Share on:

Leadership during a crisis: A chat with Ninja Van CEO Lai Chang Wen

Insights from leaders, CEOs and business owners on leadership during a crisis.

Unlike most of us, Ninja Van’s CEO Lai Chang Wen heads to the office every morning. His company is considered an essential service. While most of his administrative staff work from home, Chang Wen chooses to be at the frontline to solve the issues (and there are many), as they pop up.

In fact, Ninja Van recently concluded a US$279 million Series D funding round in these challenging market conditions. The round was led by existing investor GeoPost alongside two sovereign wealth funds, with returning participation from B Capital Group and Monk’s Hill Ventures. Other investors joining the round include Carmenta, Grab, Golden Gate Ventures Growth Fund, and Intouch Holdings.

The Peak Series: Leadership Tips During a Crisis

In the first part of a five-part digital series, The Peak speaks to CEOs, leaders and business owners in Singapore to glean some insights on leadership and navigating a company during a crisis. Here are a few highlights from our conversation with Chang Wen.

CEO of Ninja Van, Lai Chang Wen.

CEO of Ninja Van, Lai Chang Wen.

A virtual connection can only get you so far.

Chang Wen believes in the power of physical presence and face-to-face meetings. For him, strong business relationships are forged with a firm handshake, not a virtual wave. “It’s hard to forge a relationship virtually. If you haven’t forged that strong relationship through face-to-face social interactions, a virtual meeting can only get you that far. The reality is that virtual meetings can only amplify and maintain existing working relationships, but it can’t forge a new one.”

Trust your staff.

“We have shied away from forcing our staff to do daily video check-ins. Life is already a bit tough now, so let’s not make it worse by forcing the staff to put on a shirt above their pyjamas every day to say hi to the whole team and waste two hours. But I keep the lines of communication open and we do have a video conference every once in a while, on issues that really matter. I think the more important thing is to keep the information flowing.”

(Related: How CEOs around the world are responding to Covid-19)

The lessons from this crisis will significantly change the landscape.

When Ninja Van in 2014, Chang Wen and his co-founders instituted multiple standard operating procedures (SOPs) for the company and staff. This has proven useful during this crisis, with business and work continuing unabated despite the circuit breaker measures in place. However, Chang Wen foresees a significant change in the future. “The big question here is, when will social distancing end? Retail may open again, but will footfall remain the same in the next year? Previously, online was considered ancillary to the overall revenue, but Covid-19 has forced the retail world to shift online.”

And the CEO opines that third-party platforms are just short-term solutions. “Platforms are a viable channel, but then they will own the consumers. The same way you want to own your brand and your customers is the same mentality you must have when you go online. How do you replicate and maintain the intimacy and conversations that you have with your customers in the store online?”

Always plan ahead even during a crisis.

In that regard, Chang Wen is anticipating a huge wave of brands that are looking to build online storefronts that not only mimic but enhance the customer experience. He already saw this happening three years ago and began conversations with his clients. Most of them gently shut the door in his face, but he now believes that that door will reopen again, simply because they have to.

Always pay it forward too.

“I think a crucial quality of leadership during a crisis is not about doing less in difficult times because it’s already difficult to do things. Rather, how can you do more? How do you give people a worthwhile cause to rally towards? There are so many communities affected by this crisis. So, can we do something as a company to give back to the community? That’s what spurred our decision to launch #SGPaysItForward. People find purpose not only in driving the business, but also in helping others, and if you put the two together, then people will see a lot more meaning in their purpose.”

Amplifying your charitable efforts.

“Do we donate money? Yes, that’s possible and Ninja Van already is. But we saw an opportunity to leverage on our extensive distribution network to make an impact on people. That led to us speaking to a few people, one of whom was Sylvia from Night Owl Cinematics. She said that they could leverage on the entire social media community to allow Singaporeans to pay it forward. For every $25, vulnerable communities in Singapore get a care pack that’s worth $40. Your money goes a longer way. This joint initiative allows us to contribute at a scale that none of us could have done individually.”

(Related: 5 quotes from CEOs on the importance of innovation)

Leaders must show empathy, compassion and confidence.

Covid-19 will eventually become a footnote in human history. The key now, according to Chang Wen, is to reassure your staff on the company’s direction forward and to give them purpose, while also giving back. Empathy and compassion go a long way, but at the same time, a leader must also have the steel to do difficult things. For those who are not as badly affected, Chang Wen encourages you to pull as many people together and make sure that everyone emerges from this as unscathed as possible.

Updated 5 May 2020

More from The Peak’s Leadership During a Crisis series:

Hexogon Solution group MD Adrian Goh

Safe Space CEO Antoinette Renee Patterson

The Lo & Behold Group managing partner Wee Teng Wen