Mr Joseph Chew: “Silk and Steel” – Singapore Airlines’ Secret to Success

Mr Joseph Chew is a living history of Singapore’s aviation and tourism industry. Soon after he joined Malaysia Singapore Airlines or MSA in 1970, he witnessed the split of MSA into the Malaysia Airlines System (MAS) and Singapore Airlines (SIA) on 1 October, 1972. He spent 34 years with the SIA Group which included a stint of 6 years with the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB) as its Executive Director and 4 years with SATS Catering as its Chief Executive.

By P. Keerthana and Khaw Yew Onn (ECONews Student reporters) 

Upon graduation, how did you start your job career?

Upon graduation from the National University of Singapore with a BA (Hons) in Economics in 1966, I joined the Straits Times as a Management Trainee. Two years into my job, I was appointed as the Advertising Manager of Times Publishing, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Straits Times Group. It was an interesting four years for me as I found out that working for a media company can be quite challenging.

Why did you then move to Singapore Airlines?

I wanted to acquire the experience of working for another completely different industry. So when the opportunity presented itself in an opening in Malaysia Singapore Airlines (MSA), I decided to give it a try. As a result, I spent the next 34 years with the SIA Group.

Soon after you joined Malaysia Singapore Airlines or MSA, it was split into Malaysia Airlines System (MAS) and Singapore Airlines (SIA) in 1972. How was the mood of the employees like after the split of MSA?

There was an air of uncertainty. I opted to join Singapore Airlines, as I was offered a position. With 10 Boeing aircraft and some international routes inherited from its predecessor in 1972, SIA began the process of change on its own. It continued more vigorously to expand its fleet and route network. Thus, the initial mood of uncertainty was transformed by the will of the Management of the company into bold confidence underpinned by the rigorous training of staff.

What did you do during your earlier years with SIA?

In my 34 years with the company, I was indeed very fortunate to experience the various facets of the Airline’s operations from marketing to cabin crew, mostly in management positions. I spent a good 15 years of my time with the SIA Group in managing their overseas operations in Switzerland, Hong Kong, the USA, Southwest Pacific Region based in Sydney, Australia and the West Asia & Africa Region based in Singapore. Then, I spent six years of my career life with the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (now Singapore Tourism Board) as their Executive Director. The latter job was strictly on secondment from SIA. Finally, I spent the last four years of my career with the SIA Group as Chief Executive of SATS Catering. SATS was then a fully owned subsidiary of SIA. It was the service provider for over 60% of the airlines that serve Changi Airport.

Could you tell us more about your overseas experiences?

As a country Manager, my responsibility covered the gamut of operations ranging from sales to traffic, and from public relations to international relations. You almost feel like you are running a company and you are the CEO. It can be quite a daunting task.

What were some of the interesting marketing campaigns and promotions SIA introduced?

I would just like to outline two of the marketing campaigns/promotions. The first is Orchid Street and Fireworks in London, Zurich and Paris. When SIA launched its services to Europe in the early 1980s, it brought in thousands of sprays of orchids to decorate the shop windows at the main shopping streets of these cities (Regent Street in London and the Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich) and grand fireworks displayed on the River Thames in London and the Zurich River in Switzerland. It left a lasting impression on the peoples’ minds and created a strong branding for SIA. The second was the joint SIA/STPB campaigns. Realising that the objective of STPB and that of SIA in promoting Singapore as a destination are synonymous, an aggressive joint advertising and promotion was launched. It had the famous tagline “Singapore. It’s also an Airline”. It was a win-win situation for both Singapore and SIA.

Could you enlighten us on how Singapore Airlines rose to where it is today despite having its roots in a relatively unknown city, Singapore, back in the 1970’s?

I would like to ascribe the success of SIA to a number of factors. Good management with a clear vision underpinned by good team spirit was key to the success of SIA. Right from the start, the company decided to have the most modern fleet of aircraft and to provide the best inflight service. This was epitomized in the ‘Singapore Girl’. In all its advertising and promotions, the ‘Singapore Girl’ was portrayed whether to show the Airline’s modern aircraft and expanding network to a choice of finest champagnes and the introduction of the most advanced inflight entertainment system. More importantly, what was promised in the advertisements was diligently delivered, which culminated in the growing faith and confidence travelers had in SIA.

What was your highest position at SIA?

I joined the airline as an Administrative Officer and rose to the rank of Senior Vice-President. There was not much of a hierarchy in SIA. It was the will of top management that they wanted a ‘flat’ organization which of course had worked well for the company.

When you were in senior positions in SIA, did you have any obstacle in introducing new measures or initiatives?

Life is full of obstacles, but one learns how to overcome them. It had not been always easy and one learns how to navigate nimbly. The one thing I learnt quite quickly was that you have to be firm but fair, a dictum that has brought about a great deal of mutual respect and satisfaction.

What’s your opinion on the airline industry today?

Ever present is the intense competition as in most products and services. Against this background is the emergence of mega legacy carriers from the Middle East and the numerous budget airlines. Competition from them has seriously eroded profit margins of airlines.

You ventured into the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB) while you were with SIA. What was the reason?  

Quite honestly I did not venture into STPB. I was asked by SIA Chairman then, Mr J.Y. Pillay to go on secondment to STPB. I was at STPB over two terms (1976-1978 and 1985-1989), adding up to six years.

What did you do at STPB?

I was the Executive Director. STPB had the dual role of the promotion of Singapore as a tourist and business destination and a regulatory role of licensing of travel agents, tourist guides and related tourist agencies. From the funds it collected from hotels and related tourist establishments, STPB primarily promoted Singapore as a tourist destination.

What are the challenges you have had to face?

At the STPB, the big challenge I had to face was to find ways and means to keep the Singapore product ‘alive’ such that the country keeps attracting new tourists as well as repeat tourists. It’s almost like keeping up a giant theme park where you have to continually refresh the attractions and introduce new attractions to entice your visitors. At SIA, the challenge was to maximize the revenues through high load factors and good yields. 

Can you tell us about your experiences with SATS Catering? 

I spent the last four years of my career with the SIA Group with SATS as the Chief Executive of SATS Catering commencing in 2000. In that year, SATS was publicly listed on the Singapore Exchange. SATS Catering provided the inflight catering and cabin services for over 60% of the international airlines including SIA that operate into and out of Changi Airport. SATS Catering accounts for almost 50% of the total revenues of SATS. It was an interesting but a daunting experience at SATS Catering, having to cater to the numerous clients with varied needs. And the operation is certainly a 24/7 operation to the tee.

How does SATS enhance the culinary experiences of its passengers?

Apart from some smaller airlines, most of the larger airlines have their own in-house chefs and also plan their own menus. However, SATS will inevitably be expected to enhance the planned menus with its own ideas provided by its team of chefs and specialists.

Were there any major changes in SATS that you witnessed as a Chief Executive?

One of the major changes was the introduction of SAP into the operations. It was a major modification to our costing system. Thankfully the SAP system was implemented although there was some delay.

Did you oversee any expansion plans or collaborations with overseas hotel chains?

The SIA Group has never had interest in hotels. As a matter of fact, it was made quite clear from the outset that SIA should stick to doing what it was set out to do. 

Is there any life lesson that you learnt from the SIA Group?

Interesting question but kind of difficult to answer. Right from the start, I told myself that whatever job or responsibility I am given, I would give my level best. I firmly believed that whatever experiences I can gain, they would be useful to me in my career and nobody can take them away from me. 

Do you have any advice about retaining the human touch and managing people?

In the real working environment, I think the EQ (Emotional Quotient) is equally if not more important than IQ (Intelligence Quotient). Essentially EQ refers to one’s abilities to get along well with people especially if you are in a leadership position.

Do you have any fond memories or recollections of the NUS Economics Department?

My classmates in the Class ’66 have regular get-togethers. Each year without fail we have a dinner gathering on 15 August. Last year, we celebrated our Golden Anniversary with our 1966 year mates including several of our professors and lecturers who had taught us. 

Did you have any advice to current Economics Students?

Enjoy your university life. It is one golden opportunity you must take full advantage of. Learn to explore with an open mind and let your imagination ‘fly’. Treasure the moments, treasure your university life.                              

This article was first published in ECONews in March 2017