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DHL Express NZ Vice President, Operations, Chitra Shinde talks to ExporterToday about her life in logistics and the current challenges faced by New Zealand’s F&L sector.

ET: Briefly describe your career background. Why did you choose a career in freight and logistics?

Chitra: I joined DHL Express in 1994 as one of the few women trainees in Mumbai, India and have worked in various roles across Operations in India, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Australia and New Zealand. In 2019, I moved back as Vice President, Operations, DHL Express New Zealand. Although I never planned for a role in logistics it’s proved to be a very successful and exciting career choice.

ET: What was your first impression of the local F&L sector when you initially took up your position here in New Zealand?

Chitra: I first visited New Zealand in 1999 and feel in love with the country, its people, its diversity, outlook and its serenity. I went back and applied for permanent residency. I returned to make it our home in 2004. My first impression back then was the scale of everything was smaller but had similar supply chain practices. Our reputation of a top-quality exporter has strengthened over the years.

On my recent return in 2019, there is a lot of growth and opportunity in our industry. I noticed our exporters and SMEs are connected to many more markets with low entry barriers. Regulatory developments through Low Value GST has further streamlined the speed at which e-commerce shipments cross the border. Furthermore, in today’s digital world, with everything urgent and impatient online customers, there is more focus on customer experience, digitalisation, speed and reducing logistics costs. 

ET: Looking back over the past 2-3 years, with the arrival of covid especially, what have been the biggest challenges faced by the F&L sector in this country?

Chitra: During the COVID-19 lockdowns, we experienced massive peaks and troughs through the market reliance on Express to continue to operate as an essential service. Overnight we lost access to commercial carriers, increasing demand much higher than any peak we had experienced before. We responded by introducing new routes, new flights, new processes, facilities and people. We innovated as we progressed. It was the most unpredictable and, therefore, exciting time in my career.   

In New Zealand, we introduced a new dedicated aircraft between Christchurch – Auckland – Melbourne, 5 times a week, to keep our South Island connected to the rest of the world.  This new aircraft was a lifeline when the Auckland region went into Delta lockdown in August 2021 with limited flights to the South Island. This flight also released capacity on our regular Auckland to Sydney flight, whose frequency was increased from 5 to 6 times per week. Furthermore, we introduced contactless deliveries, ensured physical distancing, masks, cleaning, rat testing and shift/site separation. Our Customer Service, Finance and Commercial teams were also set up overnight to be able to operate from home, without dropping our service to our customers.

We carried time-critical medical supplies and plant equipment, vaccines (two billion in fact!), aircraft parts and critical travel documents to stranded people around the world.  At DHL, we really understood what our purpose ‘Connecting People, Improving lives’, means to our customers.

ET: And now looking ahead, what will be the most challenging issues for Kiwi exporters and importers in 2023?

Chitra: The Covid-19 pandemic exposed the frailty of global supply chains and the risks associated with just-in-time followed by overstocking just-in-case. With trade growth expected to remain solid in 2023, the challenge for Kiwi exporters and importers will be come from currency fluctuations, cost of credit and inflationary pressures.

Skilled labour scarcity will drive innovation in automation and process simplification. We know our customers adapted their business models to keep up with the demand and Kiwi businesses now need to have strong growth strategies, identify target and new emerging markets and leverage the support of a robust logistics network to harness a new growth curve.

ET: With the sector historically being male-dominated, how has this impacted on your career, and what advice/lessons can you share with other young women looking to carve out a career in the F&L industry?

Chitra: Throughout my career in Operations, it was not unusual for me to be the only woman in the board room, but I have worked with some exceptional colleagues, managers and team members who made it easier. I also have an extremely supportive husband who has played an active part in raising our four children.

DHL has also worked hard to increase the number of female employees in Operations and today in New Zealand half of our operations team is made up of females. The traditionally male-dominated sector was due to the nature of the tasks, but with improvements in technology and manual handling processes, DHL New Zealand has successfully turned our typical ‘man’s world’ into one that is much more female-friendly.

Once you start to attract and retain women in these roles, you get a snowball effect and a healthy representative mix of our communities and gender. New Zealand was a pioneer in giving women the right to vote. We are a progressive and inclusive community. We have women in political and educational leadership roles. We have some great role models so it’s not unusual for our women to be confident in operational roles.

What worked for me was my willingness to learn new skills, embrace change and invest time to development myself and my team.  It is important to focus on the big picture but step into the detail if required and be Visible and Resilient.  

ET: Specifically looking at freight and distribution in New Zealand, can you explain the current trends? And with the further rise in e-commerce, how will this all play out going forward?

Chitra: Emerging out of the pandemic, trade is expected to continue to grow faster than the last decade, even with slowing growth in the global economy. This is also vital to bring back growth in the global economy. I expect there will be more diversification of sourcing and movement of distribution centres, potentially closer to markets. This is likely to create new opportunities and new players in the freight and logistics industry. 

There is no denying the structural shift towards e-commerce. As lockdowns forced consumers online, businesses enhanced their digital presence in order to keep up with the demand. However, consumers are not in lockdown anymore, so while e-commerce and retail spend will continue to grow across demographics and in cross border and regional / rural areas, I expect the ‘boom’ to slow down.

Lastly, we should expect to see government and customers focus more on sustainability. DHL Express plays a leading role in this space using younger aircraft fleet, Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), investments in Electric aircraft and transitioning to a 60% green fleet by 2030 for the first and last mile of delivery.

ET: What’s next for Chitra? How do you see your career developing in the future?

Chitra: I work at the No 1 Great Place to work in the World and No1 Best place to live (for me). In a large and growing global organization like DPDHL and being mobile opens up a lot of opportunities.  At the moment though, I am enjoying being back in New Zealand, life returning to pre-covid-like normalcy and being able to travel again. We have a number of large projects planned for New Zealand and I am committed to seeing those through. I believe that if we continue to invest in competence and expertise, we will be ready for the next opportunity when the time is right.

Glenn Baker

Glenn is a professional writer/editor with 50-plus years’ experience across radio, television and magazine publishing.


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