In Profile...Phit Lian Chong

Phit Lian Chong

Singapore based Phit Lian Chong has enjoyed a varied and very successful career. From humble beginnings, Phit Lian attributes her success to grabbing any opportunities given to her and working smart and hard. Her career began as an engineering assistant and she has gone on to hold leadership positions in a wide range of industries from manufacturing, engineering , project management, leisure and lifestyle  to township development. 

Phit Lian was the surprise CEO appointment of JetStar Asia airline in 2006 and despite having no previous airline experience; within 3 years she led a team to turn the struggling company around to be a profitable entity. 

She now holds advisor and board membership roles in several companies, as well as serving on board of education institutions in the promotion of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education and help student to be global ready. She graduated from Aston with a BSc (Hons) Degree in Production Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies in 1978.

You graduated from Aston in Production Technology and Management in 1978.  Why did you choose to come to the UK to study and how did choose Aston?

Even in primary school I knew a better higher education could pave the way for more opportunities for a better life.

After completing a Production Engineering Diploma course at Singapore Polytechnic in 1974, I started work life as Engineering Assistant. 

While working, I started researching universities and courses that I can apply for, to fulfil my wish for university education. The UK was my top choice as many of my seniors attended universities in the UK and were doing well in their careers and were happy with their lifestyle.

A few of my seniors who were having very good career progressions attended Aston University. With what I knew of Aston graduates' achievement, I applied to Aston University and I was delighted when I received acceptance offer from Aston for my application to Production Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies course, as 2nd year direct entry student. 

When I began my journey to Aston in September 1976, I had already been working for more than 2 years. Though it was Production Engineering and Manufacturing Technology course, the scope and contents of the course provided me with strong foundations of critical success factors for many fields of my endeavours after my graduation. It was not just how to design products and services, the manufacturing with required quality value add, and sustainability that benefit both local and the larger environment that matters were well covered through several subjects of the course.

Do you have any fond memories from your time at Aston?

In my class there were seven of us from Singapore, four of them were my friends from Singapore Polytechnic.  It was great and fun to have old friends at Aston as well as meeting new friends in a new environment. I am still in frequent contacts with my Aston classmates and often reminisce of our happy together at Aston whenever we gather to have lunch. 

Lectures, lab work, project submissions, assignments and exams were the main elements of our life at Aston, and the placement year gave great opportunities to experience work life.

Though on tight study schedule, we made time to gather with old and new friends to share recipes and savour the cooking skills of each other.  Many great tourist attractions were within reach even as budget travellers. 

What was your intended career path after graduating from Aston and what were your first steps after graduation? What do you see are your career highlights?

Armed with my Aston qualifications, I applied for MBA course at Strathclyde Scottish Business School and continued my master education in U.K. 

On my return to Singapore during end of 1979, I was happy to have multiple job offers due to my past work experience, engineering, technical and management qualifications. In the last 40 years, I have held various leadership positions in a wide spectrum of industries including manufacturing, engineering & project management, retail and lifestyle, travel & leisure, aviation, and townships development. Many of the businesses I have worked for have traded with companies in different countries giving me the opportunities to experience global business.

You have had a very successful career, what motivates you?

There is a Chinese saying 天时地利人和 which means when the timing, environment and people are aligned and in your favour, you will succeed. I have been fortunate to have mentors that I learn many skills from, and many good team members in most of my work life. 

I am from a very humble background and I had to self-finance most of my higher education. I treasured opportunities given to me and would encourage myself to always do my very best and think of the bigger picture of the longer term value rather than short term personal gain.

Do you have a particular leadership style and how has this developed over your career?

Engineers are versatile, innovative and practical, and constantly adopt learning mind-set to deal with challenges. Having these skills and team effort has helped me to resolve many challenging issues. These would be some of the skills required when turning around troubled businesses. 

The most challenging task of all is to change mind-sets that are necessary for an organisation to remain relevant. Though challenging, leaders must take actions to reorganise his/her team, even to the extent of upgrading and or changing staff members for the skills needed.  

Talent resource is the key to most organisations' success. The right level and competencies of staff are needed, even in the environment with the best level of artificial intelligence. I built my progress and success through team effort and constantly remind myself to remain as an effective leader.

What achievement are you most proud of?

I have many proud moments during my work life though some of the incidents may not be big issues or significant achievements.  It has been gratifying to know how one happening can lead to another’s progression that can make you feel proud and more importantly feel happy and confident to pursue your career further.

Later on in my career I was the CEO of The Singapore Mint and then, CEO of Singapore based Jetstar Airways. Many felt my changes in career path were unusual but I always stressed that, as engineer I was versatile and able to lead many different industries. More importantly I proved my point with the successful progression and uplift of sunset industries and also the turnaround of struggling businesses. My 3 years as CEO in township development investment also gave me new platform to demonstrate the versatility of those with engineering and technical backgrounds. 

Do you have any advice for students starting out today?

My advice to students and alumni is to pursue your passion without fear. You may fail along the way but every experience can be valuable when you have the learning mind-set and ability to think out of the box. When I was a teenager studying  for ‘O’ levels, I wanted to see the world and earn good money, so I applied for an airline cabin crew position ( I knew of high overseas allowance for cabin crew) but I was not accepted by the world leading airlines.  While studying at Singapore Polytechnic, I wanted to join the flying school to pursue the career as pilot but I was told I was too short to meet the then requirements. The failure to the two airlines jobs did not stop me from taking the challenge of the airlines CEO role. I became CEO of Jetstar Asia Airways and ValuAir, and worked well with the team to turnaround the businesses of both airlines!

Do you have any advice for female students and alumni who would want to follow in your path?

Be in an environment that provides equal opportunities should be the good start.  However there will be situations that you have to deal with environments that have yet to adopt gender equality in full. Team effort and professionalism would be helpful in gaining respect and getting things done. In today's knowledge based economy, the role of leading an organisation is no longer based on gender bias but more on the knowledge and ability to deal with disruptive changes

Outside of work, what are your hobbies and interests?

I have been to many cities but due to work schedules, I have seen very little of the places that I have been. I would like to find more time to visit places and savour the local cuisines. Whenever schedules permit, I would visit my two adult children who work in IT industries near to San Francisco of California. I took on advisor and board membership roles in several companies, as well serving on Board of education institutions which keep me busy and happy.