‘Before skill set comes mindset’: FairPrice CEO on breakthrough leadership

This interview is part of the Leading Asia series featuring in-depth conversations with the region’s most influential leaders on what it takes to lead in Asia today.

If you shopped at a FairPrice supermarket in Singapore in early 2022, there’s a small chance that the person who was working the till was none other than FairPrice’s freshly minted group CEO, Vipul Chawla. “Unless I invest at least 100 hours doing something, I don’t have the license to have a conversation with my team, let alone make decisions,” Chawla says. During his first three months with the company, he tried his hand at a number of roles, including cashier, picker fulfilling online orders, and packer at a distribution center. The experience, he says, “created an empathy for what our staff went through and what was possible.”

As Chawla continues to take the helm at Singapore’s largest supermarket chain during a period of rising living costs, his empathetic approach to leadership may also prove an asset for the business’s long-standing mission, since the founding of NTUC FairPrice in 1973, to provide Singaporeans with affordably priced daily essentials. In 2019, FairPrice was formed, comprising grocery retailer NTUC FairPrice, food-catering provider NTUC Foodfare, food court and coffee shop operator Kopitiam Investment, and reward program platform NTUC Link.

To help residents cope with inflation, FairPrice rolled out several discount programs under Chawla’s leadership. When Singapore’s core inflation rose by 5.3 percent in September 2022, Chawla announced a 15 percent discount on three brands of rice along with other price-freezing initiatives across its network of supermarkets, to help alleviate the pressure on low-income families. And for the first half of 2023, the group has offered a 1 percent discount on 500 daily essentials to offset the impact of the rise in Singapore’s goods and service tax rate to 8 percent, from 7 percent.

In this Leading Asia interview with McKinsey’s Rohit Razdan, Chawla shares his strategic priorities, how he’s bolstering the resilience of the supermarket chain’s supply chain in the face of looming headwinds, and the best leadership advice he’s received. An edited transcript of the discussion follows.

Setting the course

McKinsey: You’ve been group CEO of FairPrice for over a year. How did you get yourself up to speed?

Vipul Chawla: When I joined, I wanted to spend a lot of time on the ground—in the stores and supermarkets, our distribution centers, digital centers, call centers, and so on and so forth. I said to myself that unless I invested at least 100 hours doing something, I didn’t have the license to even have a conversation with my team, let alone make decisions.

So for the first 90 days or so, I just listened. I started a series of store attachments and worked as a cashier for half a shift—four or five hours. It struck me how tiring it was to stand for eight hours, packing stuff for customers. I also realized how the entire customer transaction at the till was overly complicated because there are so many steps: there’s the daily discounts, memberships and loyalty programs, payment types, vouchers. I bungled some of the steps when entering in a discount and bagging and got yelled at by customers a couple of times. There was an opportunity for process simplification. If we had a seamless, frictionless checkout, everyone would be happier.

I also did an attachment as a picker for the digital business. This entire space is not just about assortment but also about speed. If I were a picker, I probably wouldn’t have to exercise, because I ran around a lot. While we have amazing technology to guide us to the right items, I believe we have the opportunity to simplify the process of how we create assortments. I also did a similar stint at our distribution center, where I packed stuff into boxes, which then went to our stores and customers. That was really interesting—to see the combination of robots and technology, as well as a little bit of paper.

Admittedly, I did some of these roles for only half a day or so, so it wasn’t a lot. But it created an empathy for what our staff went through and what was possible.

McKinsey: What are your strategic priorities?

Vipul Chawla: Being the chief cheerleader, chief evangelist of culture, is central to what I do. I want to do that well because culture can eat strategy for breakfast any day. I’m discovering this family culture at FairPrice, which we call “fairmily.” This culture reflects our values, where we look out for each other, and we look after each other. We also challenge each other and give each other tough feedback, but eventually we move forward together.

This powerful concept is even more important in the context of FairPrice because the group is also relatively new. It was, and still is, a largely brick-and-mortar supermarket business. But it’s evolving. We have an online loyalty system, a food services business, and more recently a financial services business. Making sure that we have one culture as the binding force across the various parts of the business is the strategy. You want to start with culture.

The second is to never forget that the role of this brand and business for five decades has been to help moderate the cost of living. We remind ourselves of this higher purpose every day when we come to work. Because sometimes we do have to make trade-offs, but our purpose is not one of the trade-offs we want to make.

The third, and to me the most important, is looking after our people. If you look after your people, they’ll look after your customers, and your business will take care of itself. What this means is really all about making sure that we bring our best selves to work every day so we can look out for our customers. When we look after our customers, the profits will take care of themselves.

So culture, purpose, and people: those are the three things I’m maniacally focused on.

McKinsey: You alluded to FairPrice’s unique purpose. Could you elaborate more on how that came to be?

Vipul Chawla: If you go back to the 1960s, Singapore was a newly formed nation with little natural resources of its own. Back then, there was a shortage of essential commodities, like rice and oil, and what was available was very expensive. There was a lot of profiteering, and the public wasn’t really served.

So the country experimented with a tripartite arrangement where labor unions, the government, and enterprise came together to form a relationship that served larger society. The labor unions were interested in getting work or jobs for the union workers and making sure they were looked after and trained. A conference in 1969 led to the formation of an insurance company that became NTUC Income, the creation of a taxi service that is now ComfortDelGro, and the establishment of a supermarket chain called NTUC Welcome that opened in 1973. FairPrice was birthed from this arrangement.

This tripartite arrangement only succeeds when there’s interdependence, which is based on trust. And that is something that FairPrice has been working tirelessly to build for the last five decades.

McKinsey: What does this sense of mission look like today?

Vipul Chawla: Let me tell you a story. Before I started at my current position, someone came up to me and said, “You should look at the price of eggs.” I said, “Fine,” but I didn’t think very much of it. A few days later, I was in a store and approached a customer: “Why are you here today?” She replied, “Well, it’s a Wednesday. I get a 3 percent discount on a Wednesday with a card.” I asked, “Great, what are you going to buy?” Turns out, she wanted to buy eggs, which had become very expensive.

This conversation sparked a discussion I had with my team. We realized that there are a few key value items, such as rice, oil, and yes, eggs, that are important not just as daily essentials but also in terms of how customers perceive value. We ended up proactively correcting the price of eggs, and we did it before anybody else. Of course, the entire market then followed. We tracked the impact of this over a period of months and found that sales actually improved. So we also did that with the price of cooking oil a few weeks later and rice later in the year.

As an affirmation to our social mission, we introduced discounts targeted at specific types of customers from Monday through Thursday, such as the FairPrice Pioneer Generation, Merdeka Generation, and CHAS Blue discount schemes, which helped customers save over $11.5 million in 2022.

McKinsey: Beyond the challenge of rising inflation, do you expect supply chain disruptions to become more commonplace?

Vipul Chawla: In 2022, our supply of fresh chickens was impacted because of a ban on fresh chicken exports from one of our neighboring countries, which was our predominant source. Chickens in Singapore are an emotional issue, given how much people love their chicken rice here—it’s almost the national dish. The ban forced us to look at alternative sources of chickens, which improved our resilience as well.

As disruptions have become more common, we’re enhancing our sourcing skill set. We now source from more than 100 countries; we have forward contracts and multiple sources for essential items. We’re also making our supply chain as robust as it can be while exploring new areas where we can make our supply chain more secure. That’s all very important.

Going forward, we have to create an ecosystem of supply chain resilience for daily essentials. It’s not just about inflation; other factors in the world may interrupt our supply. So we have become very focused on making sure we will always be able to make daily essentials available—food on the table—at good prices.

McKinsey: How else are you preparing FairPrice for the headwinds ahead?

Vipul Chawla: Before skill set comes mindset. Internally, we’re talking about a growth mindset that comes from an ecosystem within our organization that prioritizes fairness, learning, and agility. It’s a supportive system in which employees can respond to not just criticism but also change. This will become more important, as there’ll be more volatility, uncertainty, and complexity.

All of this will test our grit and resilience, as well as our agility to respond to these changes. And while we can’t always change our circumstances, we can certainly determine how we respond to them. The right mindset across the whole company can help us be more agile, like we had to be during the chicken crisis. When future problems arise, we need the whole system to respond to it with speed.

We’re also expanding the government’s Progressive Wage Model, which maps out a clear career pathway for lower-income workers to improve their productivity and thus their wages. This was only supposed to affect the retail arm of our business when it came into effect this year, but we brought the execution forward to September 2022. We’re also rolling it out across all our business units, not just retail, and for employees of all nationalities. We want to make sure that we’re fair and equitable. This is a very specific and tangible step of how we look after our people. It sends a clear message that we’ll stay true and stick together through what could be very uncertain circumstances.

Defining ‘breakthrough leadership’

McKinsey: Has your personal leadership style evolved over time?

Vipul Chawla: I think it does evolve over time, with experience and age. There are parts that remain the same—for example, my wanting to get to the crux of the customer issue that we’re solving for. Whatever the business, I try to cut through the clutter, staying very focused on where the customer is taking us and where it is that we need to be. From the very first roles that I took on, I’ve been striving to anticipate what customers want. That through line to what I do now has not changed.

What has changed over the years is my learning style: I like to think of myself as a curious learner and try to execute a growth mindset. Over the years, I’ve learned to appreciate that I often don’t have the answers. And this has not come easily to me. But I do have some really good questions, and I’ve gotten a little better at asking the right questions. I try to find people—experts or customers—who can help us with those answers. Part of the growth mindset is persistence and grit. As you keep trying at a task, you get better at it and eventually become able to solve challenges that arise.

As I’ve touched on, I’ve come to strongly believe in leading by serving our people. I’ve said to myself and to my teams, “Just bring your best authentic self to work every day. And if you do that, trust me, it’s going to be not just good enough; it’ll be more than good enough.” If we combine that with a defined culture, we can unlock and unleash something very powerful.

I see my role with my team as that of a coach. In terms of delegation, I strongly believe that if I have to dive deep to do a colleague’s job, then one of us should be made redundant. I will challenge my team but also support them to get to a better place. I find the phrase “tough love” useful. In a coaching conversation, it has to come from a place of care and empathy. Now that only works well when you’ve built trust with each other, and trust is earned; it’s a journey.

And we can have a lot of fun on this journey together. Of course, I’m still learning, and this is just where I am on my journey today. So if you ask me this question in a few years’ time, you may get a slightly evolved answer.

McKinsey: Finally, what’s the best piece of leadership advice you’ve received?

Vipul Chawla: I’ve been very lucky to have had many leaders, coaches, mentors, bosses, friends, and colleagues who have given me terrific advice. One that stands out was from 20 years ago when I was a young executive. My coach, a business professor, told me, “If your ambition is less than or equal to your resources, then chances are, you’re focused on being an efficient person. However, if your ambition is greater than your resources, then you’re not just focused on being effective; you’re working to make breakthroughs. You’ll also be more likely to think out of the box.”

For anything you do in life, whether it’s at work, at home, or elsewhere in life, you can decide to set ambitions that are greater to, equal to, or less than your resources. I always try to have my ambition greater than my resources, partly because I grew up in developing and emerging markets where there’s often a lot of ambition but no resources. And we may be coming back to similar circumstances today, as we talked about, with greater uncertainty. I constantly remind myself of this principle to drive myself to try unique solutions that we might have otherwise not considered.

Explore a career with us