Staying ahead of the curve

Winners of the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year 2018 awards share their thoughts on innovating to manage disruption


EY Entrepreneur Of The Year (Engineering and Construction): Von Lee Yong Miang, chairman of Expand Construction

EY Entrepreneur Of The Year (Analytics Intelligence): Jeffrey Tiong, CEO of PatSnap

EY Entrepreneur Of The Year (Media and Lifestyle): Cheong Chia Chou, managing director of Pictureworks

EY Entrepreneur Of The Year (Sustainable Bathroom Solutions): Christopher Ng, group CEO of Rigel Technology

EY Entrepreneur Of The Year (Outsourced Solutions): Laurent Junique, CEO of Teledirect

Moderator: Leila Lai, journalist, The Business Times

The Business Times: What is your core business?

Von Lee: Expand Construction Pte Ltd is registered with the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) in the General Building Works and Civil Engineering Works categories. Our portfolio includes HDB flats, private condominiums, industrial buildings and warehouses.

Jeffrey Tiong: Research and development (R&D) teams are responsible for inventing novel solutions to the world's needs and desires - but the digital tools available to help them are extremely basic and not well-adapted to their needs. PatSnap provides innovators with the most comprehensive R&D datasets in one platform to help leaders analyse technology trends, identify new opportunities, and facilitate collaboration so that they can bring new inventions to market faster.

Cheong Chia Chou: Pictureworks Pte Ltd is wholly owned by Pictureworks Holdings Sdn Bhd (PW Group), and the group provides imagery capture and distribution platforms through its proprietary technology, PictureAir, for theme parks, leisure and entertainment industries.

We are the official imaging service provider and the licensor of imagery systems for more than 30 attractions across the Asia-Pacific, the Middle East, the United Kingdom and the United States, including major international theme parks such as Legoland Malaysia and KidZania.

Christopher Ng: Rigel Technology has been pioneering water-saving and energy efficient bathroom technologies since 1991 by developing innovative and eco-friendly bathroom solutions. Our emphasis on progressive R&D has built up a portfolio of globally acclaimed bathroom products which meet modern lifestyle requirements, and our business activities span design, manufacturing, and marketing as well as the supply of high-end differentiated bathroom products.

Laurent Junique: Teledirect delivers outsourced business process services in a number of sectors including airlines, hospitality, digital advertising and social media. We provide beautiful infrastructure, highly qualified personnel, training, consulting, performance management and quality assurance. Clients outsource either their customer care programmes or their business to business sales or account management.

BT: What are some factors that have been crucial to your company's success?

Von Lee: Some of the factors that have been crucial to Expand's success include remaining asset-light, having efficient and effective management, and establishing win-win partnerships with clients, consultants and suppliers.

We also focus on using innovative and productive methods like Building Information Modelling, and use precast structures rather than the cast-in-situ method of construction to improve productivity.

Jeffrey Tiong: First, I would say, was finding the right people. I was lucky to find partners who brought valuable skill sets to the team - skills that I lack.

As we grow, we continue to seek out the very best people we can find, with a "Day 1" mindset, and an entrepreneurial approach to problem-solving. Having smart, talented people on your team is a real competitive advantage, and we are always in hiring mode.

Second, I would say, is customer centricity - our customers are really part of our product team, and even now I love to visit our customers at their workplaces, and learn how they are using our products, and how we can better serve them.

Cheong Chia Chou: We have managed to establish ourselves as a trusted company with a solid track record through our extensive network and long-term partnership with global major theme parks and attractions, and our PictureAir technology has become well-accepted.

Equally important is our company's ability to innovate and offer out-of-box solutions.

We are not only limited to operation and technology innovation, and our large PictureAir member pool provides us with insights to constantly innovate and develop our offerings for our clients.

Lastly, we work closely with our partners to integrate imaging into their park guests' experiences, such as through imaging intelligence like facial recognition association and facial beautification.

Christopher Ng: Innovation is one of my core beliefs, just like R&D is the backbone of Rigel. Today, Rigel is positioned as a forward-thinking enterprise that provides a full suite of bathroom solutions to deliver a world-class user experience.

We invest greatly in R&D efforts, continuously upgrading our manufacturing facilities to produce products with cutting-edge technology, backed by a strong team of R&D professionals to challenge the boundaries of innovation and design.

Laurent Junique: Digital transformation and e-commerce are the main drivers of our business nowadays, representing 90 per cent of our work. E-commerce worldwide is a US$4 trillion market growing at 6.5 per cent annually. We have estimated that demand for our services represents 2 per cent of that market, or US$80 billion. For our clients, providing customer care to someone trying to purchase something online is as critical as logistics, data centres or Internet bandwidth.

In the digital world, everything changes really fast and we need to be agile to stay relevant.

BT: What drives you as an entrepreneur?

Von Lee: As an entrepreneur, apart from personal success, we have the ability and capacity to take care of our families, the people working together with us, and even to some extent, the community.

One of my greatest joys is when my foreign workers proudly inform me that they have bought a piece of land or built a house, and show me pictures of their children and happy families.

In Expand, apart from my brothers and sister, every staff is like a family member to me. We work together with a strong family spirit to progress and enjoy the fruits of our labour together.

Jeffrey Tiong: Knowing that every day we are contributing to the R&D community around the world to help them innovate more effectively really fires me up. I have a passion for learning and improving - I want to inspire my two young daughters, and show them what is possible with hard work and determination.

Cheong Chia Chou: Entrepreneurship is a life journey. To those who have not started: don't start if you can't commit. To those who are thinking to start: make sure you have supportive partners or build an ecosystem for it. To those who are doing it: stay positive!

For me, entrepreneurship isn't just about risk and reward, opportunity windows, or having new brands. It's about changes and creating innovative products that is not available in the market. To me, an entrepreneur has to create something new instead of perpetuating the old.

Christopher Ng: My strongest source of motivation is my vision for the future. I aspire to build a global enterprise that is able to deliver excellent products to the society, making a meaningful impact by adding value to the greater community. Being able to create change and leave behind a legacy by building business continuity also keeps me focused on my entrepreneurial journey.

Laurent Junique: The prospect of success. It is intoxicating. When we help a client succeed or when one of our employees gets recognised for a job well done, I get very excited. New ideas that get implemented give me a lot of satisfaction, as do new set-ups.

We just opened in Barcelona, and the people we hired there are exceptional. I get very motivated by the people I work with and enjoy the dynamics created by our teams. The beauty of my job entails working with many clients at the same time, and I learn a lot from the largest and most successful multinationals.

BT: How do you motivate your employees?

Von Lee: We set clear goals and communicate what employees can expect when the goals are achieved so that employees at all levels are on the same page.

Jeffrey Tiong: We try to provide an environment where everyone comes to work with a strong sense of our "why" - the mission of PatSnap, and the role we play in helping our customers.

We also try to provide a working environment where they know they can just focus on delivering great work.

Cheong Chia Chou: For me, every employee is an asset to the company. We always endeavour to keep our employees excited throughout their career journey with us through our constant drive to innovate.

On top of that, we equip them with the relevant skill sets and business experience for them to grow together with the company. I take on a hands-on approach, placing emphasis on teamwork, ensuring that each team in each country works closely as a family.

Christopher Ng: We believe in taking care of employees' total well-being by providing an environment that is conducive for open communication and encourages employees to express and contribute their ideas freely. We support teamwork, personal development and empowerment within the organisation to allow employees to tap on each other's strengths and maximise their potential. Ultimately, we endeavour to make our employees feel at ease and view the workplace as their "second home".

Laurent Junique: I don't need to. I have to assume they are already motivated as they bought into our vision. They come to Teledirect because they like what we do. All I need to do is to create an environment for them to excel. We provide them with great workspaces that are conducive and we facilitate communication and interactions. Then we give them as much independence as possible so they can express their creativity to be themselves.

We have a fairly flat organisation where we can make decisions quickly. When people come to me for approval, I want to say "yes" as a rule and "no" as an exception.

BT: What are the challenges in your industry?

Von Lee: The challenge for Expand is how to enter into major infrastructure projects in Singapore, such as MRT and Deep Tunnel Sewerage System (DTSS), to extend our project diversity and capability.

Because most of the major infrastructure projects require experience and track records technically, they are currently dominated by foreign companies.

As a local company, we have encountered difficulty in penetrating the market and forming joint ventures with foreign companies.

Jeffrey Tiong: Software is dominating the world, and this is happening at an accelerating pace with new technologies which change the way we interface with everything around us.

This is a good thing - huge transformational changes mean there will be new opportunities. It keeps all of us on our toes to work harder and smarter, and it is important that all of us learn fast and keep learning in order to catch this wave.

Cheong Chia Chou: One of the major challenges is the identification of industry gaps under the fast-evolving technology landscape to innovate and offer relevant solutions. In particular, we are looking to close the gaps between photographers and their audience.

For example, using artificial intelligence technology, photos can be automatically transmitted to the subjects via the PictureAir platform.

This will not only ease the entire process of photo-sharing, but it will also eventually bring people closer through interactions on the photo-sharing platform. From the company's standpoint, the digital imaging business can be so much more than just photos, and with this model, the entire theme park photography experience can be exported and applied to other industries.

Christopher Ng: In Rigel's trade, there are many stakeholders involved in a project and they all play a part in the ultimate performance of our products. Therefore, we have a rigorous customer-care programme that includes pre-installation briefing to the customer's installation team, testing and commissioning, maintenance training and periodic checking to ensure effective product performance.

Some of the other disruptions to the sanitaryware industry will also include a growing change in consumer preferences (with the rise in disposable income, consumers pursue lifestyle options instead of merely basic sanitation needs), rapid technological advancement with the introduction of smart initiatives, urbanisation and increased hygiene concern.

We see these as good opportunities for our niche expertise in product design and innovation.

Laurent Junique: Finding talent would have to be the main challenge. We tackle it by hiring great human resources people and equipping them with modern, efficient processes and great tools. For example, we automated the interview process, and made it friendlier for the candidate and more efficient for the recruiter. As a result, we recorded a 50 per cent productivity gain on this important component of our service delivery.

Globalisation is the next challenge. Increasingly, our clients need solutions that can cover the whole world. As a result, we have expanded around the globe in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, China, the Philippines, Japan and now Europe through Spain. Latin America and the Middle East are the last two geographies we have yet to add to our already comprehensive network.

BT: If you could travel back to the day you started setting up your business, what advice would you give to your younger self?

Von Lee: My advice to any younger person wanting to start up a business will be:

  • Always be hands-on and on the ground.
  • Walk your talk and deliver your promises.
  • Always remain the honourable man you were when you first started out.

Jeffrey Tiong: When I founded PatSnap, I was young and naïve. I believed that no matter what terrible challenges we encountered, we could get through it. Sometimes there were dark days when I thought I had made a terrible mistake, and that I should have followed my classmates into well-paid graduate jobs. The advice I would give to my younger self would be reassurance: "Don't worry - stay curious, surround yourself with mentors. Keep growing and learning. You'll get there."

Cheong Chia Chou: I always go by this phrase - Dare to change, or be changed. If I had any advice to give my younger self, I would tell him not to be afraid to take the leap. Do not focus so much on the failure; instead embrace it, as we are all the sum of our mistakes. The faster you realise your mistakes, the faster you will be able to take steps to remedy them.

Christopher Ng: I would like to open up more and find more mentors who can share their experience and opinions with me as I grow along my entrepreneurial journey. It is important to tune up both business knowledge and build good contacts. Mentors have taken this path before and are likely able to offer experience that can help you make smarter decisions and avoid the winding roads.

I would also advise my younger self to spot for character and values as I build my team. I have come to realise that you can always train someone on skills, but it is difficult to change someone's values to fit the organisation.

Laurent Junique: Invest an inconsiderate amount of time searching for great people, for talent is hard to find, yet is the key to differentiation and success.