Christine Joubert took over as CEO of Seychelles Trading Company (STC) late last year after previously serving as deputy CEO. The government-owned organization is one of the fastest growing FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) companies and is the biggest importer and wholesaler in Seychelles with a public mandate to guarantee the availability of all basic items at affordable prices
What have been your achievements since taking up the role of CEO?
It’s a bit early to talk about major achievements, however, I have been concentrating on the internal issues concerning how STC does its business. I am looking at the value chain to see how we can make it more efficient by eliminating redundant processes and unnecessary costs related to the way in which we import our products, with storage, and generally how to make the whole operation even more effective. Another priority is ensuring we have an emergency stock of basic items.
What are the major challenges STC faces given its unique position in Seychelles as a public company with a duty to provide a public service but also a company with the need to be profitable?
Shipping, commodity prices, and fluctuations in exchange rates provide us with plenty of challenges. Because our mandate is to provide basic and essential products and ensure they are available at all times at a stable price, these external factors are things we have to manage very carefully. Diversification is the essence of STC’s supply chain management.
What is your approach to diversification of suppliers, and what do you look for in a potential partner?
When you diversify in terms of the countries you deal with and on product types, you can be sure you are getting competitive prices and also a good range of products. It’s good not to have all your eggs in one basket. If there is an issue in one country, we have another to fall back on. We look for suppliers with whom we can build a long-term partnership, in which they understand our needs and we can work together in a win-win situation. We don’t believe in one-off business deals.
STC plays a key role in the local manufacturing sector, with the tea brand, SeyTe, being one of its best-known products. As China is famous for its tea, do you see any scope for creating teas aimed at this market segment?
Yes, it’s very popular. We have a museum with guided tours and a ‘tea trail’ you can do around the plantation, so people can come and see how the tea is made and processed. At the moment, with the facilities and equipment we have, we can only produce quantities for the local market. If there is demand from abroad and investment is put in, then why not grow more? We want to diversify our exports because as a country we import so much. Foreign currency fluctuations can be a problem for us, and, apart from fish, we don’t have many products to export on a large scale. To export, however, you have to make sure your product has attained export standards and that you can compete internationally.
How does STC maintain its competitive edge in the face of more private importers entering into the trading business, fuelling competition with the sector?
STC does not compete with other merchants. We focus on our core mandate, which is to supply essential goods. For example, the last time we changed the prices for basic essentials was in 2010. Despite the fluctuations in world markets since then, we have been able to keep prices at a constant level. For us to do that, we bring in other products that we can make a decent margin on. We keep our competitive edge in terms of the quality of the products, their consistency and the value. Subsidizing avoids passing the fluctuations in commodity costs onto consumers.
How do you hedge against volatile food commodity prices on the global market, and what is your strategy to maintain financial stability?
We have a strong supplier base with whom we enter into commodity contracts for essential food products based on our judgment of the global market behavior supported by our own analysis. The contract may extend from six months to one year based on the expected market behavior through careful analysis of the market. This entails a risk element due to unexpected developments in the market, which is addressed ongoing basis. We maintain financial stability through better planning of our commodity purchases based on optimum inventory levels, supplier credits and management of forex rates and having a diversified portfolio of products ranging from essential to household items to luxury products demanded by travel retail sector.
What expectations do you have for China’s Belt and Road Initiative in terms of trading with China and other countries involved?
We expect the Belt and Road Initiative to improve shipping, logistics solutions, and make it easier to source products from different parts of the world. Likewise, it should bring about more knowledge enhancement through cooperation with Asian and European countries along the belt.
Access is so important. Shipping to Seychelles is actually becoming more difficult as there are few direct sailing routes now – only from the UAE and Singapore. Most vessels from other places have to travel via Oman or the UAE and go around the Indian Ocean islands before coming to Seychelles. So if there are issues in Madagascar or if there is a cyclone somewhere in the Indian Ocean, this affects us. For example, it used to take 14 days for vessels to reach us from South Africa; now it can take as long as 45 days. This is a problem for suppliers, and we have to keep additional stocks, especially of fresh produce because of this greater potential for delays.
What is your assessment of the human resources availability and expertise in Seychelles, and what role does STC play in creating a skilled workforce in the country?
We have availability of manpower but we need to build local talent and expertise. We need to empower the Seychellois, and at STC we value the process of conducting in-house training to improve skills as well as liaising with other labor institutions. Another part of our approach is to expose our staff to different experiences; for example, a proposal put forward during our meeting with an Indian delegation was how they can assist us with the training of our staff. For example, a warehouse manager or staff could go to India and see how they work in warehouses there and even in IT or other areas. Exchange programs could also be interesting, and we are working with several suppliers to see how we can transfer skills in a beneficial way.
STC celebrated its 10-year anniversary this March. What are your thoughts on how the company has helped the country over the last decade?
We have played a key role for the people of Seychelles by stabilizing prices to make sure there are no major fluctuations, as well as guaranteeing the availability of essential goods. We did not celebrate our anniversary in a big way but we rewarded long-term staff who have been with the company from the beginning – 184 of them. We have the firm belief that the company is the staff, and STC is where it is today because of their hard work and commitment.