An interview with Emma Sharma, the Director of Ethics and Compliance at the Supreme Group
As a global market leader specialising in developing and operating end-to-end customised logistics, supply chain and associated service solutions to military and privately-owned organisations operating in some of the world’s most-challenging locations, the Supreme Group needs to manage risk particularly carefully.
Founded in 1957, the company initially focused on supplying German-based US military installations with food and equipment. Since that time, the group has expanded its operations globally, spanning from Mozambique and Bosnia in the early years to Afghanistan, Iraq and Sudan more recently.
“We operate in less-advantaged countries; we have lots of suppliers and we have to make sure we don’t work with any company engaged in corrupt practices, such as conflict of interest or bribery,” says Emma Sharma, Director of Ethics and Compliance, Supreme Foodservice. Ms Sharma is based in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
The Supreme Group has a comprehensive corporate compliance and business ethics programme, including a thorough code of ethics and conduct which was revised two years ago. There is also an ethics hotline that enables staff to confidentially report cases, and an internal investigation team that reviews all claims.
“There is an internal employee newsletter which reiterates the importance of ethics, and in 2013 we will have an ethics awareness week that promotes awareness in a fun and creative way,” Ms Sharma adds.
The company has received valuable feedback about the programme from its employees, who are now starting to see the value of compliance and how it helps them add value to the business. There are also plans to conduct an annual survey to gauge staff’s feelings about the company culture.
Another indication that the programme is effective is the hotline reports. “The types of cases that come through the hotline are more sophisticated than two years ago – the programme has matured and moved on from petty issues to making us aware of more-substantive compliance issues,” notes Ms Sharma, who has been with the Supreme Group for two years.
Employing more than 8500 people of 70 nationalities and – given the frequent turnover caused by the often harsh working environment – the repeated reinforcement of ethics and compliance is necessary to stay on top of it all.
“Training is very important,” Ms Sharma says. “Last year we had an extensive programme with the participation of more than 8500 people; it was a very detailed training. We also have on-going training, and business-ethics training is part of the induction process for new staff.”
There are special sessions for different teams, depending on their particular need, and from next year there will be a refresher e-learning programme available on the company’s intranet.
Ms Sharma also works closely with management because, as she says, “leading by example is very important”.
Juliet Lui, Consultant – Advisory at The Red Flag Group, agrees that training is a very important element in establishing a solid corporate governance programme. “You can’t just throw rules at people,” she says. “You have to get commitment; get people on board.”
To bring management more up to date with the latest practices and ensure they lead by example, Ms Sharma arranged multiple roundtable compliance workshops with The Red Flag Group. These sessions were held in Dubai and London and included all members of the board of directors and the entire senior management team.
The CEO of The Red Flag Group, Scott Lane, who facilitated the sessions, says “The workshops stood out because they challenged people to work through a complex scenario that was directly relevant to Supreme’s business in Afghanistan and Africa. The team was challenged to work through the scenario and focus on recognising compliance risks and look at how to manage those risks in the environment of expanding a business.”
The scenario was about the company doing business in an island state, which had an unstable political system and an under-developed legal system with rampant nepotism and cronyism. Participants appreciated the risk-based approach, talking about the types of risks the company faced and giving suggestions on how to solve them.
According to Ms Sharma, lecturing about ethics didn’t usually leave a deep impression, however The Red Flag Group’s scenario of expanding the Supreme business into an emerging market was practical and realistic. More importantly, it maintained participants’ interest through the entirety of the four-hour sessions. “It showed clearly why ethics compliance is important; why it gives you commercial advantage. It really helped business people to understand that it helps business to be successful if we get it right.”
Ms Sharma believes the most important principle is to stick to your business standards. In her experience, the moment you lower your standards is the moment your business contacts stop taking you seriously. This means that though it may sometimes take a little longer to get the business, by being organised and consistent, it is possible to get the results.
“Everything we discussed was so relevant. That’s what’s so good about the workshop. It was tailor-made with relevant examples, so we could discuss applicable issues and how to solve them,” Ms Sharma says. She adds that by facilitating a healthy discussion among participants, the workshop helped her to understand better what they were struggling with, and this will in turn enable her to help them.
While the Supreme Group presently does a lot of business with the US Department of Defense and other international government-owned organisations, they are at the point of expanding to new markets outside this target base and doing more business with commercial customers globally.
With his long experience and oversight of the corporate governance landscape, Mr Lane was able to share what standards the customers and companies in the commercial sector might expect from a company like Supreme. The workshop underlined the need to have a strong compliance programme and employ the same consistent message across all markets.
Personally, Ms Sharma felt the workshop also emphasised to some stakeholders what her work is about and demonstrated how it adds value to the company and its business.