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ABLA 2017: Asia Business Leaders Awards winners honored in Shanghai

  • The CNBC Asia Business Leaders Awards was founded 16 years ago
  • The top award went to Ajay Piramal, the man at the helm of Piramal Group

Giants of commerce have been honored by the CNBC Asia Business Leaders Awards year in and year out since the event was founded 16 years ago. This year's crop of winners lived up to the tradition.

The soft-spoken chairman of an Indian conglomerate, an airport technology guru from Singapore, and a charity-minded health care CEO from China were among those selected from dozens of applicants to claim an ABLA at a gala event in downtown Shanghai on Thursday night.

The awards will be broadcast multiple times, first on November 23 at 7 p.m. Singapore time (6 a.m. ET and 12 p.m. GMT).

Asia Business Leader of the Year Award

The top award this year went to Ajay Piramal, the man at the helm of Piramal Group. The Indian conglomerate has seen revenue pop by 34 percent in 2017 and net profit leap by 38 percent.

"I am extremely grateful and humbled by this" award, he told CNBC backstage after accepting his ABLA.

Piramal said he credits his company's success to a handful of seemingly simple, but critical decisions he and his early team made when he took over Piramal Group back in the late 1980s.

"We were fortunate to realize that pharmaceuticals was a good business to go into in India in 1988," he said. "But the most important thing is that we always ran an ethical and value-based company. So the best partners always came to us globally, and the best talent."

The number of employees at Piramal Group has mushroomed from 2,000 in the year 2000 to 15,000 today, and the company has increased operations to 30 countries. Along the way, it has expanded from textiles to more far-flung industries that include not just pharmaceuticals but financial services, real estate and packaging, among others.

Piramal Group engages in philanthropic work, and Chairman Piramal said those efforts are part of the company's success. His Piramal Foundation operates widely on the subcontinent, spearheading initiatives in health care, water, education and female empowerment across 21 Indian states.

Looking ahead, Piramal has set a goal of achieving a market capitalization of $20 billion by 2020. To get there, Piramal developed a program to select a pool of high-performing managers, and a separate initiative that includes a one-year intensive leadership development program.

Asia Disruptor of the Year Award

Alex Hungate embraces technology with a vengeance.

SATS is the main ground-handling and in-flight catering service for Singapore's widely praised Changi Airport. Hungate has transformed the company into a pioneer when it comes to tech initiatives.

In 2014, Hungate automated some of SATS' central kitchen operations, reducing required labor by 80 percent. In 2015, he automated the company's entire cutlery cleaning and sorting process, yielding a 36 percent boost to productivity.

Perhaps most impressively, Hungate convinced more than 300 freight carriers to adopt a single system called eAcceptance that's designed to process cargo export clearances.

Winning an Asia Business Leaders Award means "we can encourage my colleagues to move even faster" on new technology adoption, which Hungate said is increasingly necessary in today's fast-changing environment.

SATS retrains staff and gives them opportunities to increase their skills as technologies emerge. His efforts have boosted SATS' profits by 7.1 percent through productivity increases alone.

Next up for SATS: Hungate told CNBC that he wants to digitize the shifting of passengers on and off aircraft, as well as the movement of baggage.

Asia Talent Management Award

Rizalina G. Mantaring has hired more than 1,000 employees for Sun Life Financial. But it's what she's accomplished with those staff once they're on board that is most impressive.

Mantaring, who is CEO and country head for the Canadian financial services firm's Philippines operations, believes in a multi-pronged development approach that includes leadership programs — including one in cooperation with Duke University — and encouraging employees to participate in industry associations and the development of policy for the wider industry.

Mantaring creates special projects for employees judged to have the most potential. A full 65 percent of Sun Life executives in the Philippines were promoted up through the ranks rather than brought in from outside.

Sun Life is a notably diverse company in the Philippines, and Mantaring told CNBC offstage that the company's stringently neutral hiring process is the key. "We never ask people about age. We never ask them their marital status," she said, and that's why the company "has a diverse workforce."

"You know the golden rule: always do unto others as you would have them do unto you," she said. "People follow you when they know you have their best interests at heart."

Corporate Social Responsibility Award

Dr. Tan See Leng believes that if people are going to be healthy, they need to have access to proper medical care — and they have to understand that healthcare.

As managing director and CEO of IHH Healthcare Berhad, Dr. Tan has spearheaded charitable works related to healthcare access, awareness and education. Since 2012, IHH has provided free health screenings in remote areas; the company gave services to 5,000 people at 54 events last year.

"We transform lives," Dr. Tan said. "When you have that kind of drive or calling, it works out well for everyone."

On the awareness front, IHH reached more than 20,000 people in Turkey with a campaign on healthy lifestyles. With regard to education, the company endowed a gift of 6 million yuan ($909,000) that has so far provided scholarships to 59 medical students at the National University of Singapore.

Winning an ABLA from CNBC "is a positive affirmation of my many hard-working colleagues who are trying to give the underprivileged a chance in life," he said backstage.

Country Business Leader of the Year Award

Zhaojiang Zhu may be Chinese, but he also knows Africa.

The founder and CEO of Shenzhen Transsion Holdings boasts a whopping 40 percent market share in the mobile industry in Sub-Saharan Africa. The company has sales in 58 countries, and its revenue skyrocketed from $316.33 million in 2014 to $1.77 billion last year.

Zhu credits the company's success to his commitment to a long-term strategy; interestingly, he pledged to terminate any product line — no matter how well it sells — if it begins to attract negative consumer feedback. Shenzhen Transsion's three Africa mobile brands all rank among the most admired by African consumers, according to a recent survey.

Zhu admitted being taken aback by winning an ABLA.

"I feel a little bit surprised — I never thought I could get this kind of award," he said afterward.

Lifetime Achievement Award

From humble beginnings in 1992, Guo Guangchang defied the odds and transformed a small business into one of China's biggest privately held companies.

Fosun International started out in property and pharmaceuticals, but never looked back as it diversified, moving into steel, mining, insurance, tourism and more. As he accepted his award for "lifetime" achievement, Guo joked onstage that he believes he still has many years left to keep on achieving things.

Today, the investment group has assets that exceed $70 billion. Among these are household names, including Club Med and Cirque du Soleil.

Fosun Chairman Guo has not only spread Chinese influence around the world, but he has provided a real-world example of how to engage in entrepreneurship for other Chinese, as they work to build a future for the world's second-biggest economy.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect when IHH began providing free health screenings in remote areas.