Karen Reddington, president of Asia Pacific for FedEx, has been a stalwart in the logistics industry. Having relocated officially to Hong Kong, she speaks as to what she sees as the future of the company, her new role leading Asia Pacific, and why she cares so much about educating the next generation

By Blessing Waung

To be at the forefront of the logistics industry, one must be centered immediately above where the action is happening. Dr. Karen Reddington is just that.

In January, Reddington moved back to Hong Kong as the president of Asia Pacific for FedEx to succeed David Cunningham Jr., who is now the company’s chief operating officer. When asked if she thought she would be sitting in the president’s seat 18 years into her career here, Reddington laughs, “Oh, heavens, no. Not at all.”

The transition back to Hong Kong hasn’t been a difficult one, rather more like a homecoming, Reddington says. While based in Singapore in her previous role as vice president of South Pacific for FedEx, she would often travel back and forth.

“I think FedEx [has] given me great opportunities that I never imagined. I think, just taking that first step as I did, and moving internationally, that was the first big step and the rest of the journey with FedEx has just been one exciting twist and turn after another.”

Reddington first arrived in Hong Kong in 1997, as an operations research advisor for the global courier giant. Her academic background includes a doctorate from the London School of Economics in operations research.

“Hong Kong is the headquarters so the good thing about starting in the headquarters office is, you do get to be involved and see a lot of the change,” Reddington says. “I think really, since I’ve joined, I’ve been quite lucky and that is lots of story of growth, ballooning up of China. And you really got to see that quite dramatically sitting in Hong Kong.”

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Since coming onboard at FedEx, the executive says she has spent a lot of time with her team in order to set the tone. Her primary objective is to continue solving with innovation, and the way she goes about doing so is by going out to markets, meeting people whom she says are on “at the front line” and understanding what they are doing locally to shape and change the way business is done. Flexibility, in an ever-evolving industry, is what keeps them empowered to serve their customers.

“Over the period I’ve been [with FedEx], our hub was built in Guangzhou and we recently added our hub in Singapore and the North Pacific hub in Kansai Airport. It’s been quite a dramatic 20 years, and I think it’s been a story of two hubs. The first one being growth in and the opening up of China and the second part is really the emergence of e-commerce and technology.”

“Twenty years ago, FedEx was fueled by electronics, and our value proposition was providing capacity and speed. The ‘Asian tigers’ were experiencing meteoric growth, thanks to exports of consumer electronics, computers and peripherals, telecom parts and computers.”

“[Now] SMEs are ‘going global’ in droves and taking advantage of the opportunity to sell goods in overseas markets,” says Reddington.

Regional Role

As she pointed out in the AmCham China Conference in September, China delivered nearly 14 billion packages last year, which was a whopping 52 percent increase from the year before. In fact, according to China’s State Post Bureau, nearly two-thirds of all the packages moving through the national postal system last year were related to e-commerce. That figure stands to grow.

“The thing that people often overlook is just how important China has become in terms of Asia Pacific inter-regional trade,” Reddington says. “Now it accounts for about 47 percent of all of ASEAN total trade. For us, it’s not just about China, but it’s also about the rise in that inter-regional trade that’s great news to both economies such as Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, countries that still have growth projections.”

Growth projections for this region are still between 5 to 6.5 percent for the next few years, so in conversations about “The New Normal” Reddington says the company’s goal is to support and enable those growth figures.

“The market is changing so rapidly and there is no way somebody sitting in one location could really be able to say ‘This is what we’re going to do’,” Reddington says. “What I see as part of my role is to be somewhat of a listening post, understanding what’s happening locally but also giving our people the freedom to really look at how they can solve some of these challenges with innovation.

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“In Asia Pacific, you can have some umbrella solutions, but also there are lots of local nuances that you have to be quite respectful of and embrace specifically within the local market.”

“Our job is trying to make sure that we stay flexible in treating our customers. We’ve done things such as opening up in 7-Eleven in Taiwan, so that customers can collect their packages,” Reddington says. “[We’re also] providing evening deliveries in Singapore to residential customers.”

This year alone, FedEx extended its services to 5,000 7-Eleven stores across Taiwan, which multiplied the presence sixfold.

E-commerce revolution

“One example of this is the explosive growth of e-commerce. Global B2C e-commerce sales are projected to rise to US$2 trillion this year, up from US$1.5 trillion last year, and this has caused a corresponding surge in demand for shipments of goods purchased online,” Reddington points out. Indeed, e-commerce sales in Asia Pacific are expected to reach US$681.2 billion this year, which makes it the largest market for e-commerce in the world.

Reddington is also looking at another sector, the healthcare industry, which she believes will fuel the growth of express logistics. According to a report from Infiniti Research, it will grow at a rate of about 11 percent over the next few years.

“In terms of how customers interact with information, the Internet and the smartphone era, [it] has heralded a sea change. Twenty years ago, without this technology, it would have been impossible for a customer to check the status of a package status online.” Today, however, Reddington cites FedEx’s adaptation to this change, with solutions developed specifically for mobile devices, for easy shipment tracking, notifications and customer feedback. The product Reddington seems most excited about is SenseAware, FedEx’s service that provides almost real-time access to a shipment’s vital statistics while in transit, and the ability to share that information continually. With this technology, she says, customers can better control their supply chain and have up-to-date information of their most critical and time-sensitive shipments.

“Now you can track things like temperature, humidity and exactly where your package is at any time. And so, we’re all very passionate about those changes in the marketplace that to some extent, shape our business and how we make shifts to meet those, but also about the technological change that we can start to invite and provide great solutions for our customers.”

In good company

Besides investing in innovations to their operation, FedEx has also spent a great deal of time and resources in their employees. Programs range from training for management staff on working with their employees to an effective feedback mechanism that employees can feel engaged in. The company makes sure that its workers have career development opportunities for mature development or moving up the company.

“We do have a lot of people that get promoted from within the company. I think a part of that is it definitely feels like more of a family because if I go around the region now, it’s wonderful because I have the opportunity to link up again with people in my career that I worked for,” Reddington explains.

“I didn’t expect to stay for this long in Asia as I did when I joined FedEx. I certainly wanted to join a company, stay with it and be involved in the growth of that company because that is what I enjoy.”

Next generation

In addition to her role at FedEx, Reddington is a member of the Executive Committee of Junior Achievement Hong Kong, a charity dedicated to empowering the youth in “Work Readiness, Entrepreneurial Thinking and Financial Literacy.” At the FedEx Express/Junior Achievement International Trade Challenge in August, a team from New Zealand won the challenge with their business proposition for creating a market entry strategy for a fast food chain hypothetically set in Cuba.

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FedEx has been a corporate sponsor of Junior Achievement for a number of years, and with the International Trade Challenge hosted in Singapore, Reddington says she had the opportunity to witness young people’s initial education on how to get engaged in global trade, and what it means to enter marketplaces in the modern economy.

“Every country in the world is at different stages of development and exposure, but it’s great to see young people coming from places like Vietnam, Singapore, Japan; in some cases, [they] connect over the web and talk to each other about what they’re doing in their region, so we see it as a wonderful way to connect the next generation to the global business world,” Reddington says.

Because of her success in her career, to those who have approached her for advice, she says, “Take up challenges as they come. Don’t be afraid to change the conditions, because you will learn something new in every role. You’re going to have to take lots of steps before you either move along the ladder, or up the ladder, but at every step you take, you learn a little bit more that helps you along the way.”