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Juggling family, work and night-time study

Juggling family, work and night-time study -  Article Image 1
Gillian with a display of paper food and beverage containers that Huhtamaki makes

“I ENJOY studying. I came from a poor family where girls usually did not get an education, but I was stubborn in wanting to study.” This has been the credo of Gillian Tan, who earned three tertiary qualifications: a polytechnic diploma, a Bachelor of Business and an Executive Master of Business Administration (EMBA) while holding down a full-time job, having a family and taking care of a young son.

Gillian obtained her Bachelor of Business (Management) from SIM-RMIT University in 1998 and her EMBA from SIM-University at Buffalo, State University of New York, in 2009.

Gillian’s passion for education and self-improvement is something she shares with her employees as well. As General Manager South-east Asia of food-service paper packaging company Huhtamaki Singapore, she encourages her staff to take time off to upgrade their skills. Under Gillian’s encouragement, one of them, Key Account Manager South-east Asia, Anna Teo, also enrolled with SIM-RMIT and graduated with a Bachelor of Business (Management) in 2007.

To Gillian, attending classes is more than just getting a paper qualification. “One reason I took the EMBA was to network with other students who were mostly senior executives. While I was contributing to group work, I also learned from my fellow students.”

Rare work species

Gillian, 43, has been with the Finnish-based company since 1991 (with a three-year hiatus). “I belonged to a rare species in Singapore because back then, young people liked to switch jobs every 2-3 years,” she says with a laugh.

Gillian first started as a marketing assistant with the company, then known as Polarcup Singapore which then took on the parent company's name Huhtamaki. In 1993, she left to join another company. She says: “I was approached several times by the previous Operations Manager Lim Pang to return to Polarcup. His sincerity touched me, but it was my mother who persuaded me to take up his offer in 1996.”

Quality is every employee’s business

That year, Huhtamaki Singapore restructured the manufacturing unit to fully-automated packing. Gillian was promoted to be in charge of the Quality Assurance department. “I had a 100-percent turnover of people when I found out that the inspectors were just ticking on the forms and producing millions of leaking cups. I remember having to carry out manual leakage tests for one month for the 32oz Burger King cups with my then newly-employed QA supervisor Anna Teo (the above-mentioned Key Account Manager, SEA). Quality complaints were reduced to half within the year.

“A system of traceability was introduced to make people accountable for the quality of the products. To Gillian, quality is critical to the sustainable performance of the organisation. She believes every employee must be educated on quality because it has to be a company-wide culture, and not solely the responsibility of the QA department.

In 1999, she was re-located to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to manage planning, procurement, QA and logistics. The unit was then in very bad shape which marked the most challenging part of her career as the scope and depth of her responsibilities widened.

In 2000, she returned to Singapore to manage several key accounts. One of them was 7-Eleven with over 100 stores. “We needed to build our supply chain to deliver on time and correctly to every store daily. Today, Huhtamaki Singapore serves over 550 7-Eleven stores island-wide.”

In 2004, she became acting Manager for South-east Asia, taking care of the Malaysian manufacturing unit. In 2005, she returned to Singapore as General Manager. One major client is McDonald’s.

In 2009, she became acting Sales & Marketing Director for North Asia. She won several local key accounts. After a year, she was promoted to General Manager South-east Asia with a continued dedication to expand both key accounts and geographical businesses in the region.

“The keys to success at work are good leadership and teams who share the same dream. It is important to be positive and think that nothing is impossible,” she points out.

“We are often our own biggest enemies, and to have vast experience can kill you sometimes if you don’t think and work differently along with market dynamics. I always remind myself not to be complacent.”

No social life

One of the most demanding periods in her life was in 2007 and 2008 when she was working and studying part-time for her EMBA degree. “Because of the study load, I had no social life. I needed good support from both my boss and colleagues. Before I began my course, I engaged with them so they understood my class timetable and my commitment level." The goal to balance the juggling between study, work and family was constantly in her mind.

 "There were many occasions when I wanted to give up, especially when writing the end-of-course project on Strategic Planning which was very time-demanding." There was little time for her son who was six years old then.

Recalling the modules she studied, Gillian says Marketing was a killer because it involved a lot of practical work. However, she enjoyed the Finance module.

“Some professors taught with a heart, which made the study session both enjoyable and profitable,” she adds.

When Gillian finally received her degree on July 10, 2009, her husband Gary, 8-year-old son Gerwyn, and his nanny Kwee Chin, also received special Master of Understanding certificates at the graduation ceremony. The certificates of appreciation were given to the family members of EMBA graduates under Buffalo’s programme.

A letter sent to graduates from staff at the university explained that “the Master of Understanding is a degree for those not enrolled in the programme but who have played a major role in your progression and ultimate success in it.”

Don’t work late

Gillian strongly believes in family time. “You should spend your weekends building a relationship with your family. The family is important because without them there is no one for you to share your success with,” she says.

Her husband Gary agreed. “She always ensures she has time for the family,” he says.

Gillian’s belief in work-life balance is something she shares with her staff. She encourages them to set their priorities and excel in time management. Recreation is important in life after work. She even rewards them with moive tickets or meal vouchers whenever they do well at work.

Another aspect of her work style is she doesn’t believe in micro-managing. Some years back when she broke her arm during a roller-skating class, and had to take a two-month break from work, she wasn’t worried about leaving her staff by themselves. “If I don’t trust them I will only put unnecessary stress on myself,” she says.

Gillian herself makes time on weekends for swimming and jogging with her husband and son. 

- Interviewed and posted online, 25 July 2014