Lean and Green
This entrepreneur has turned what others consider a sunset industry into a multi- million business that also minimises wastage.
Green is the new black. From refusing to use, or offer, plastic straws to using one’s own reusable containers for takeaway food and beverages, it’s become cool to be eco-friendly in recent years. While every effort helps in raising awareness, Susan Chong wonders if some practices are truly effective.
“During Earth Hour, kids turn off the computer for one hour but, after that, what do they do? Is it effective? Nowadays, there are paper straws to replace plastic, but are they made from sustainable paper? Some paper straws are printed with so much ink,” says the founder and chief executive of Greenpac.
Instead, it is more meaningful to consider the entire life cycle of an item, from the source of the material to how it is disposed of, before considering one’s intervention, she offers. Her insight is rooted in years of experience. When she founded Greenpac in 2002, it was the first company in Singapore to offer eco-friendly packaging that could be customised to clients’ needs. She saw a business opportunity while helping out at her in-laws’ traditional packaging business, where she noticed the excessiveness of industrial packaging.
“To me, it is not rocket science but about being practical,” says Chong, who’s in her 40s. “We use less material, thus lowering cost. There are fewer challenges in disposing of them too. We produce reusable, returnable packaging and use sustainable resources such as wood from Forest Stewardship certified forests, (which are responsibly managed according to set ecological standards).”
The company, which counts Fortune 500 companies among its clients, supplies to a range of industries including life sciences, semi-conductor, pharmaceuticals, aerospace and defence. Its suite of packaging, which includes that for cold chain shipping without the need to use dry ice, can offer savings of up to 70 per cent over traditional methods. “Customers use our solutions for the savings and being green is a bonus,” she says.
From a one-woman start-up with a microloan of $30,000 in 2002, Chong today employs over 50 staff. The company records a compound annual growth of 20 per cent year on year. It has racked up awards for its innovation and quality in packaging, including the Worldstar Packaging award, Asia Star award and Singapore Packaging Star award.
The Greenpac office building in Tuas is also a study in eco-friendly design. Built with solar panels and glass windows that filter out ultra-violet rays, with a rooftop garden where employees grow plants and herbs to cook, it is Singapore’s first industrial complex to be Green Mark Gold-certified.
Chong’s success feels even sweeter because of the number of detractors she had at the start. She recalls: “When I told people about my vision, they would pour cold water and say ( packaging) was a sunset industry. But to me, there is no sunset mindset. You have to constantly reinvent and reengineer.”
Her grit, she says, came from her mother. She had a privileged childhood with three siblings in Malaysia until her property developer father’s business went bust when she was 12. “My mother went from being a taitai who had helpers and drivers, to nothing,” Chong recalls. “She went back to work by selling kindergarten books out of her car. From her, I learnt how to pick myself up from failure.”
To help out, she left school and began working in the pharmaceutical industry as a teenager. By 19, she had saved up enough money to buy her mother a RM25,000 house in Alor Setar. An impressive feat, but one that’s par for the course for this comeback kid. She says: “I have always been very positive. When looking at a half-filled glass, people miss the point that it is refillable.”