SIA Japan Welcome-Farewell Sep. 1996

Resilience | My Journey To Becoming A Big Potato

Before I retired, I was a Big Potato in Singapore Airlines. And this is my story.

I hope my story will serve to encourage young people to improve their Resilience Quotient so that they can be courageous when facing the two dreaded R’s: Retrenchment and unplanned Retirement.

Too many people are ‘dispensable’ employees in their respective companies, and few Big Potatoes are willing to share what it takes to climb the corporate ladder and achieve Big Potato status.

Allow me to help define what I mean by a “Big Potato.”

Retire – Do What Dictionary of Management

Big Potato: A senior executive ranked within the esteemed top 1 % of an organization.

To become a Big Potato, you have to demonstrate your worth to your bosses, lead teams, spearhead new campaigns, create exponential growth in company revenue, among other things. In the process, you become an indispensable part of the company, or at the very least, make it ‘painful’ for the company to lose you. Also, you will be head hunted by rival companies for your (transferable) skills and talents. You will not have to fear the two Rs again.

How It All Began

My parents taught me self-reliance and resilience through their stories of living through the Japanese occupation years. They survived on crops they grew, such as sweet potatoes, bananas, cassavas, and by raising poultry.

Years later, I had the good fortune of meeting a gentleman of great humility despite his exalted position. He earned the enduring reputation as the People’s President. Because of his example, I reminded myself to stay humble even when I was a big potato in SIA.

Forever grateful to His Excellency, the late President Wee Kim Wee:

H.E. The Late President Wee of Singapore

An autographed photo of me with His Excellency, the late President Wee of Singapore

Growing Up – I Had Many Things & I Had Nothing

I grew up on a large 4.5 acres ( just over 2 hectares) of land owned by my Dad’s boss.

I had many things and I had nothing!

I had a curious mind, healthy body, parents to look after us, siblings to play with, neighbours to play football with, food to enjoy, space to run around, Nature as a teacher, clothes to wear, books to read, education, a university scholarship, a bed to sleep on and a roof over my head.

I also grew up not having these things: running tap water, electricity, a family car, toys, comics and magazines, TV, tuition, help with homework, family holidays, domestic help, lots of pocket money.

Self Reliance & Resilience

So I grew up doing many chores and tasks, especially after my sister got married when I was just 10 years old. I helped my Mom to cook, wash clothes, and feed the chickens and sometimes geese and ducks too! I helped her to keep simple accounts and I was prepared to do my duty as a son and be a responsible member of the family.

These days, many people (both young and old) like using phrases such as “life is boring”, “I have no time”, “I have so much work to do”, “things are so difficult”, “I don’t want to do this”, etc.

Many often complain about not being happy in their jobs or are jealous of a colleague’s promotion. I hope this blogpost will inspire them to get “unstuck” when mired in inaction or when facing stagnation in their careers.


1. Know Your Company’s Culture And Know Your Team Well

SIA Thailand 40th Anniversary

SIA Thailand’s 40th Anniversary

As a rookie General Manager in Thailand, I was very eager to do a good job. The outfit was established in 1948 and many HQ bosses had their stints there. I knew they would get instant feedback on my performance.

The Challenge: Revenues were below targets and the airport operations were plagued by flight delays. Our relationship with the national airline had deteriorated to non-speaking terms at the local level.

Action I Took: I had a dossier compiled for me to get to know each staff member. Whilst warm and friendly, Thai staff expect their expatriate manager to respect their culture and history and get to know them. I established rapport quickly, was sensitive to their cultural needs and worked closely with the team to reverse the declining revenues and poor airport performance. Also, I developed a warm, personal relationship with the senior executives of the national carrier, while demonstrating to my team that a foreign manager was showing them due respect.

The Result: I was promoted to lead a team in one of the ‘Top 5 Countries’, namely Hong Kong.

Perks: For Thailand, the standard posting package was applicable (comprising fully furnished 3-bedroom accomodation, paid utilities, a 2-litre car with chauffeur, station cost-of-living allowances, 4 sets of return-to-base tickets per annum and subsidy for children’s education).

For Hong Kong, it is a bigger 2.3-litre Mercedes and additional responsibility allowance and a higher upgrade priority for First and Business Class travel)

2. Set Audacious Goals And Focus On Your Brand

SIA-Michael Lai Concert' With Jackie Chan & Stars

SIA-Michael Lai Concert’ With Jackie Chan & Stars

Hong Kong has a fast-paced society that suffers from lack-lustre customer service.

The Challenge: Revenue was on target, but capacity was limited by their protective national airline, Cathay. HQ was pushing for a PR offensive for increased capacity and launched a world-wide campaign to be #1 in customer satisfaction.

SIA HKG 30th Anniversary

SIA HKG 30th Anniversary

Action I Took: Implemented my ‘Know The Culture And Your Team’ strategy first used in Thailand, challenged the teams to win the inaugural Best Outstanding Service on the Ground (OSG) Award, cultivated a close relationship with Cathay, the media and the authorities to pave the ground for more capacity. I also helped raise the profile and brand of the company with an 8-day pop concert and used it as a publicity platform to donate HK$1.0 million to a children charity’s, leveraging on the 30th anniversary of the station.

The Result: Hong Kong won the Inaugural OSG Award for top station. SIA branding was further enhanced by the concerts and the charity links. Our relationship with Cathay softened its resistance to more flights (a mutual benefit) between the two destinations ( SIA frequency to/from Hong Kong increased substantially from 1989’s 17 flights to the current 49 flights per week!)

Also, I was promoted to Singapore Sales as Area Manager – Singapore was the revenue heavyweight of SIA.

Perks: For Singapore base station, the standard posting package did not apply. A 2-litre Volvo was provided and no chauffeur. A responsibility allowance was applicable.

3. Collaborate With Head Office And Value Its Feedback

SIA Biggest Launch - Daily B747 Service To New York With Emcee The Late Victor Khoo

SIA’s Biggest Launch – Daily B747 Service To New York With Emcee, The Late Victor Khoo

It’s a known fact that airline executives do not look forward to manage its home base sales outfit. My term there coincided with the record launch of 14 new destinations – at the rate of one new destination every 3 months.

The Challenge: Annual revenue was approaching the billion dollar mark while front line staff recruitment was hampered by the collective agreement with the union and market forces and service standards were being challenged.

Action I Took: Marketed and promoted new destinations and flights months in advance by inviting tour agents and operators to sample and study the new destinations. The biggest launch in SIA’s history was the daily B747 flights to New York. After the launch, flights had to be monitored like in an Intensive Care Unit. Such a unit was set up as a new initiative. An unprecedented saturation-bombing type strategy was adopted to promote the New York services with better fares and tour packages. McDonald’s outlets helped carry out a month-long campaign with festive Big Apple Buntings and placemats. We presented SIA as an innovative airline to the increasingly discriminating travelling public in Singapore.

The Result: SIA remained an airline of choice, especially for the premium sector and government travel, airfare yields were maintained amidst a buoyant market, and I was offered a posting to London.

Perks: The standard posting package was applicable for London. The cost-of-living-allowances are higher based on the prevailing country’s cost of living.

4. Understand The Market You Are Working In

Memorable. HRH The Princess of Wales

Memorable moment with Her Royal Highness, The Princess of Wales

The UK is a heavy weight revenue generator, and contributed one third of SIA Europe’s total revenue.

The Challenge: The country was in recession and market fares were low. The Manchester flights were sold at two for the price of one on its Business Class (unheard off within the airline !). The station did not appear to believe in brand and product PR. Selling Singapore was tough due to destination competition with Bangkok and Hong Kong. Staff morale was low.

Action I Took: Sensing the prevailing unhappiness and low morale, my initial task was geared towards the staff. I visited all the other 4 offices outside London for pep talks and sales directions. Singapore was promoted as a gateway city to South East Asian points. I then capitalized on the opportunity to promote Australia with the Australian Tourism Board when its national airline dropped out for the first time. We introduced an advance fare to Australia and traffic bookings grew. I also held a series of dialogues with British MPs about market opening.  My good relationship with the Heathrow Airport management gave me the one opportunity to brand SIA on the BBC and across the country.

The Result: Revenue enjoyed strong double-digit growth. Achieved a major PR coup during Heathrow’s 50th anniversary air fly-past – I made the executive decision to deploy a B747 for the fly-past knowing that the BBC would air the show live. Click here to watch the pride of the sky, SIA’s B747, flying during Heathrow’s anniversary. I was later promoted to manage SIA Japan in Tokyo.

Perks: The standard posting package was applicable. In addition, for GM Japan, the company car is a larger 3.0 litre one with car phone, with chauffeur, and access to the company’s golf club membership.

5. Launch Marketing Campaigns Tailored To The Country You Are In & Ride The Prevailing Trends

The Only Airline In The 1st Midosuji Parade in Osaka, Oct 83. Jointly With STPB (Now Singapore Tourism Board)

The Only Airline In The 1st Midosuji Parade in Osaka, October 1983. A collaboration with STPB (now Singapore Tourism Board)

My posting to Tokyo as the top honcho came 13 years after my posting to Osaka as Manager (Western Japan).

The Challenge: Often overlooked by HQ planners and even the Tokyo office, the station suffered from a weak image of unreliability. Out of timing changes affected the station’s credibilty.

Action I took: Participated in the 1st Osaka Midosuji Parade in October 1983 to enhance the SIA brand and reliability. I also convinced  Tokyo and HQ that flights out of Osaka could be re-structured for better tour patterns. I took a bold marketing move to de-link Taipei  and succeeded in obtaining the additional 5th frequency. HQ agreed, but for the first time in Osaka station’s history, the station had to accept midnight timings from Singapore. Dubbed the Midnight Express, a 6-month long Singapore campaign was mounted with Japan’s largest operator JTB.

The Result: Osaka re-structured flights were very profitable. The Midnight Express eliminated the high costs of parking in Osaka and the air plane utilization hours increased with a consequential reduction in cost.
Hello Kitty Marketing Campaign In SIA Japan

Recollections Of The Successful Hello Kitty Campaign in SIA Japan From 1997

My second posting in 1996 to Japan witnessed a declining market to Singapore. With heavy air plane asset deployment to Japan, at 53 weekly flights to 6 cities, promoting travel to Singapore was a big challenge. New destination competition had begun with the air capacity to the USA increasing by an additional 20 B747 services. Singapore had no new attractions, except for the Boat Quay outlets.

The Challenge: To arrest the traffic decline to Singapore, which was a top priority.

Action I Took: I interviewed our agents’ front line staff “selling” Singapore and revealed a shocking fact:  many had never been to Singapore! Together with the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), special fares (under US$200) were offered for front line staff to visit Singapore, and even lower Tour Planners’ fare (US$50) to encourage tour planners to visit and include Singapore as a tour product. Travel, fashion and main stream media were invited to Singapore as a joint campaign with STP, with the itinerary including the heartlands. We leveraged SIA’s catering partner in Osaka Kansai Airport, and a Singapore Food Promotion was jointly launched with the Royal Host and STB. Its network of some about 800 outlets sold 680,000 servings of Chicken Rice. Traditional food promotions with hotels yield poor returns in terms of scale and exposure.

The Hello Kitty campaign with Sanrio was attention grabbing. Kitty’s image and that of Singapore were in sync. The idea resulted from the introduction of my X-concept, an experimental concept that failure was “acceptable”. We were also looking for a trend to ride on. Perhaps it was one reason why Hello Kitty surfaced.

The Result: The agency staff campaign, the Singapore Food Promotion, and the media educational helped to position the Hello Kitty campaign to Singapore at the right time. These campaigns were featured in Singapore’s Straits Times. The Kitty campaign helped to divert some 17,800 visitors to Singapore over the summer of 1997.

SIA Japan GM Welcome -Farewell Sep'96

My Arrival in Tokyo. SIA Japan GM Welcome -Farewell Sep’96

Why Am I Sharing My 5 Success Tips To Becoming A Big Potato?

Ten years have elapsed since my employment with Singapore Airlines, and the management and marketing concepts have reduced sensitivities.

For the young people in our workforce, a life-time employment in just one or two companies has become a thing of the past.  Just as employees are open to switching jobs for higher pay or better benefits in another company, bosses are also adopting a “slow to hire, quick to fire” HR strategy.

For my children, and all the young people, the need to up their Resilience Quotient is more urgent now than ever before. You have to demonstrate your worth, innovate, be creative, lead teams, win over your adversaries, cope with the changing times, and essentially do more than I have ever done. You need to constantly up your game. And in the process, you might find that you have achieved Big Potato status.

Do not chase after Big Potato status for the perks and privileges of this group. Instead, know that the journey to becoming a Big Potato will allow you to face the two Rs – Retrenchment and unplanned Retirement – not with fear, but with courage.