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Women in Supply Chain

Women in Supply Chain

Ready for some inspiration? At Let’s Talk Supply Chain, we know the power in promoting the female trailblazers who are making bold moves to push our industry forward. Every month we’re proud to highlight woman leaders who are fiercely changing the face of supply chain. We introduce you to the thought leaders you need to know, sharing their stories, their achievements, and what they want you to hear about breaking through the supply chain in our Women in Supply Chain Series.

And this month, we’re proud to bring you Elsie Qian, chief executive officer for Americas at Apex Logistics International Inc

Elsie has more than two decades of experience in logistics and operations and is fluent in English, Chinese, and supply chain.

Tell us how you ascended to CEO, Americas for one of the largest global freight forwarders:

I started working in supply chain at an international trading company in China. That was the first time I learned the important role the chain plays in international trade and what customers need from a logistics company—their deepest pain points and challenges. After a couple of years, I joined a world-leading freight forwarder. 

I started from the bottom and served in different positions—from operations to customer service, to customs clearance and then gateway management. Working my way up in different areas I built a comprehensive understanding of the industry while gaining some serious professional savvy along the way.

Later on, I had an opportunity to support Apex China in expanding their network into the United States. In 2003, we launched the first US-based station in Los Angeles. 

Apex Americas started as a small team of just two employees, myself included. Over the past 18 years, working with my team we’ve leveraged our unique strengths between Asia and the United States. We’re maintaining steady growth in our global network, product, infrastructure, customer portfolio, and team building. 

I’m proud that today Apex has proven itself as one of the top freight forwarders anywhere in the world. 

What challenge sparked a breakthrough moment for you?

When I first launched Apex in the U.S., we had zero name recognition—we were nobody. Apex was a newcomer without a presentable customer of reference in our portfolio. These obvious gaps made it difficult to promote ourselves in the market. We had a very small team. Everyone handled A-to-Z with a fiercely DIY approach. Only a few customers wanted to try Apex—most viewed us as a risk as a new and nimble market player.

I still remember how I brought on my first customer. Her organization was producing promotional products and was laser-focused on transit times. She mentioned that she was using the direct flight service from Shanghai to Los Angeles, but due to the noon arrival time, she couldn’t get cargo out of the terminal to make her 3 p.m. shipping deadline—adding more time to delivery to customers. 

She told me if she could find any smarter alternatives with Apex that she would give us a try. I checked all available flights in that timeframe and eventually found a solution—utilizing the United Airlines passenger service from Shanghai to San Francisco and overnight trucking to Los Angeles. With the same cut-off time at origin, her cargo would arrive promptly the next morning for its connection, not at noon. 

We presented the cargo flow details with a timeline and she decided to give us a try. To fulfill the service, we needed to ensure the cargo wouldn’t miss the overnight trucking from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Every night we followed up with the airlines until we knew the cargo was loaded on the truck. Our customer was thrilled with the outcome and our service. She started referring us to her colleagues and we started building our reputation in the industry. 

Sidenote, now, over a decade later, she is still doing business with us today. 

This challenge empowered my team to rise to the occasion—we knew that if our product and services can support our clients in meeting their goals and deadlines, we could win their trust and loyalty for meaningful, rewarding, and longterm relationships. 

So, when you face a challenge, force yourself to think outside-of-the-box and transform that challenge into an opportunity.

What challenges have you faced as a woman leader in logistics?

We all know that the logistics industry is more traditional and male-dominated. Fact: most of the leaders in logistics are men. So, many of my clients are surprised when they meet me—a female leader at a logistics organization—and the smart ones are also impressed. They know immediately that I’m different and that makes Apex different.  

Our diversity has fueled the kind of curiosity that opens doors, making prospects more interested in learning who Apex is and what we have to offer. Like every challenge, I see my gender as more of an opening to new opportunities than a barrier or an obstacle.

Who inspires you and why? 

Jeff Bezos. The way he runs Amazon inspired me, that drive to keep finding smarter and faster ways to reach customers is exactly what we have at Apex.

The most important element he showed me is the obsession with customers. In every Amazon board meeting, there’s always an empty seat symbolically reserved for their customers. 

And, in every industry, especially the service industry, we must listen to what our customers need instead of giving them what we think they want. Only a thorough understanding of your customers and a deep gratitude for them can empower superior products and services.

Back to Bezos and Amazon, when a company first starts, the team is often united and creative around fresh goals and hunger for growth. But once the company’s scale exceeds several thousand people, it starts becoming more siloed, looser, and more conservative.

We have all experienced the pressures of the early days of entrepreneurship, mixed with confusion and the desire to grow the company—bigger, faster, smarter. Bezos calls it “Day-1 spirit”. Everyone wants to see their organization peak, but peaking also means a turning point to a possible fall backward. 

Maintain Day-1’s original spirit and intention and keep yourself at the starting point to sustain constant momentum and unlimited potential. Entrepreneurship is the driving force for continuous company growth. Don’t underestimate its power.

I’m inspired about being creative and putting strategies into action. To become the benchmark company in the industry, you must think differently, think bigger, think outside of the box—every day. Is there something your competitors never do? What are their values? Can you do that? How will you do that—differently? 

At Apex we ask these questions every single day. It’s our mantra, part of our genes, and the foundation for our sustainable growth.

What do you want the next generation of female supply chain leaders to know?

Be Confident. As women, we possess unique advantages. We have a better ability to withstand stress and we have more tenacity. We are indomitable, detailed, and persistent. These traits all help us succeed and crush barriers and business norms.

And of course, be passionate. Passion is the key to success. Find what you love to do, what makes you hungry, and be passionate about that. 

Everybody has downtime. But as a leader and a role model, you need to be self-motivated and empower your team. 

What fears or uncertainties have you had to face on the job?

The logistics industry is full of surprises. We see cargo delays, missing and sometimes damaged products, and usually, these scenarios are completely out of our control. When the unexpected happens, you need to know how to triage the situation—have a contingency plan, and communicate with your clients proactively. 

What have you learned from leading men as a woman in a male-dominated industry?

I’ve learned that as long as you show your respect and trust, there’s no difference in leading men or women.

What do you see for the future of logistics?

Logistics is becoming a technology industry. How can we integrate the flow of cargo with the flow of data? How do we give real-time visibility internally and externally? The answer is technology—that’s why Apex invests hugely in IT development and digital transformation. 

As a data-driven organization, we understand our customers’ needs through a balance of personal customer service and measured trends, enabling us to execute at a higher level than our competitors. 

Our goal is to continue to be leaders in the digital forefront, from both a systems standpoint as well as marketing and client visibility.

How are you leading Apex through the COVID-19 pandemic and into the new normal?

Fortunately, at Apex our organization hasn’t been severely impacted. While a significant portion of our clients are in retail, and we all saw the dramatic impact there, we’ve had dramatic growth in other sectors like personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical supplies. With such volatile market conditions where capacity cannot be guaranteed, our year-round charter program presents a unique solution. A large amount of new business we’ve gained since the pandemic started has come from our existing clients.

Additionally, we realized the growing importance of diversity in both emerging markets and expanded product offerings. Apex had started this expansion a few years ago. Now, we have 41 branch offices throughout Mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, United States, Canada, Mexico, Netherland, Germany, Belgium, Australia, and New Zealand. Recently, we opened our new office in Xi’an and our first office in Japan. 

Now we offer a one-stop supply chain solution, including air and ocean freight, 3PL and warehouse management, customs clearance, Free Trade Zone, surface transportation, E-Commerce, trade consulting, and temperature-controlled Shipping. These capabilities position Apex and our customers for the new normal and the future that lies on the other side of it. 

Meet Our Sponsor

This Women in Supply Chain feature was made possible by our sponsor, Apex Logistics. Apex Logistics International Inc is deep rooted in diversity and culture, led by our own “Woman In Supply Chain” CEO, Elsie Qian; these values are why we partnered with Let’s Talk Supply Chain for the Women In Supply Chain series.  Apex is recognized as one of the fastest growing Top 25 airfreight forwarders in the world, with a network of over 2500 global employees in more than 70 countries.

About The Author:

Naomi GarniceNaomi Garnice is the Director of Marketing for MicroAge where she leads the marketing team and creative strategy. Naomi has been a content marketer for 14 years and is passionate about creating engaging content that matters. Throughout her career in marketing for technology, healthcare and supply chain organizations, Naomi has advocated to highlight female thought leaders in male-dominated industries.

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