; that is, the highest quality products, installations and customer service. That is what Schindler is committed to delivering in Myanmar. As we progress towards that goal, we have al-ready grown into a sizable company of more than 100 people, compared to only 30 just a couple of years ago.
MI: How does working in Myanmar under the present business climate compare with other Asian countries?
I do not believe there is a single country in Asia whose economic and political landscapes are as unique as those of Myanmar. Being in Myanmar at this stage in its devel-opment is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The country is a genuine “last frontier”. Few other countries present such robust and ex-citing growth potential.
MI: What are the challenges with the local workforce?
How do you address these? The main workforce challenge lies in the shortage of experienced people. The market has boomed in a short time and demand for the best people is increasing as companies compete for the most skilled employees. Therefore, as well as hiring people from the market, we are also training fresh graduates and developing people internally.
We also offer apprenticeship training schemes, whereby we train first-year ap-prentices to carry out lift installations un-der the supervision of senior technicians. Subsequently, the apprentices lead the final installations with strict requirements to ob-tain high QC (quality control) scores. These trainees are deployed as permanent staff members only if they are able to achieve this high standard. The process helps instill in every new employee the importance that Schindler places on quality.
In addition to fair monetary rewards, I be-lieve that there are three important factors for employee retention: 1) we must provide a sufficiently challenging scope of work; 2) we must create a positive work environment; and 3) we must ensure that managers plan for each employee’s career advancement. In Schindler, we also provide free English lessons, computer classes and various insur-ances as part of our overall approach to staff retention.
MI: What are the benefits of doing business in Myanmar now, compared with 15 years ago?
Myanmar has unique market dynamics and promises strong growth potential. With bright economic prospects and a high num-ber of planned projects in the pipeline, the Myanmar elevator and escalator market will undoubtedly continue to experience impres-sive growth. By upholding our values, we hope that we will continue to capture a sig-nificant portion of this growth market. In addition, the company’s rate of growth is helping Jardine Schindler Myanmar to be-come a more significant contributor within the overall Jardine Schindler Group.
MI: What effect do you think that the sudden influx of foreign companies/ nationals will have on the country and its people/culture?
Myanmar people can now experience a world of opportunities. To benefit from these opportunities, they will need to retain their hunger for learning and develop additional skill sets.
In the short term, both foreign and local cultures will need to learn from each other and adapt accordingly. In the long run, due to their willingness to learn, the Burmese people’s skills and knowledge in areas such as business management, finance, vertical transportation technology and safety aware-ness, will improve.
MI: If anything could be introduced quickly (for example, over the next 6 months) to improve doing business here, what measure(s) would you choose to implement?
Specifically for construction, it would be beneficial to introduce laws governing con-struction safety.
Schindler places high emphasis on the safe-ty of our employees on construction sites. We operate a strict health and safety policy to promote the wellbeing of our employees and to maximize safety in the workplace. For example, we realized that there is a lack of established regulations governing scaffold safety in Myanmar. To solve this, we sent our Burmese safety officer to Singapore for training and certification on scaffold and construction safety, by the Singapore au-thorities. We subsequently introduced and continue to apply the same safety standards here in Myanmar.
MI: Are there any other risks that you see for the economy?
There is a continued need for infrastructure development to accommodate the country’s rapid economic expansion. Other funda-mental issues, such as the creation of suit-able legal and banking systems, are still un-der development.
However, I am convinced that the Govern-ment is open and truly wishes to address these issues as best it can in the interests of its people.
MI: What are the company’s long-term objectives? Our goal is to remain the number one lift brand in Myanmar in terms of customer service. Our company vision is “Leadership through Customer Service,” and we are con-tinuously looking for ways to raise the bar in delivering this vision.
For example, as we assess the growth of the lift and escalator market, we seek to expand beyond our current offices in the main cities of Yangon, Mandalay and Nay Pyi Taw in or-der to better serve our customers. This will help to bring our service closer to the cus-tomers we serve.
MI: What tips would you like to pass on regarding what to consider when choosing a lift?
Schindler has operated as an elevator and es-calator company since 1874, and each of our lifts is designed and manufactured according to very stringent international standards. All of our products undergo strict safety inspec-tion tests to ensure their quality and per-formance prior to being handed over to our customers.
In addition to product quality, it is important to look at whether the company can deliver on its promises. For example, does the com-pany have a strong project and maintenance fulfillment team? Are its service personnel responsive whenever I need them? Or is it just a distributorship that offers low actual accountability when you require its support? Buying a lift is an investment for the next 25 years, and it is critical to work with a compa-ny that is innovative, responsive, and com-mitted to safety.
MI: With the benefit of hindsight, would you have done anything differ-ently when you started, and why?
Part of the attraction of taking up the chal-lenge of working in a fast-growing, dynamic country like Myanmar is the opportunity to “live and breathe” the experiences it has to offer. Therefore, as I build on the strength of our existing operations here, I embrace each opportunity to learn and further improve our performance.
MI: From a business standpoint, what do you feel are the biggest chal-lenges facing you and your organiza-tion in Myanmar in the next 1-3 years?
The shortage of experienced manpower means that the industry as a whole will face challenges, such as building up fulfillment capabilities and technical expertise, to keep up with construction demand. Schindler is doing everything possible today to meet our objective of leading the market through cus-tomer service and quality. For the same reason, our focus is on upgrad-ing our technical fulfillment capability by recruiting high quality people and investing heavily in training.
MI: If you were, hypothetically, en- tering into business for the first time in Myanmar, what are the key factors to consider; and what would be the typical issues that you would like to address before investing?
I think the primary challenge for sustained business success in Myanmar is to consid-er whether your products and services will add value to its economy over time. It is also important to learn about the local business culture.
MI: How do you imagine Myanmar will compare to its Asian neighbors in the short- and long-term future?
In the short term, it will be an exciting mar-ket. As we are already seeing, there are many investment opportunities that are likely to deliver short-term growth. In the longer term, it depends on the devel-opment of Myanmar’s infrastructure. We have seen tremendous growth in countries like Indonesia and Thailand over the past decade, and I believe Myanmar will enjoy the same, if not even more, stellar growth.
MI: If you could make one major change in the country, what would it be?
My priority would be for the government to focus on infrastructure. Having proper in-frastructure in place (roads, telecommunica-tions, the Internet, etc.) will provide a great foundation for businesses.
MI: What advice would you give to someone looking to start up a busi-ness and invest in Myanmar?
Think long term, and be prepared to invest.
MI: How are you enjoying pres-ent-day life here in Myanmar?
What do you like/dislike about your life in the country? I like the people here, and enjoy interacting with our staff and with new friends. Life in Myanmar is simple, and having lived here for more than a year, I have learned to ap-preciate how the simple things in life can bring so much satisfaction and fulfillment.
Some foreign friends lament the lack of cer-tain luxuries that are common in their home countries. However, I find a level of happi-ness amongst the Burmese that we do not often see back home in Singapore.
MI: You have a family back in Singa-pore. How do you manage to cope with being away from family for long peri-ods?
We communicate daily. Also, both my wife and I are fairly used to regular travel. I think that trust builds up over time.