#SMETowkay: Using Data to Sow Seeds of Growth

In less than 10 years, Gary Loh managed to turn around a fruit wholesaler that was close to bankruptcy and is well on his way to building “the Airbnb of the fruit industry”. The former banker credits good foresight, and effective use of data — an element that has given SunMoon Food Company Limited control over its fruits from farm to fork, as well as a strong brand name, which has in turn led to greater growth.

Just as Airbnb is able to offer accommodation without owning any properties, SunMoon sells fruits despite not owning any plantations. Instead, the company trades in fresh fruits and consumer products, disrupting the traditionally cost-heavy business model that “almost killed the company”.

With over 100 products, it is crucial for Gary to have information of his products from the company’s 11,000 points-of-sales at his fingertips to make quick buying and selling decisions. “To run the business of today, you need (to have) information ‘live’, so that you can make a ‘live’ decision,” says the friendly and well-groomed entrepreneur.

With NetSuite, a cloud-based Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system by Oracle, Gary can now easily access all of SunMoon’s past and present transactions. This came in useful after Chile had an earthquake in early 2017 and prices for blueberries soared beyond what consumers were willing to pay. Tapping on the system, Gary tracked an alternative source by pulling up the company’s past procurement rates for comparison. He eventually found another competitively-priced supply from Argentina to order from.

The technology also holds a database of all SunMoon’s products, which allows problems to be easily identified and resolved. For instance, when a customer receives a box of bad apples, the company can trace where these apples were packed, its x-ray images, and even which plantation they originated from. This helps Gary to narrow down his search to the unsatisfactory batch of products quickly, and provides him with evidence that he can present to his vendors to rectify the issue. In the past, they simply pointed fingers at one another, he says, which resulted in unnecessary conflict and little solution.

These are examples that show the importance of “information” in SunMoon’s business strategy. “The more I know, the better I can refine my business model,” explains Gary. And in this digital age, when businesses are run at breakneck speed, information must be available and accessible instantly. Since adopting the ERP system, Gary can track the performance of his company within a few minutes instead of waiting for days.

Not only has technology benefitted SunMoon’s operations, it has also helped it win over clients too. One of the biggest problems Gary faces is the gap between retailers’ expectations and what they actually receive. To reassure them, he provides them with access to real-time prices and details of SunMoon’s products. They will be informed on when the products they ordered will be delivered and even down to the specifics such as how they are packed, and the number of layers stacked in a box.

More recently, Gary also faces the rising issues of imitation products in China. To help protect SunMoon’s reputation, he has turned to another technology by veriTAG. This software generates QR codes for all its products, which consumers can then scan to find information, such as its origin, freight details and custom clearance details. This information not only gives consumers the confidence that their purchases are legitimate, it also helps customs officers differentiate SunMoon’s products from the fakes.

Having gained greater control over the quality of its fruits as well as brand reputation through the use of technology, SunMoon recently attracted a major investment from Shanghai Yiguo, the Alibaba-backed fresh produce e-commerce player. This has vindicated Gary’s belief in going digital even though it was costly at the beginning.

“Technology is embraced in every façade of our lives. It is not when it will happen. It has already happened,” he says.

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