FOR over 25 years, Yap Boh Tiong's journey has been filled with ups and downs as an SME owner. What makes it even more remarkable is how he achieved all this without taking any government grants or bank loans in the setup of his business. Mr Yap is the chairman and founder of Mileage Communications, a PR and communications firm that specialises in crisis management and media training in Singapore and the region. In an interview with The Business Times, Mr Yap said: "Back when I first started Mileage in 1992, government grants were not a luxury that SMEs had access to as the focus then was on the manufacturing sector and Singapore was still very much in the early days of transitioning to a service-driven economy... Right from the start, we learnt to be self-reliant."
Not everything was plain sailing from the outset. "The first two years, we made losses but we worked hard and by our third year, we started to make money and we never looked back since," says Mr Yap, 70. For Mr Yap, whose career has taken him from Singapore Press Holdings, to Singapore Airlines (SIA) and United Overseas Bank (UOB) among others, the lessons he learnt from senior executives have influenced his philosophy in the building up and running of the Mileage brand.
"I worked for the likes of Peter Lim and the late President Wee Kim Wee of SPH, Lim Chin Beng and J Y Pillay in SIA, Richard Eu and Wee Cho Yaw at UOB. The lessons learnt from them have translated into how I run the business," says Mr Yap.
With an increasingly volatile global economy, where firms are encouraged to plan ahead and take costing judiciously, the values learnt still hold true today. "We must have at least six months of working capital so that we can pay the staff and keep the business running in the event the payments for the contracts are not in on time. Many SMEs in the industry who have already folded faced these problems," says Mr Yap.
Another is the old adage of strength in numbers, where maintaining a diverse clientele adds to the stability of the business during trying economic times. With Mileage, the majority of its clients come from a number of sectors, ranging from pharmaceuticals to banking.
Affirming that the Singapore market alone is not big enough for sustainability, a nascent Mileage set its sights on regional expansion with its first foreign office in India in 1998. "We realised that in order to prosper, let alone survive, we would have to look beyond Singapore for opportunities and growth."
Noting that opening a first foreign office in India was a fairly unorthodox move at the time, Mr Yap explains: "The risk is always there but you got to go with your gut feeling and we felt confident."
From there, the gradual process of expansion followed with offices opening through joint ventures or taking partial ownership of an existing agency, as he did with his second foray overseas - Malaysia.
A focus on acquiring local labour from these countries is also essential to Mr Yap as they have local knowledge that is especially crucial in the setup of Mileage's foreign offices.
Another important lesson learnt through this journey is that of patience and taking calculated risks. "We entered Myanmar in mid-2013. It was a slow grind initially but we saw the opportunities following the country's opening up and the benefits of being an early mover, so we decided to take the risk. We are getting more contracts as Myanmar continues to open up with more MNCs making their presence felt. We think this year is when we might turn the corner in Myanmar."
Today, Mileage offices are in nine countries in Asia. They include: Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and South Korea.
Constant learning, adapting
Like industry stalwarts, SMEs need to build and maintain strong networks with like-minded firms in other countries. In the same vein, Mr Yap places importance on having a platform for exchanging industry practices and ideas with similar firms from around the world. This vested interest has seen him sign up as a member of the Public Relations Global Network (PRGN), an independent PR association.
Many trips to conferences and meetings have paid off for Mr Yap. "I've met many of our global partners and associates at these conferences," he says. "When you go to these meetings, you realise how many of these firms have a variety of interesting ideas and you also get to learn how they are able to execute them despite working with tighter purse strings."
Even though Mileage started off as a traditional PR player, it has evolved to take on new capabilities such as optimising digital marketing, social media and data analytics.
In addition, Mr Yap has built on existing competencies through gaining expertise through partnerships and investments in digital startups. "This gives us the flexibility to seek their expertise when we need it, and also affords us time to build on our existing competencies in this field."