Skip to content

Before Uber, There Was DHL

Before Uber, There Was DHL


Interview with Yasmin Aladad Khan, , Executive Vice President, Commercial, Asia Pacific, and Managing Director, Emerging Markets, DHL Express

The rise of Uber has led to several talking points in recent years, so much so that the term “uberisation” has been coined to refer to “sharing economy” services. It is an increasingly popular trade that directly connects individuals and challenges the paradigm of traditional service businesses. Uberisation has led to many debates that range from measuring its long-term effectiveness to whether this business strategy should even be legal in certain countries.

However, amidst all of these discussions, there is a common consensus that uberisation is a new business concept that has only recently blossomed into a global phenomenon. On the contrary, Uber is hardly the first company that has created this new way of doing business. Almost 50 years ago, the founders of DHL – Dalsey, Hillbloom and Lynn – brought to life a whole new industry when they made their first international door-to-door express delivery.

“When we first started our operations in 1969, we didn’t have our own aircrafts. The founders personally delivered customers’ documents by travelling as passengers on flights operated by commercial airlines. This was how DHL and the entire international air express industry was born,” said Ms Yasmin Aladad Khan, Executive Vice President, Commercial, Asia Pacific, and Managing Director, Emerging Markets, DHL Express.

In this issue of Supply Chain Asia magazine, Ms Yasmin shares the birth of the international express industry and how it pioneered the sharing economy, her 15-year industry experience, as well as the importance of being a natural born leader.

The start of DHL-isation

While Ms Yasmin agrees that with the help of technology, the current version of uberisation has taken the world by storm, the Malaysian-born is quick to point out that such on-demand service model is hardly new.

“Let’s just look at the start of DHL. Mr Adrian Dalsey, Mr Larry Hillblom and Mr Robert Lynn established DHL in 1969 because they saw the demand to deliver shipping documents by air and have them arrive at customs offices in Hawaii before the goods. This enabled goods to pass through customs with less delay. The partners personally collected all the shipping documents, booked a flight to Hawaii and hand-delivered the documents. This highly personalised service preceded Uber and led to the advent of a brand new way to facilitate trade,” says Ms Yasmin.

Naturally, with DHL’s evolution into a market leader, the company has moved away from its Uber-like history and has adopted strict global standard operating procedures (GSOP). Ms Yasmin stresses that GSOP are in place to ensure DHL’s customers experience the same service quality from the company in any part of the world. They cover all aspects of operations from how couriers should be wearing their uniforms to the specific security fittings required in each DHL Express vehicle.

Evolution of cross-border commerce

Ms Yasmin, who is a 15-year industry veteran, has noted several changes in the industry during her career thus far.

1) Transformation trade links: When I first started in DHL, the major trade links were mainly trans-Pacific, such as from Asia to US and from Asia to Europe. But in the last few years, we see the growth of intra-APAC. Southeast Asia is one of the fastestgrowing regions in the world, and ASEAN’s income growth has remained strong since 2000. With the rise of the middle class, there is significant growth in domestic as well as regional and international trade links.

2) More small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs): At the moment, over 60 per cent of our customer base consists of SMEs. This is because most SMEs start their businesses locally before they decide to expand beyond the country’s borders. Naturally, we are the best people to partner with because we can help to explain how trade is done across borders, especially when it comes to customs clearance. Sometimes, the processes can be quite complicated, which is why we host workshops of our own or jointly with associations to help SMEs along.

3) Advancement of technology: Technology has grown by leaps and bounds. I think it is important for the industry to keep up with the pace of technology and we see a trend in this. Robotics in logistics, augmented reality, unmanned aerial vehicles, selfdriving vehicles – there are endless possibilities.

“At DHL Express, we are constantly looking out for change and even leading change to ensure that we stay ahead of the competition. We have the largest market share in Asia Pacific at over 40 per cent, and we continuously invest to improve our operations and customer service. Logistics, and international air express in particular, is an industry with a high barrier to entry,” says Ms Yasmin, who believes that DHL’s expertise in trade compliance will further strengthen its position, especially in light of impending agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

Being chosen to lead

While Ms Yasmin has spoken before on the importance of leadership and was frequently selected as a leader since young, she was not sure if she had a standout leadership quality when she was still in school.

“Perhaps when one is young, innate leadership qualities may not be so apparent to oneself. For example, when I was in the Girl Guides, I was a little surprised to be selected to be a team leader. It happened again when I was chosen to be the captain for my school hockey team. It was quite nerve-wrecking to see all these girls looking up to me to lead. Until now, I can’t pinpoint exactly what my teachers saw in me, but I have to admit I was quite good at rallying my teammates around to win. I definitely have a competitive streak,” shares Ms Yasmin, who started her career in the competitive banking industry with JP Morgan Chase.

But being a leader in adulthood requires more than just a competitive spirit.

“I think that a leader should be able to inspire and motivate people, have a strong sense of self awareness and willingness to learn, and very importantly, be self-confident.

In DHL, we nurture and measure our managers in two aspects: Respect and Results. We recognise that excellent individual contributors may not necessarily have what it takes to be a good leader. That is why we have the Certified International Manager programme to help them become a successful 21st Century Manager who knows how to drive results with respect,” explains Ms Yasmin.

With her win as the Woman Supply Chain Professional of the Year at SCA Awards 2015, the former Chief Operating Officer of General Electric has been widely known as an exceptional female leader in the industry.

“I was really surprised to be nominated. It was totally unexpected but I was really happy that the industry is recognising women’s contribution, especially at the senior level. This is a good sign. It was an honour to win the award. In DHL, we take gender diversity very seriously. In the Asia Pacific excluding China region alone, more than 30 per cent of our managers are female. When it comes to recruitment, we frequently encourage women to be shortlisted. I am very proud that our board and senior management are very supportive of gender diversity,” says Ms Yasmin, who initially started in the industry as one of the few women in a management position.

While her rise up the management ladder has been inspiring, Ms Yasmin has remains firm believer of work-life balance. She makes time for her family based in Kuala Lumpur and finds ways to keep herself healthy.

However, it seems her hockey days are over.

“I am sadly too old for hockey now! The last time I played, I received a nasty whack to the knee. Now, I am only focused on power walking and pilates,” says Ms Yasmin.