Meet a supply chain ‘guru’ who handled a pandemic supply chain crisis and intends to pass on the torch

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December 2, 2021

When the pandemic hit last year, Mohammed Zia Uddin took a couple of timely, crucial initiatives to meet the sudden spike in demand for hygiene products. His management style and merit even earned him a supply chain excellence award last year. When the Covid-19 pandemic first hit Bangladesh, the supply of personal hygiene commodities like hand sanitisers, soaps, disinfectants etc experienced a severe shock. 

The employees at Reckitt-Benckiser – one of the leading suppliers of personal hygiene products in Bangladesh – began to rush to meet the sudden rise in demand. Nobody could foresee such drastic changes in the market conditions and they were struggling to supply enough goods to meet the market’s demand. 

Fast forward to the end of 2020, Reckitt-Benckiser not only successfully met the demands of the consumer but also provided 1400 percent dividends to its shareholders – a 150 percent rise from the previous year. So, what changed?

Mohammed Zia Uddin is the Head of Supply at Reckitt Benckiser Ltd. He is responsible for looking after their supply operations in both Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. When the pandemic hit last year, he took a couple of timely initiatives to meet the sudden spike in demand. 

“Under normal circumstances, we used to check the materials requirements planning [a term used in supply chain to estimate quantities of raw materials and schedule their deliveries] once a month. During Covid-19, we sped up that process and did so once every week. 

There were times when we had to supply one month’s worth of products in one day. We were facing an unmanageable demand,” Mohammad Zia Uddin told The Business Standard. On top of that, there were many external issues as well – banks’ working hours were reduced, ports were shut down because of mobility restriction measures imposed either domestically or internationally disrupting the supply chain.

Mohammad Zia Uddin, head of supply, Reckitt-Benckiser.

“We had to be responsive. When the Benapole port shut down, we tried to reroute our materials to Chittagong seaport. We also looked for air shipment options. We were always on our feet to meet new and recurring challenges that were presented during the pandemic,” added Zia.

And all of their efforts eventually paid off as Reckitt Benckiser Ltd. (Bangladesh) received the supply chain excellence award in 2020 for logistics and transportation management. 

At the same event, Mohammed Zia Uddin, also received a special mention award as the supply chain professional of the year for his initiative to augment growth by excelling in supply chain management and for contributing to the development of supply chain professionals.

The Business Standard team had the opportunity to learn about his vision regarding supply chain development in Bangladesh.

Supply chain in the time of pandemic 

Zia believed that the supply chain is crucial for generating value for any company. 

“Supply chain professionals always make trade-offs between cost and services. They can contribute both to the top and bottom lines.

They are the custodian of the S&OP (sales and operations planning) process where they guide businesses by showing sales trends/ageing analyses to ensure the right product in the right quantity is available at the right time. 

The supply chain can optimise the production process with relative ease and simple tweaking in the SKU(stock-keeping unit ) process,” explained Zia. 

The greatest challenge Zia faced in his career was during the Covid-19 pandemic. Apart from the disruption in the supply chain and unpredictable rise in demand, Zia also had to focus on maintaining employee morale. 

“Employees were overworked because of the rise in demand and worried about getting infected. We ensured transportation facilities in coming to work and returning home. We also introduced Covid-19 insurance to protect our employees from the risks of Covid-19 and to provide them security,” remembered Zia. 

Zia believed that there were certain lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic that should be continued into the post-Covid world. 

“Firstly, the Covid-19 pandemic taught us how to manage a supply chain crisis, increasing demand with limited resources. The pandemic also showed that inventory management will be crucial to the supply chain in the post-Covid world,” said Zia.

Zia believed that the Covid-19 pandemic fundamentally changed how we view the workplace, saying “Before the pandemic, we could not imagine an office run entirely from the confines of our homes. But now, more often we have our meetings online and the traditional rigid work structure is becoming more flexible.”

He also urged that companies should focus on developing a business continuity plan. 

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the global supply chain fell apart because most of the raw materials, intermediate and finished products were sourced from one country – China, the source of the pandemic itself. 

“We should develop multiple sources from which we procure our raw materials as well as finished products. These sources can be multiple different countries or different manufacturing bases. That would make our supply chain more agile against future shocks,” added Zia.

The trajectory and success story of this supply chain professional 

Zia completed his Bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology in 2003. Then he started his career at Unilever Bangladesh Ltd., then known as Lever Brothers Bangladesh Ltd.

“At first, I was in the manufacturing department as a production officer. I was in the pan room (soap processing) department and my responsibility was to oversee soap processing, oil processing, glycerin production as well as the overall optimisation of man, machine and method,” he recalled. 

After spending two years in production, Zia moved to the soaps projects in Unilever where he worked on the transformation from traditional soap-making (pan processing) to automated centrifuge operation, new evaporator commissioning. 

One year later he became the soap processing manager at Unilever. So why did he move from manufacturing to supply chain management?

“After working for five and half years, I asked myself if I should continue to work in manufacturing or look for something else. At one point, I decided to move to supply chain management,” explained Zia. 

Unfortunately, Unilever asked him to stay put for the time being and to wait for an opening in the supply chain department in Dhaka. Eventually, Zia left Unilever and joined Shah Cement as the Supply Chain Development Manager and he had some bright ideas there as well. 

“At Shah Cement, I implemented some ideas like route optimisation (increased river transport operation) to make customer services more efficient. Again, we implemented vehicle tracking devices on our vehicles for transit visibility,” said Zia.

Meanwhile, he completed the CSCM (Certified supply Chain Manager) programme from ISCEA Bangladesh.

So when Abul Khair group – the mother company of Shah cement launched a new ceramic industry, they asked Zia to work as a plant manager and look after their total operation given his experience in manufacturing, planning as well as logistics. 

He implemented many things – automated casting, robotic spray, continuous kiln for capacity expansion with minimum investment, etc.

“Although I agreed to the job offer, I was also worried that I would not be able to fulfil my dreams of becoming a supply chain director. So, I enrolled in the IBA Executive MBA programme. Those years of EMBA were extremely hectic as I had to travel to Dhaka from the factory and then back to the factory everyday,” said Zia.

But it would soon be worth it. 

From Abul Khair Group, Zia joined Holcim Cement Bangladesh Limited as the DGM of procurement. He streamlined the P2P (Purchase to Pay) process.

After spending approximately two years at Holcim, he finally landed a job as a full-fledged supply services manager at Reckitt-Benckiser Bangladesh and was promoted to become the head of supply services looking after Bangladesh and Sri Lanka just after 11 months.

Passing on the torch 

Finally, Zia mentioned his visions for the future. He believes that developing young supply chain professionals is crucial for Bangladesh and he wanted to work in this area.

“I never studied supply chain management before getting a job. But I want our youth to get the opportunity to learn about supply chain management during their college years and the opportunities to learn supply chain management is increasing day by day. 

Prominent universities such as DU, NSU, CUET, KUET, BUET, etc., organise seminars on supply chain management,” explained Zia.  

Zia is involved in many of these projects.  He was a guest lecturer at IBA-DU and East Delta University Chittagong. He also conducted the practitioner’s sessions at the Institute of Management Technology, Hyderabad. 

He gave lectures at many other universities to inform and encourage the youth in supply chains. He is also involved in supply chain case competitions as a jury for both the ISCEA PTAK Prize and the Hult Prize Bangladesh. 

As part of the continuous learning process, Zia is currently pursuing a DBA-Doctorate in Business Administration at IBA-DU. He is researching the challenges and competitiveness of supply chain management.

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