Hubert Burda Media

Greenpac's Susan Chong talks about her green efforts

It isn't just hip to be environmentally conscious — you can turn this philosophy into a multimillion-dollar business. 

Greenpac's Susan Chong talks about her green efforts

With concrete floors, floor-to-ceiling glass windows and furnishings made with wood chips from sustainable sources, the Greenpac building in Tuas is a study in industrial-chic. But it is quickly apparent that this stylish functionality is not just skin deep.

The building, Singapore's first industrial complex to be Green Mark Gold-certified, has solar panels on the roof that reduces its electricity consumption by 30 percent. Those beautiful glass windows that let in so much natural light are made of a special thermochromic glass to prevent the interior from heating up too much. It is quite literally green too, by way of a rooftop hydroponic and vegetable garden (watered with collected rainwater, no less), where the harvest of brinjal, lady's finger, basil and sweet potato leaves are cooked during staff meals.

It is living proof that going green does not have to be a mere afterthought, or introduced just to pay lip service to corporate social responsibility practices — precisely the principles Greenpac was founded on.

The eureka moment

CEO Susan Chong started Greenpac in 2002 to provide environmentally sustainable industrial packaging solutions that can be customised to clients' needs.

“This is a highly professional industry but people often don't see packaging as such, as it is usually the last [step] in the production chain. Companies spend a lot of money on research and development, and building products, but don't see value in packaging. They just want a box,” she says. “But packaging generates a lot of waste and I thought it would be a great business opportunity to start a company that can help people green their packaging.”

As it turns out, her idea was launched on the cusp of a global shift in thinking towards eco-consciousness and she has seen her business grow from strength to strength. From a one-woman start-up, Greenpac is today a multimillion-dollar company with 40 employees and boasts an international customer base that spans a wide range of industries, from machinery and aerospace, to semi-conductors and even the military. Chong says Greenpac has seen a steady annual year-on-year growth of 25 percent since the company was launched.

For its efforts in cultivating social and environmental responsibility through its business practices, Greenpac has won a string of awards and certifications over the years, including the DBS Insignia Spirit of Vision Prestige award, which Chong bagged at this year's annual Prestige Anniversary Ball. She was selected for not just growing Greenpac into a leading player in the region, but for making corporate social responsibility not only a small company initiative but rather, its main ethos.

One of the biggest misconceptions that many have about going green is that it costs additional money. However, Chong says, in reality, it is the opposite that is true.

“Nobody will pay more to be green,” she says candidly. “But being lean and green will actually help you achieve your bottom line. For example, when you use less packaging, not only are you wasting less material, you are also taking up less space and the weight of your package is lighter, hence saving on freight costs.”

In one memorable job for a biomedical company, Chong says Greenpac's engineers were able to redesign its packaging to reduce the weight of the crate by 100kg. “We were also able to reduce packing time by one hour, thus saving on manpower costs and the crates could be double-stacked to save space,” she says.

Other smart and environmentally friendly packaging solutions that Greenpac offers include reusable packaging and crates that can be flat-packed and returned to the warehouse to be reused after the goods have been delivered. Who would have thought there was so much more to packaging besides cardboard boxes and Styrofoam fillers?

Against the odds

The road to success was not smoothly paved, of course. The Malaysian-born Chong, who moved to Singapore when she married her Singaporean husband, first started out in the hospitality industry before moving into pharmaceuticals. It was only when she began helping out at her husband's family business — a traditional packaging company — in the late 1990s that she began considering alternative packaging solutions.

When she finally decided to take the plunge with Greenpac, she had her share of detractors. Among them, even family and friends. “People thought I was mad,” she recalls. “They would tell me this is a sunset industry, why would I want to get involved in this instead of something sexier?”

But her determination, grit and vision propelled her forward. To learn the ins and outs of industrial packaging, she even learned to operate a forklift; and till today, she often wears casual clothing to the office, so she can get her hands dirty at the warehouse.

While other women may have been intimidated to make inroads in a male-dominated industry, Chong turned what was perceived to be her biggest weakness into her trump card. “When you are a woman, the men won't scold you,” she says with a laugh. “But it can be tough initially because they need to know that you know your business and show professionalism. But once you have proven yourself, they will respect you.”

Do well by doing good

What truly sets the company apart is Chong's determination to “do good and do well” in everything Greenpac undertakes, including cultivating employee satisfaction. While it is common practice for company executives to spend big bucks on entertaining clients in order to secure deals, she has enforced a “no entertainment” policy in her company. “We believe we can deliver on our promises and we gain business based on our capabilities, hence there is no need for entertaining,” she says.

At the same time, employees are given the opportunity to contribute to the community via the company's outreach programmes, which Chong says are implemented only if they are sustainable. For one initiative, Greenpac donated hydroponics systems to schools and HDB estates in the vicinity. Staff volunteers visit these sites to train students and residents in planting and caring for the plants.

It is also clear that Chong views her employees as her extended family and values their opinions. Before their new office premises were constructed, employees were given the choice to decide if they wanted to turn their common space into a gym or a kitchen. They voted for a kitchen and two years on, everybody still pitches in to prep staff lunches — from harvesting veggies from their rooftop garden to cooking dishes for the office.

These efforts are certainly paying off for Greenpac with employee satisfaction rates consistently in the 90 percent range, proof indeed that Chong's vision more than a decade ago has come to fruition.

Reflecting on her hard-won success, Chong says: “We've always had a clear vision that it is important to have both elements — doing good and doing well — within the company. When employees work in a purpose-driven organisation, they are more motivated in their jobs. This is a philosophy that sits very well in these times; it encourages and inspires people.”

The DBS Insignia Spirit of Vision Prestige Award is an annual accolade presented by DBS Insignia and Prestige to outstanding individuals who exemplify innovation and inspire change