Singapore

The Big Read: Budget handouts? Thanks, but no thanks, say many old hands in business

The Big Read: Budget handouts? Thanks, but no thanks, say many old hands in business
(L-R) Jack Chua,ERA chief executive officer; Douglas Foo, Chairman, Sakae Holdings; Thomas Fernandez, founding chairman of PestBusters; Melvin Teo, Group Chief Executive Office, Yeo Hiap Seng Limited and Francis Koh, Managing Director and Group CEO, Koh Brothers Group Limited.
Published: 12:22 AM, March 4, 2017
Updated: 7:30 PM, March 14, 2017

SINGAPORE — Having joined real estate agency ERA in 1990 and seen the company grow from having only six employees at that time to one with a network of over 6,000 agents, Mr Jack Chua, 56, knows all about growing a firm and steering it through tough times. Earlier this week, the ERA chief executive officer joined the rest of his company in celebrating its 35th anniversary. 

(ERA CEO Jack Chua. Photo: Jason Quah/TODAY)

Among the many things that Mr Chua can be proud of, leading the company through property cycle downturns and economic crises — with hardly any help from the Government — is among those he values most. It is, after all, not something many companies can say. 

“I always have this thinking: If you can do it, you should do it yourself. We don’t really go for grants. I believe that the Government should help the companies that need help. So for us, since we are able to do it, we always do without grants,”  he told TODAY.

Like many established businesses in Singapore, ERA has weathered several crises. For example, during the Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak in 2003, the property market almost came to a standstill as people sought to minimise commuting and contact with others. Few ventured out of their homes to view properties, and those that did were jittery, so ERA got its agents to give away masks at show flats and open houses. Still, business suffered a beating. 

“We are in the real estate business, so we are also badly affected by property cycles... But throughout the years, we found our own formula to survive,” said Mr Chua, Similarly, construction, property and engineering company Koh Brothers Group went through many ups and downs in its 51-year history. But, typifying the resilience and adaptability of Singapore companies that continue to thrive today, it made the decision to venture into the China market in 1985 - the very same year that Singapore was hit by its first recession, post-Independence. Banks soon came knocking on its doors, and the company had to sell some residential properties at a loss in order to pay its debts. 

(Mr Francis Koh, 55, managing director and group CEO of Koh Brothers. Photo: Nadarajan Rajendran)

Still, it saw an opportunity that was too good to be missed. In contrast to the abundant Government support available today - part of a push to help homegrown companies internationalise - Koh Brothers broke into the notoriously difficult China market all on its own. “1985 was when China started to open up... so we went into Shantou. During that time, we had to go in ourselves, we had to understand the local culture, the lawmakers... we had to knock on everybody’s doors. We had to do all this on our own,” said Mr Francis Koh, 55, managing director and group CEO of Koh Brothers. The company has not looked back since: It now has an overseas presence not only in China, but in Indonesia and Malaysia as well. 

AN OVER-RELIANCE ON GOVT SUPPORT?

In recent years, the business fraternity has been crying out for support from the Government, amid economic uncertainty, rising costs and structural transformation in various industries. 

This year has been no different. After the Budget was announced last month, the Singapore Business Federation (SBF) issued a press statement expressing its disappointment with what it called “underwhelming” measures to help alleviate business concerns in the short term. 

Many companies also lamented the lack of support to help them tide over uncertain times.

During the Budget debate earlier this week, several Members of Parliament also raised the worries of small and medium enterprises (SMEs), with Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera describing the Budget as a “missed opportunity” to build up local enterprises as an engine of value creation alongside multi-national corporations.

In a sharp response, Trade and Industry (Industry) Minister S Iswaran pointed out that the Government can be an enabler for businesses. However, he added, it cannot make decisions for businesses, or pick winners. Anyone who wants to be an entrepreneur because of the Government’s schemes and support would have been at the “wrong starting point”, he stressed. “I think the starting point for any entrepreneur is really deciding that he or she has a strong value proposition, a passion to grow something, and then they go out there and make it happen,” he added.

Asked to respond to Mr Iswaran’s comments, SBF CEO Ho Meng Kit told TODAY that it agreed with the minister that government schemes and support programmes “cannot be the basis for entrepreneurship”. He said: “That is why SBF supports targeted measures geared towards businesses taking responsibility and action for their growth and survival.” 

However, Mr Ho noted that there is still “value in having some broad-based measures, particularly if they reduce costs and regulatory burdens for all businesses”. “Our SMEs are not homogeneous. Many of them are micro-enterprises that are domestically oriented with just one outlet. For them, broad-based support offers relief and alleviates the challenging conditions of their operating environment,” Mr Ho said. 

However, businessmen interviewed by TODAY reiterated that the Government can and should only do so much, and that looking to it for a crutch each time things turn south is not a solution. It is up to business owners to take ownership of their enterprises and steer them through good times and bad. 

(Sakae Holdings chairman Douglas Foo. Photo: Nadarajan Rajendran)

Sakae Holdings chairman Douglas Foo, 47, recalled that two years after he founded his business in 1997, he wanted to deploy technology - a digital food ordering system. However, the software was not available then. He decided to make it in-house, and got a patent for it.  

At the time, a personal computer cost S$3,000 to S$4,000 each, and Mr Foo had to cough out that amount for every dining table in his restaurants. He went ahead and made the substantial investment nonetheless, even though there were no initiatives such as the Productivity and Innovation Credit Scheme at that time. “The mindset back then was that if there was a grant, then good... If not, if this is the way to do the business, then we need to do it,” said Mr Foo. 

Fast forward to today, and he is concerned about the mentality of some SME bosses. “When SMEs start to ask, ‘What can agencies do for me?’ I get a bit worried. Because are you creating a venture to answer a need or are you creating a venture because there is support for the particular industry or sector? It is very different,” he said. 

(Mr Melvin Teo, group CEO of Yeo Hiap Seng's. Photo:Nadarajan Rajendran)

Mr Melvin Teo, 46, who is the group CEO of household brand Yeo Hiap Seng’s (Yeo’s), stressed that businesses have to build themselves up, instead of looking for external support. Citing the example of trade missions which are often led by Government agencies to help businesses gain better access to the markets, Mr Teo said: “At the end of the day, what can trade missions do? Trade missions can only introduce you to a potential new market and people there. The work has to be done by the company itself. The mission doesn’t do the work for you.”

Nevertheless, government support is certainly an enabler, Mr Teo said. But the support can come in various forms and does not necessarily have to come in monetary terms. For example, support can be given to help businesses smoothen governmental processes and regulations in neighbouring countries, he noted. 

Mr Foo added: “Government support is not necessarily crucial,because there are many enterprises around the world that were born and achieved remarkable success without the ecosystem of that kind of support. But having said that, if there is such support, it actually is a catalyst.” 

MODERN-DAY ENTREPRENEURS VS ‘TOWKAYS’

Much has been said about the modern-day entrepreneur and how he is cut from different cloth compared to business leaders of yore.

(Mr Thomas Fernandez, founding chairman of PestBusters. Photo: Ooi Boon Keong)

Mr Thomas Fernandez, founding chairman of PestBusters, quipped that even the term “entrepreneur” became fashionable only recently. “Back in the day, we were called ‘businessmen’,” he said wryly. 

He recalled that about five years ago, a young man came to see him and asked him to be his mentor. The 21-year-old had an idea for a gaming app and told Mr Fernandez that he wanted to earn his first million dollars before he turned 23. “He was so adamant about it, and then he became so arrogant. He went (into the business) with money on his mind, and I think it was his ego that killed him,” said Mr Fernandez, who turned him down.  

ERA’s Mr Chua also observed that entrepreneurs and businessmen these days are “a bit overambitious”. He said: “We were more realistic and pragmatic. We won’t say we want to want to build a million-dollar company straightaway.”

Mr Fernandez also felt that some are simply jumping on the bandwagon. “(They) tend to see what the hot thing is now… and they think that this particular industry is booming and they jump in,” he said. “But they don’t even know the difficulties that the big boys are going through. It is this lack of knowledge and a deeper understanding of the business environment that will let them down someday,”  he warned. 

There also seems to be a prevalent “build-and-sell” mentality, particularly in the technology industry, with start-ups hoping to be bought over by the big players, instead of thinking about long-term growth, Mr Fernandez noted. 

He attributed this to the slew of stories in the media on tech start-ups, for example, being acquired for huge sums. “But how often do we highlight failures? There aren’t enough of such stories of failures, and it is giving (younger entrepreneurs) an unhealthy impression,” he said. 

Mr Oswald Yeo, 24, co-founder of Glints, an online talent recruitment and career discovery platform, disagreed with the generalisation of young entrepreneurs as being overly ambitious. He said: “It is simply because there is technology now to scale up the impact of a business... In the past, to impact 1 million people in a year was not possible.”

He noted that older brick-and-mortar companies had to build their business brick by brick, but circumstances are different now. And while the dreams of his generation of entrepreneurs may seem lofty, Mr Yeo felt that the older businessmen would have been seen by their elders as having “big dreams” too. Nevertheless, he said: “After the dream, we need to plan how to get there. We can’t just lie there and dream. We still need to take action, step by step.”

Mr Yeo believes that the Government has an “important role to play in enabling the entrepreneur ecosystem”, and it has been “doing a good job”. “But the best entrepreneurs are (those who seek out opportunities) independently and are resourceful enough with (what they have). The grants and support are an option, a nice-to-have,” he added. 

The business veterans whom TODAY spoke to stressed the need for stamina and patience in building up a business empire. While derring-do is often held up as a key trait of today’s enterpreneurs, they stressed the importance of being pragmatic and prudent as well. 

Mr Teo pointed out that the Yeo’s brand was built over the decades on the back of its stringent quality checks on its food products. There is no cutting of corners, he stressed. 

He added that his company - which is one of Singapore’s oldest, having been founded in 1938 - is “very conservatively managed and almost debt adverse”. Unlike some companies which seek support from external capital providers for business growth, Yeo’s funds most of its expansion through internally generated cash. Mr Teo said: “All this is important because when an economic crisis strikes, you could be able to survive the crisis better by ensuring that you are not having all these pressures - whether from banks, financial houses, or suppliers - which can, one way or the other, push you into making management decisions that are not sound.”

‘STAND UP AND BE COUNTED’ 

With all the talk about companies needing to adapt and innovate in order to thrive in the new economy, one could be forgiven for thinking that this is unfamiliar territory to businesses here - far from it, as the veterans will tell anyone who cares to listen. 

Mr Fernandez, for example, has seen his company endure three crises: The 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, the 2003 Sars outbreak and the 2008-2009 global financial crisis. 

He started PestBusters in 1991. Barely six years later, he had to deal with a financial contagion in the region, triggered by the collapse of the Thai baht.

To stay afloat, he was tempted to let some workers go but he decided against it, as “my people were my biggest assets”. Instead, he halved his own salary and asked his management team to also take a paycut. “We looked at the crisis as an opportunity to cut the fat out,” he said. 

As the cliche goes, opportunities are present in a crisis - and for businessmen like Mr Fernandez, that has to be the mantra if they want to succeed. In his own words, there are “treasure boxes” waiting to be discovered whenever a crisis strikes.

During the Asian Financial Crisis, he saw dormant factories vacated by companies that had gone bust as a business opportunity: The premises still had to be taken care of and kept free from pests. He approached the property owners and secured jobs for his company. At the same time, he struck a deal with his clients: He gave them a 20 per cent discount for his company’s services, but when the economy recovered, they would pay 5 per cent more, on top of the pre-discounted prices. “This was the chance for us to connect to with them — that we were riding this wave together with them. It was about building that level of trust,” he said.  

Similarly, his business was initially affected during the Sars crisis. At the height of the epidemic, people tried to minimise contact with others to prevent the spread of the virus, and homeowners were reluctant to let PestBusters workers into their homes. An idea then struck him: “Instead of putting pesticides in our equipment, why not put germicides in them?” He went on to set up a new division in his company, called GermBusters. As a result, sales actually improved during the Sars crisis. 

Mr Fernandez’ business acumen meant that by the time the global financial crisis hit, his company had a kitty that was sufficient to tide it over the rainy days. 

His advice to businessmen and entrepreneurs in times of adversity? “Don’t grumble about it, but find new ways to do things. It is good to go through a crisis, because we learn lessons, important lessons, from them,” he said.  

With the economy currently plagued by a murky outlook, Koh Brothers’ Mr Koh reiterated that companies need to study the situation and position themselves to weather the uncertainty. He acknowledged that the cutthroat environment has gotten even more challenging, with competitors getting “very smart”. Companies have to find a way to survive and build a niche, he added.

Instead of reacting when their businesses get disrupted, Mr Fernandez said companies have to be “self-destructive”. “We need to ask ourselves, what will disrupt ourselves? Why not we disrupt the disruptors first?” he said. 

When the going gets tough, business leaders have to stand up and be counted - and not “cry about it”, as Mr Fernandez put it. “If you are not innovative enough, if you are not changing with the times, then your people will be obsolete. They will be extinct,” he said. “As bosses, we must pre-empt the changes, and we must give them the skills that is ready for the future. We will and must continue to innovate.”