Oliver Chapman, Founder and CEO, OCI

Oliver Chapman is the founder and CEO of OCI, a leading supply chain specialist company. Oliver’s remarkable journey began with his entrepreneurial spirit, which emerged during his childhood when he sold video games by distributing leaflets. As a teenager, he ventured into the world of international trade, importing hair straighteners from China and successfully turning a profit. Fueling his curiosity for different cultures, Oliver engaged in diverse trading activities, including tire recycling and imports, which further expanded his expertise.

Recognizing the persistent lack of respect for traders in today’s society, Oliver founded OCI with a vision of transforming the industry. The company quickly emerged as the fastest-growing company in the UK in 2022, as recognized by the esteemed FT publication. Through OCI, Oliver partners with organizations, providing them with invaluable support in managing their supply chains. His profound understanding of the complexities and intricacies of supply chain operations has been instrumental in OCI’s success.

In a conversation with CXO Magazine, Oliver delves into his experiences, insights, and the principles that underpin his approach to trading and supply chain management. Drawing upon his first-hand knowledge, including his hands-on experience unloading containers, Oliver will shed light on the multifaceted nature of the industry and the importance of fostering mutually beneficial trade relationships.

Tell us a little bit about your education and life as a student. What lessons have you learned in your childhood/college days that helped you become the leader you are today?

Since the age of 15, I have been engaged in trading, importing, and exporting products. Even during family vacations, I would return with local products or unique finds from market stores and sell them to friends, not always for profit. This mindset continued throughout my teenage years, when I imported electrical products from China and sold them within schools. During my time at university, I ventured into importing cosmetics from the USA, which were highly sought-after here but not readily accessible to customers. At the time, I believed I was merely making a few pounds here and there, but looking back, those early endeavors laid the foundation for the career I have today.

As I progressed beyond university, I expanded my trading activities to encompass larger-scale operations, including containerized shipments. Sustainability became an area of focus for me early on, and I prioritized the trade of recyclable materials. I would load containers with tires, selling them to African and South American countries, and importing them to the UK. I vividly remember physically loading those containers myself, as I didn’t have the luxury of a team back then.

I recall a particular day when I attempted to be resourceful by going to Italy, where one of my suppliers was located. I had arranged for container pickups at 10 am, 1 pm, and 3 pm, all at different locations around Milan. I thought I could manage to load those containers single-handedly. The reality hit me hard: each container held 12.5 tonnes, equivalent to 1,300 tires. The cost implications of making a mistake with that shipment would have resulted in substantial penalties, amounting to hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds. There was no option but to handle it myself. I remember reaching a physical breaking point and telling myself, “Never again.” That experience instilled in me the grit and determination to get the job done, as I had no other choice. I operate OCI with the same mindset—to never forget my roots or where I come from.

How do you describe your leadership style?

At OCI, my leadership style is predominantly democratic. I foster an ideas meritocracy within the organization, where every individual, regardless of their position, has a voice. Depending on the specific topic, the validity of ideas can come from any staff member, whether junior or senior.

In hierarchical organizations, blind spots often emerge, particularly when junior staff members possess more informed opinions on certain matters than their senior counterparts. Unfortunately, these junior staff members may feel hesitant to speak up. It could be a simple issue like paperwork not being completed on time, which falls under the responsibility of a senior staff member, but a junior team member recognizes the underlying bottleneck. At OCI, we actively encourage and remind our team that we operate on an ideas meritocracy. We value and listen to everyone’s ideas. Similarly, it is the collective responsibility of all team members to speak up and contribute their insights to the decision-making process.

What does innovation mean to you? What has been the most rewarding part of your role as an innovative business leader?

To me, innovation is about transforming how a business, or the potential for a business, operates to generate growth and bring new directions to a market.

The most rewarding aspect of being an innovative business leader is witnessing the success that comes from implementing something new. It’s the gratification of creating a fresh market, disrupting an existing one, or introducing a concept that has never been seen before. It is not an easy feat, often requiring extensive education to help people understand the unique offerings of your business.

Consider the example of selling ice cream from an ice cream van—a straightforward and well-established business. If you sell more ice cream than any other vendor in the market, people will recognize your success and trust your brand. However, when you venture into changing or creating a market, it becomes significantly more challenging.

For OCI, seeing our clients thrive and prosper from our innovative products and services is immensely rewarding. We have witnessed the growth of companies from inception, starting with zero turnover and reaching €200 million in the first year of operation. Achieving such milestones is truly fulfilling.

Similarly, empowering clients by demonstrating the potential impact of our offerings, providing them with comprehensive supply chain support, and witnessing their growth from a £30 million to a £350 million turnover company within nine months is incredibly satisfying. These clients not only achieve their own growth and success but also drive positive outcomes for other businesses. In a way, OCI serves as an incubator for unicorns.

What values are important to you as a leader? 

No business is perfect, and there will always be changes and deviations from the plan, so you must be agile as a leader. You need to be able to deal with adversity and model agility. If something goes wrong, you must pick yourself up and have resilience. There is a good analogy here with the supply chain itself, which must also demonstrate resilience.

What was the hardest decision you have taken as a leader? What helped you to prompt the best course of action?

The hardest decision I faced as a leader, like many others, revolved around adapting our business to the reality of COVID-19. The supply chain came to a standstill when the world closed, ports shut down, and ships ceased to sail. Navigating OCI through that challenging period proved to be a formidable task. However, OCI thrives under pressure, and the pandemic turned out to be an exceptionally successful time for us.

When it comes to decision-making, my compass combines instinct with the strength of the exceptional team around me. Our collective experience in navigating difficult situations and consistently finding innovative solutions is an integral part of our business.

How has been the growth of the global supply chain industry? How is OCI positioned in this dynamic market?

Global supply chains experienced disruptions when the U.S. and China initially imposed trade tariffs, resulting in global chip shortages. Then, the advent of COVID-19 served as more than the final straw, causing widespread breakdowns in supply chains that have yet to be fully resolved. Consequently, the global supply chain market has faced significant turmoil.

Amidst this challenging landscape, OCI stands out as an expert in the field, uniquely positioned to provide support to large procurement outsourcing corporates in resolving their supply chain issues. Despite the upheaval, OCI has thrived during this period and will continue to do so as the market undergoes further transformations.

Tell us a bit about the founding story of OCI.

I have been involved in trading since the age of 15, and my focus on sustainability started during my university years. I specialized in trading environmentally-friendly products, such as recycled rubbers and plastics, as well as providing alternative fuels. Sustainability became a central pillar in my approach to business, with its importance emphasized through the three ‘Ss’: Sustainability, Sustainability, and Sustainability.

Over time, the company underwent a strategic pivot approximately seven years ago. I came to understand that to truly excel, it is necessary to add value to the supply chain rather than simply engaging in product trading, which lacks inherent value addition. This realization has been instrumental in shaping OCI into the supply chain partner it is today. We focus on adding value to core aspects of the supply chain, going beyond mere buying and selling of products.

Tell us about the products and services OCI offers now for its clients. How does the company intend to stand out from the crowd? What are the key benefits OCI partners get?  

OCI specializes in offering a comprehensive supply chain solution, encompassing three core pillars to meet the procurement needs of organizations:

Sourcing – Our expertise lies in locating, negotiating, and managing contracts and suppliers on behalf of our clients.

Logistics – We provide logistical solutions, facilitating the transportation of cargoes from point A to B through various modes including road, sea, rail, and air. Our reach extends to multiple warehouses worldwide.

Flexible financing – Our unique selling point is our ability to offer flexible financing options tailored to our clients’ specific requirements.

In essence, we serve as an outsourcing procurement partner, assuming responsibility for your entire supply chain and providing the necessary financing so that your organization doesn’t have to bear the costs. Imagine the increased business potential and opportunities that can arise from such a partnership.

At OCI, how are you trying to drive employee engagement and keep up the positive spirit?

As a business that values inclusivity, we strive to ensure that all voices and opinions are heard and respected within OCI. We believe in creating an environment where our employees feel valued and appreciated for their contributions. Cultivating a sense of buy-in is also crucial to us. We aim for all our employees to genuinely believe in and support the mission and values of OCI. By fostering this sense of alignment and shared purpose, we can work together towards our collective goals and drive success.

How do you stimulate innovation within the organization?  

As entrepreneurs, our constant drive is to make things bigger, faster, and better. At OCI, we actively foster innovation in everything we do as a business, particularly in the realm of redesigning supply chains. Our solutions are never off the shelf; they are always tailored to meet the unique needs of our clients. We encourage and challenge each other to think creatively and question conventional practices. Innovation is deeply ingrained in our DNA, fueling our passion to push boundaries and pave the way for transformative advancements in the industry.

What are the opportunities OCI sees in the global market? Tell us about your expansion plans.

Currently, we are witnessing significant shifts in trade dynamics between India and China. Additionally, it is crucial to recognize the emerging trend of ‘near-shoring,’ where businesses are relocating their operations from countries like Poland to Western Europe or from Mexico to the U.S. In order to navigate these geopolitical trends successfully, agility is paramount. We must remain adaptable and responsive to the changing landscape, enabling us to seize new opportunities and effectively address the challenges that arise. By staying attuned to these shifts, we can proactively position ourselves to provide valuable support and solutions to our clients in this evolving global business environment.

What does your typical working day look like? How do you handle pressure and stay calm all day, and how do you unplug from work? 

I start my day with a personal training session in the morning to prioritize my well-being. Following that, I eagerly engage in a team call, connecting with my colleagues to discuss and align on our objectives for the day. I thoroughly enjoy meeting new people and fostering meaningful connections.

In my free time, I find listening to podcasts to be a great source of inspiration and knowledge. Currently, I am tuned in to ‘Founders,’ hosted by David Senra, where he reads autobiographies and shares the valuable lessons learned from notable individuals. It’s an efficient way to gain insights about fascinating personalities within a short span of time. This podcast provides me with a wealth of information and inspiration to fuel my own personal and professional growth.

Do you have any thoughts you would like to share about being a leader or advice for individuals looking for a successful life? 

In society, the conventional belief is that individuals should follow a predetermined path of education and employment to achieve success. This societal structure often leads people to believe that it is the right and only way to secure a prosperous future.

However, my perspective on business is different. I firmly believe that each day presents an opportunity for me to contribute to my own success. I view the notion of dedicating one’s life to a job that brings no personal fulfillment as a contribution to the success of others rather than to one’s own. It is disheartening to witness individuals spending 45 years of their lives solely dedicated to a business owned by someone else. I believe that many people unknowingly squander a significant portion of their lives by dedicating it solely to the benefit of others rather than pursuing their own passions and dreams.

I embrace the mindset of taking ownership of my own success and actively working towards building a life that aligns with my personal fulfillment and aspirations. By doing so, I can make the most of the precious gift of life and contribute to my own journey of achievement and happiness.

What projects or goals are you working on or leading currently?

We are currently working on some exciting projects in the education technology sector. This field is of great interest to us because technology provides a means to reach students, especially those in emerging countries who may not have easy access to schools in their vicinity. Additionally, we have been increasing our charitable contributions to make a positive impact on society.

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