We're gearing up to deliver even more in 2015, promises CEO of Seychelles Trading Company
One of the country's top businesswomen, Veronique Laporte, has surmounted many challenges to accomplish the goal she had set for the Seychelles Trading Company since becoming CEO in March 2013 (Seychelles News Agency)
(Seychelles News Agency) - In 2008, the Seychelles Trading Company replaced the Seychelles Marketing Board (SMB) as the main trading company in Seychelles. In recent years, changes to the way the company operates have seen STC transform into a more successful and self-sufficient FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) company.
Under the management of its current chief executive officer, Veronique Laporte, STC has continually pushed the boundaries of enterprise by expanding into importing a larger variety of products which until now were unheard of or unavailable to the archipelago’s 90,000 population.
STC remains the main importer and wholesaler in the Seychelles, and of late ventured into more product portfolios to include a wider range of typical essential consumer goods, construction materials, and healthy food.
Known for her innovative approach in a private construction company, CCCL, and later as the second-in-charge at the Seychelles Ministry of Health, Laporte, who is also the chairperson of the Société Seychelloise d’Investissement (SSI), the agency that manages government shares in enterprises, spoke to SNA about the challenges and success of running the company.
|Local consumers in Seychelles have recently enjoyed a greater variety of products than have been seen in years gone by (Seychelles Trading Company) Photo license: CC-BY|
SNA: Let’s start off by recapping: what are some of the things that STC accomplished in 2014?
VL: STC has accomplished a lot in 2014. We have upgraded the supermarket in Victoria and imported goods that we did not have in the beginning, so as to give people a wider variety of choices at reasonable prices. We have even gone into healthy eating, albeit on a small scale given space constraints, and it’s something I want to make very big this year, as I continue to push the importance of healthy living in Seychelles.
In addition, we have also introduced sales of construction materials and homeware, to provide more choices to people and enable them to live more comfortably.
Aside from the most populated island of Mahé, we provided retail shopping experiences to Praslin and La Digue islands, which altogether have a population of around ten thousand people.
With regard to wholesale, we have looked at efficiency and distribution. Here too, we have improved on the variety of commodities that benefit the business sector to sell in the districts or use as inputs for their own production or value-added products.
Overall, we have tried to provide a variety of products, including, targeting special events such as Valentine’s Day, Christmas and New Year’s gift items, and this year we plan to target more, as we have experienced a lack of products for special events on the local market last year.
Our motto is ‘STC values your trust’, so we needed to improve our overall image and services, and thus our reputation. When somebody is buying anything from STC, they are not thinking twice about its quality. But more focus is now required for us to be more efficient and deliver a service that our customers are expecting.
|The La Digue supermarket, which services the third largest island's population of around 2,000 people, also received a make-over in 2014. (Seychelles Trading Company) Photo license: CC-BY|
SNA: STC was the first company in Seychelles to introduce the loyalty card. How successful has this venture been and how beneficial is it to the consumers?
VL: The loyalty card has been a very good strategy but had its challenges. The card boosted our customer base and our sales, but given our space constraints, the supermarket being too small, it was very difficult for my team to manage effectively and to some extent, it negatively affected our service delivery.
The card works like a discount, on which you actually gain points which you can shop with. In addition, the loyalty card holders get more discounts when we have sales and they also get priority over limited stocks compared to other normal customers. Moreover, they also stand a chance to win quarterly lottery draws, and end-of-year Christmas lotteries, which has very interesting prizes.
In 2015, we will be launching a new version of the card, which will allow our loyal customers to shop more conveniently at our retail stores.
SNA: Of all the new products and offerings introduced in 2014, what has proven to be the most popular or well-received by your clients?
VL: The fresh fruits and vegetables that were not readily available to the local population in Seychelles, a variety of body care products, food items such as fresh milk and other fresh dairies, the healthy products variety.... even the household items were very popular.
SNA: What is the ratio of local products to imported products?
VL: We are still importing a lot. Given Seychelles’ specific challenges as a small island state, I believe STC will always continue to import. In 2014, we have nonetheless pushed for a lot of local products and I would take this opportunity to thank all the local suppliers who have consistently worked with STC for the supply of fresh fruits, vegetables and meat. I am looking forward for more interest and more variety in supply from the local market, including fish and fish products.
In addition, we have purchased from a lot of local businesses (wholesalers), for a variety of goods that they have exclusivity on. I would also like to thank them for their business and I confirm that there are many more opportunities to do business with STC and they are all welcome!
SNA: Let’s talk for a moment about how you have increased your range – is this something you are planning to maintain in 2015?
VL: My team and I participated in a lot of international trade fairs and undertook various specific country visits to experience and identify diverse range of products. We also undertook a lot of market testing last year to better understand our customer base and needs. These will of course continue and we will continue to expose our customers to a newer and wider range of products.
As mentioned, we will be targeting healthy living this year and organic food is high on the agenda. Of course, we have to educate our customers as there will be a trade-off between the price of these products and the health benefits.
People have to understand that they need to take care of their heath and STC will continue to provide them with a range of products that will suit their particular dietary needs and affordability. I also think, it is an opportune time for the local stakeholders to start seriously looking at organic production and farming in Seychelles, for which STC will naturally be a committed partner.
|In May last year, STC launched a Healthy Corner in its main supermarket, offering a selection of organic, sugar-free and gluten-free products for the specific health needs of their clientele. (Seychelles Trading Company) Photo license: CC-BY|
SNA: Let’s talk about competition – for example, ISPC has established itself quite well in Seychelles now and there are a number of other smaller supermarket chains coming up. What is STC’s place in the market and is there still space for more competition in Seychelles?
VL: The main role of STC is to anchor prices and ensure the people of Seychelles can get access to a wider variety of reasonably priced goods. I personally think completion is healthy and very beneficial to consumers, especially in Seychelles given our size and uniqueness. I believe that there are many niche markets still to be explored and developed in the retail sector, which any size of business or individual can capture.
In addition, STC has and will continue to play another important role – that is to stimulate further private sector development. Since taking over the CEO role, I have engaged more businesses, especially small entrepreneurs, to capitalise on the opportunities STC presents to them. There are indeed many more opportunities this year for serious and committed partners to work with STC - for the love of Seychelles!
SNA: Inflation and the rising cost of living is always a reality and something that everyone has to contend with – are you satisfied that STC is affordable for those who live on lower incomes?
VL: No matter what changes are happening in the economy, STC has to ensure that the prices of basic commodities such as rice, potatoes, sugar, apples, oranges and baby food does not change. It is important to note however, that because of wider ranges of products available on the shelves, today, there are indeed a different price and quality mix which customers can choose from.
When we had the increase in foreign exchange in the last quarter of 2014, all commodity prices went up, but STC ensured that the prices of the 14 basic commodities or essential goods did not change. It is my view therefore that at STC people with lower incomes will always be able to afford basic commodities of reasonable quality.
Given the cost and losses to ensure the above, however, I have to diversify our product range to be able to subsidise for the losses on these basic products. I will take this opportunity to reiterate that STC does not receive any subvention or budget allocation from the government. Our strategy to diversify allows STC to maintain one of its primary objectives, which is ensuring affordable products at all times, but it also allows us to cater for medium and higher income customers as well.
Overall, for 2014, STC has done very well in terms of revenue but we experienced an escalating cost of doing business – the main ones were out of our control or required expenditures that we had to undertake given our mandate. As CEO, my focus on the sustainability of the company and availability of a wide variety of goods at reasonable price and quality, including availability of basic commodities at all times.
SNA: What is the biggest thing coming up for STC in 2015?
VL: The biggest challenge is the opening of a bigger supermarket than the one we currently have in Victoria (a hypermarket in the context of Seychelles), planned for June, at the ex-Cassis property on Bois de Rose Avenue. This will not only present our customers with a more comfortable shopping experience, including ample parking spaces, convenient opening times, bus shuttle for those who do not have vehicles, and they will benefit from a much wider variety of quality products at affordable prices and services all under one roof.
This project is also important as it will provide employment opportunities for the Seychellois people and provide a bigger platform for more STC-private sector business engagements for the benefit of Seychelles. In addition, Seychellois Société d’Investissements, (SSI), who is managing the whole the Bois De Rose Investment property, will be advertising soon expression of interest for about 18 outlets which can be undertaken by the private businesses.
The current supermarket at Albert Street in the centre of town will continue to operate for the benefit of people living or operating closer to town, but I believe it will become much less congested than it is today.
|Veronique Laporte last year re-launched STC's locally-manufactured tea brand, Seyte, featuring re-branded packaging and aromatic flavours including vanilla, strawberry and lemon. (Seychelles Trading Company) Photo license: CC-BY|
SNA: With regards to the tea factory, you made a number of improvements to this over the past two years, by re-branding the tea and making the tea factory more exciting for visitors – what is on the cards for the tea side of things in 2015?
VL: Yes, my team at the Tea Factory has done well and we need to improve the machinery and our infrastructure there. The old machinery will be kept as a museum attraction while we put in place a more efficient and modern system. We are also looking at making the premise more tourist and visitor friendly. The major renovations will take place in 2016.
SNA: What about the issue of customer service in the stores, is there still work to be done there?
VL: Last year we introduced a customer care officer in all our retail outlets to improve our customer service. We have also undertaken various training sessions with our staff, including cashiers and sales assistants. All this has been good but there is still much work to be done. Space constraints are one of our main challenges currently and now to a lesser extent the staff attitude. Indeed, they have been under pressure in 2014 given the increased number of customers and the new ways of working. It’s a cultural change and this is not easy for the staff and management. On top of that, having a CEO who does not sit in her office makes things more difficult! (laughs)
SNA: As you have been CEO of STC for about two years now, what have you learned personally from this time? What have been the most challenging aspects of the job?
VL: In the beginning, my biggest challenge was the organisational change, as I felt STC needed to operate more efficiently and deliver a better service. There was a lot of resistance to change, but from a small group within STC only, which is a normal expectation in organisational change management, but it was encouraged by certain groups or individuals from outside STC, and this gave rise to a lot of untrue allegations and personal attacks. These personally made me stronger, and it gave me greater insight about people’ behaviour and attitudes. Today, I believe I can deal more with disappointments but maybe it has made me less trustful in people!
On the other hand, I have improved on my business negotiating skills and built very good business relationships with professional people, locally and in different parts of the world. My two years – almost! – at STC has been a great experience and I know there are more challenges ahead which I am ready to tackle, together with my team.