Sunita Bhambhani Shah, Overseas Director of MEPL Dubai, a founding member of the New Silk Road Network, spoke to us this month about the relevance of the New Silk Road in Dubai and how the companies can leverage it. Ms. Bhambhani Shah shows an active interest in the network and is always ready for a quick chat when needed. Her warm and lively persona makes interactions with her very comfortable, and she is always open to learning and sharing what she has learnt. Knowledge, for Ms. Bhambhani Shah, is the central piece of any good business.
In the interview, we learnt about the formation of MEPL and the range of services they offer, the necessity to diversify and become open to gaining knowledge and experience, and finally, the fatal flaw of ‘over-commitment, that must be avoided by businesses, especially those in project logistics.
In conversation with Sunita…
NSRN: Even though a young company, MEPL has a team of experienced management with a dynamic young workforce. We would like to go back to the origin story, what was the motivation behind MEPL and how was it established, and what has the journey been so far?
Sunita: MEPL was established in 2014 by Awais Ganatra, and I joined him in 2015. Both of us had an experience of 16+ years and the entrepreneurship drive, because of which we decided to plunge into the business side of logistics, an industry that we have both been a part of for a long time. We were well aware of the risks and rewards, but the drive to make our dream come true was much more robust. When you start your own business, there always is that uncertainty, but we had our experience to rely on and gave our best shot.
When Awais started the company, he had the support of some of his loyal customers to begin the business with, allowing MEPL to start its commercial journey. Later, when I joined in 2015, we continued to add more customers. The sustaining relationships that we had in the industry and beyond helped us gain professional benefits too. We are thankful for that.
We employed a mix of a young and experienced team, whom we groomed as per our vision. They are our actual asset. Our employees are so eager to learn and gain knowledge, so mentoring them well is crucial to us. Finally, at MEPL, customer service is the crux of our organisation. In comparison, when you are working in larger MNCs, the calls were passed on all the time. This is what bothers clients a lot, the "waiting to talk to the right person". It is through experience that you realise the nitty-gritty of a good business. Our journey so far has been very fruitful, and we are happy to reach where we are today. Even during the oil crisis, we learnt the lesson of being cautious because doing good business with proper finances is essential, rather than burning our fingers with bad credit terms.
NSRN: You have been in the freight forwarding industry for more than 19 years now. What has been your personal journey within the industry, and what learnings have you applied to your company? Moreover, what responsibilities do you undertake on a day-to-day basis?
Sunita: I entered this industry in 1999 with absolutely no knowledge about logistics. I came to Dubai with an ambition to be financially independent. At the time, the opportunities were very limited. When I moved to Dubai, I didn't know many people, and all these were new experiences for me. At that time, I did plenty of interviews for various jobs, and the logistics industry just happened to be my destiny.
Initially, I took up the work, thinking to give it a try. I have always been open to learning, and that gave me plenty of opportunities to learn and grow. Honestly, this is the best part of the logistics industry. So many years later, I am still learning new things or finding new solutions on a daily basis. That is what has kept me attached to this industry. The scope is infinite.
During my initial years, very few women in the Gulf chose a career in logistics and supply chain. Most preferred the airline industry, which was known to be quite glamourous back then. The logistics industry barely had any women! I remember when I used to go for the hazardous or dangerous goods inspection at the airport, which was usually at midnight or late in the evening, I would look around and see not a single woman there. Moreover, people would be looking at me, wondering what I am doing there! (laughs). Now when I see so many women joining this industry, it makes me happy and proud. I love to groom new talent within our company. They all have some unique traits in them, and it is just a matter of giving them the opportunity. You are as good as your environment, and I can honestly say it is a very healthy environment here, especially for working women.
I am a risk-taker and love working on challenges, so these situations kept me evolved in my work. Luckily, I had wonderful mentors who understood my nature and allowed me to grow in my own element. In the initial few years of my career, I was thrown into various profiles, from operations to commercials, which helped me to gain better knowledge of logistics. I also met a lot of people in this line of work who have been an important part of my journey of learning. For example, in logistics, we encounter various other industries, so we cannot approach them all the same way. We must be like chameleons! (laughs). You gain so much knowledge about different industries, from cosmetics to oil refineries!
As a working mother, I have managed to learn how to balance my work and my house. Though I must add, working mothers have very understanding children (laughs). At the end of the day, it is up to an individual how to balance and prioritise tasks on a day-to-day basis. At MEPL, my central role is to take the organisation forward on the path of growth at different levels, keeping in mind our organisation's goals. With commercial development as one of my areas of expertise, my role is to oversee the projects/contract business and the network building for MEPL.
NSRN: From our previous discussions, we know that MEPL positions itself as a Logistics Service Provider (LSP) and has grown organically along with its customers. How would you describe the strategy of the company? What would you say is unique about MEPL?
Sunita: Yes, that is very true. MEPL has grown organically along with our customers. We are a pure reflection of our customer's requirements to put it simply. We mould ourselves as per our customers' requirements. We work on a four 'P's service strategy:
Perspective: To have clear perspective and establish business plans accordingly.
Position: We position ourselves to optimise our opportunities.
Plan: We plan our operations to be a significant part of the supply chain for our customers.
Pattern: Our working pattern, at all times, must remain in line with our business goals.
As I said, everything we do is to fulfil our customers' requirements and to do that, we model ourselves accordingly. When we started out as a small organisation, we could take plenty of risks. Once you are established, you cannot take those risks. When the oil crisis happened (2014-2016), we were still fortunate to be working on projects when the overall market was low. During that time, we worked on several big projects, to name a few:
• Clean Fuel Project in Kuwait
• KNPC Clean Fuel Project
• Jazan Refinery Terminal Project in Saudi Arabia
• Yanbu Phase 3 Sea Water Pumping Station Project in Saudi Arabia
• Fujairah Petroleum Regeneration Facility
At the time, we took our calculated risks and dived into areas where we had previously not ventured. This strengthened our land movement within GCC. We also added NVOCC business and Container Trading into our company profile. The idea was always to diversify and keep adding profiles as per the market situation. We manage goods of several brands like Carrier, LG, GIRI and Toshiba. Managing these brands from the production to the distribution in various countries has definitely added to our partnership with our overseas network partners.
NSRN: A significant part of MEPL's portfolio is Project Logistics. Having worked with various refineries, construction companies and other heavy industries, what would you underline as the basic requirements to enter this area of logistics? What benefits does it offer to logistics companies to expand in this area? And what could be some pitfalls to watch out for?
Sunita: MEPL has been lucky to get its share of projects at the start of our business. Honestly, that is unheard of for companies that have just entered the market. This is purely because some of our clients believed in us and supported us in our new venture. We have handled projects for refineries in Saudi, Kuwait and Oman and the movement of pipes has been one of our expertise. We had special trucks customised to carry these long pipes from Saudi to Kuwait, which were not available in the market.
The major requirements to work with project-oriented clients is clarity of operations, experience in facing operational challenges and timely deliveries. The clients simply want to know, 'do you know what you are doing?' (laughs). For example, if there is a project in Turkmenistan and one bids for it; it may be difficult for a company based in Dubai to understand the nuances of a different country/region. Having a good partner in the country of operation is very crucial in the success of such projects. Knowing the region and operations is key to projects.
We should have experience in facing operational challenges so that we can navigate the projects successfully. This area is not easy, and the challenges are usually magnified. Finally, you need to make timely deliveries because your KPIs are based on it, and if they falter, the chances are that you will not acquire more projects.
One of the biggest pitfalls in our industry is 'over-commitment'. Usually, in a hurry to win business, many tend to overlook the challenges and commit to difficult timelines, which later jeopardises the business relations and the quality of your service. We are honest with our capabilities, and that’s what helps us to keep the faith of our clients.
NSRN: The recent developments in the world have had corrosive effects in the world of supply chain, from equipment shortage, lack of space to the shortage of manpower. What impacts were felt by your company, and how did you mitigate them?
Sunita: These are the global challenges faced by the entire logistics and supply chain industry. The supply chain of our customers was/is worst hit with these issues. The liners have not been very supportive through this. With the pandemic, this situation got worse. Initially, we were just on a reactionary mode of protecting our business, which meant the cost was high and profits lesser. Thanks to the support of our partners, we could plan a lot better as time progressed even though the challenges did not seem to cease. The first four months of 2020 were difficult, but post-June 2020 we understood the situation and the seriousness of its long duration. Pre-booking the inventory helped us a lot. The situation, in general, is still the same. Unfortunately, we do not see any hope for improvement yet. At least for our contract business, we can plan well in advance because most details are chalked out. We also try to book with shipping lines in advance, and they also keep us informed on the ground situation, so that we can plan better. Therefore, we tried to handle this precarious situation in 2 ways:
1. Planning with the estimation and booking
2. Being honest to our customers and keeping them updated real-time.
NSRN: Finally, as a founding member of NSRN and with China's growing interest in Dubai, what kind of business would you like to develop through the network? What are some of your future goals in terms of market expansion for the company?
Sunita: For sure, we do not fit into the frame of the Far East and Europe operations. We understand that we are not in the 'A' category. However, we have plenty of business and partnerships in China and Europe separately. These two regions are our major areas of interest. Furthermore, it is of interest to us to see how this will develop in the future because of Dubai's growing interest in the New Silk Road. One might as well be there well in advance! Besides, we do not have much to lose, as both these regions are central to our business.
We are at the centre, therefore beneficiaries of East and West. Our business is multidirectional. The other reason we joined was that Alexander Hellmers was very persuasive! (laughs). The future of our company involves the expansion of our operation/office into more countries. Establishing our products like our NVOCC Line and expanding our sales activities for different sectors and products.