Robert Smith

Leading teams across countries of operation in today’s diversified world – an interview with Robert Smith, COO – Contracting and Logistics

Overseeing our international operations and various diverse teams and services across BMMI, Robert Smith, Chief Operating Officer – Logistics and Supply Chain, has experienced how the organisation and its people have grown and evolved over the years. The Corporate Communications and Marketing team recently sat down with Robert to learn more about BMMI’s diverse services and his approach to leadership.

Which of BMMI’s divisions, services and teams do you head?

All our international contracting businesses which include clients in the government, defence, NGO and extractives sectors, as well as the services we provide in procurement, logistics and facilities management activities – so it’s a matrix between product services and segments. Our people on the ground are remarkable, and work with an ethic of going above and beyond every day. I am proud of how our teams truly value customer experience and being solutions driven.

Another division is  our logistics arm, Bahrain Logistics Services (BLS). Distribution is got to be the heart and the soul of the organisation, and the team behind it are an amazing and hard working group of individuals. Without the team doing that work nothing happens. Our logistics and supply chain is where all the company comes together, whether it’s our FMCG, beverages, Alosra or sales teams, they all depend on the BLS team for their activities.

Finally, I also oversee our shipping division BMMI Shipping Services (BSS). BSS is our youngest fully-owned division, being just one year old, although we have been heavily involved in the shipping industry since we BMMI was first established in 1883. The team has already proven their resilience and potential in such a short period of time.

What have we been doing to help us grow within Bahrain and abroad?

There’s a lot of opportunity for growth, and that would require getting more diversified with the things that we do within the different businesses BMMI have capability of delivering in.

What we realised is that we need to diversify and we’ve started to do just that in our countries of operation by moving into consumer channels because it links to food procurement and logistics, which we’re strong in. We have a very high logistics competence, so we can look at buying globally and managing the inbound freight and the in-country logistics.

With BSS, we’re looking into expanding in the Eastern province of Saudi and that will be activated very soon. Because of Saudi’s proximity, we can utilise our same, experienced management team here to seize new business opportunities there, and grow our reach and revenue. Moving on, we’re looking into further areas of Saudi, and even our other countries of operations.

In Bahrain we have experience working with international principals in FMCG and beverages, so we’re leaning on those teams to also help with developing some areas. This way it’s more of an actual fit than getting into other activities and we can align that with our contractual operations more easily. It is all about organic and sustainable growth.  Our approach is to do more things in the same markets and utilise on our network, capabilities and talent.

In these competitive environments, how does BMMI set itself apart?

To put it simply, it comes down to integrity and trust and to being able to develop advocates for your business within your customer base.

Most importantly, it’s really about relationships. There are a lot of players in the field, and you’ve got make sure that you keep BMMI on the top of clients’ minds when they are looking for a solution, subcontractor, service or a partner. But it’s not only about staying in touch, it also comes down to reputation. You want to make your customers satisfied enough that they will be advocates for you within their organisation and others. This involves performing well, delivering above expectations and being solution driven and adaptable.

We’ve also actively joined networks that help us showcase all that we can do and expose us to the right people, such as the International Stability Operations Association (ISOA), in addition to conducting business trips where you meet people in person and get to know them. Business is all about people, and the better you are at making yourself trustworthy and memorable, the more success you will see.

Speaking of people, with the number of diverse teams you oversee across eight countries, what has your experience been like?

Honestly, I don’t know any different. I first came to the Middle East as a fresh graduate in 1984, so throughout my career, I have worked with so many different nationalities that it has become second nature for me and something that I truly appreciate and learn from tremendously.

It continues to be very interesting to go out and find out about different cultures. And you learn a lot from the local members of the team, things which if you are not culturally aware of, you would not be able to properly understand why a decision has been made and how exactly the mind in front of you is working. We all continue to learn from each other and the ability of these diverse teams to work together so effectively continues to amaze me.

The one thing that I have noticed as a welcome development throughout the years the number of women in the workforce, especially in many of our African operations where there’s quite a high percentage of females in management and all areas of the business.

BMMI’s unique Winning Hearts culture unites employees across various divisions and countries of operation, how do you ensure its’ promoted across the board?

Culture is very important to BMMI and we do various things to make sure we live by our values. For example, we try to be as inclusive as possible in our divisional team meetings by having as many people attend from across the division as feasible, and not only the people who report directly to me. It’s a great opportunity for everyone to learn more information about what’s happening with the division and to make sure they understand its performance, profitability, sales and what initiatives and developments are taking place.

The process I like to follow in these meetings is that the main presentation is not run by the head of the department, but rather by one person in the team selected every month. This gives the person the opportunity to have more knowledge about the entire division in order to present the information. This transparency is in line with our corporate value of ‘Honesty’. Everyone being informed and giving them a space to share their opinions is a crucial part of that.

We also live our other four values of Excellence, Achievement, Recognition and Team Spirit by recognising great performance and people living the culture during our team meetings, to foster team spirit and reinforce our culture. Internationally, we also follow the same approach, our HR Manager, Gregory White, has been doing a great job when going out to all our operations by ensuring he promotes the Winning Hearts culture across our entire workforce.

Furthermore, I’m honoured to work with a team of leaders that believes and promotes our Winning Hearts values and our performance culture both internally and externally, including, but not limited to, Olivier Fricot, Charles Swamy, Rishi Sevak, Ramachandran Kandambeth and Herman Venter.

What advice or tips do you have for those managing diverse teams or those across various countries?

I think one of the most important things is being approachable and having an open-door policy. Being friendly is very important and so is trying to brighten people up when you walk into the room, even if you do not necessarily have the most outgoing or gregarious personality. Make sure to stop and say hello to people, try to remember as many of the names of the people around you as possible – it really makes a difference.

You must also do your best to try and understand what your teams’ needs and wants are. Your role is really to give direction and advice and to keep everyone motivated and moving forward. You need to trust your people and give the space to do what they have to do with out intervening in every moment. Your people need to know that you are both honest and fair. To me, leadership is all about getting people to do what you want done because they want to do it, and getting them to want to do it is the hard part. It involves keeping people motivated, and letting them know the broad directions while giving them the space to come back with their ideas and suggestions to grow the business.

I also don’t believe that anyone should live in fear of their organisation or leadership. There needs to be an acceptance of what is expected of you and know there will be consequences if you really go off on the wrong direction, but people don’t want to be threatened by ‘if you don’t do this, that will happen to you’ every half an hour.

Finally, and most importantly, always respect hard work. To me, hard work and performance trump education, title, grade or status.  If you see yourself as what people term “white collar” or a leader above the rest that is creating all of these great things, without recognising the people doing the hard work then that’s not leadership. I only judge people based on what they put in and it’s given me a broad social spectrum where I feel comfortable speaking to a CEO or a Chairman or anyone else in the organisation. Unfortunately, some people also confuse education with intelligence. The truth is some people haven’t had the opportunity to be educated but are very intelligent and vice versa, some people have had an enormous amount of education and are not very intelligent. Again, I don’t get very excited if someone says ‘I’ve got this or that degree’ it means nothing to me. At the end of the day I am going to judge you based on how you act and what you deliver, and I believe that’s a recipe for good management.