Always on the lookout for the next big thing

JK Tech Group is expanding quickly into the Asean region and moving up the value chain.

KNOWING when to hold on and when to move on.

That's the philosophy that the chairman of JK Tech Group Lennon Tan, 49, lives by when doing business in Singapore or China.

"China, in the early 2000, was going through phenomenal growth. That was when I felt, to a certain extent, that I should focus on China. It is a market that, as an entrepreneur, I didn't want to miss as it would be great for the next 20 years," said the winner of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2017 - Financial Services Technology Enablement award.

Mr Tan said that when the company became "substantially bigger", it moved its headquarters from China to Singapore.

"It was quite a big move for us, especially three years ago when we evaluated our business after realising that China was showing signs of slowing down. Its growth engine was no longer one with double-digit growth," he said.

The growth rate was hitting the 6 to 7 per cent pace and Mr Tan felt it would soon ease to 2-3 per cent.

"Therefore, we didn't want to put all our eggs in only one basket and looked into expanding into the Asean market. Asean is a mix of different economies, making it interesting for us to grow in the markets there," he added.

JK Tech Group, known as Jing King Technology in China, started there two years after Mr Tan, armed with savings of S$300,000, took off to the booming city of Guangzhou in China, having quit his job at the American multinational 3M.

He had just been promoted to replace his boss, who was removed after having worked there for some 20 years.

"That led me to wonder if there is such a thing called 'a permanent job'. It was really a wake-up call for me. It didn't take me long to decide that I was still young enough to give myself a go at doing business. Should I fail, l could always return and work for someone," he said.

Then, China was a low-cost business environment where Mr Tan could make his start-up capital last, but without the big MNC name backing him, Mr Tan said cutting business deals himself "was no walk in the park". After all, he was helming Jing King Technology Holdings, a company no one had heard of.

He eventually won over the Chinese with his relentless persistence and trustworthiness.

"Being Singaporean helped then. It gave the Chinese the impression that here was a person from a country that is generally trustworthy and professional. That persona really helped me in my early years when I was trying to establish a working relationship and business deals," he added.

However, Mr Tan said that first pot of gold often does new Singaporean entrepreneurs in.

"It is usually difficult to come by and when they have that, they tend to become conservative and protect the business jealously, taking no risk at all. That is why many SMEs (small and medium enterprises) tend to remain small," he said.

Chinese businessmen, on the other hand, "are never satisfied", and often would want to invest their first pot in "the next big thing and some more", he said.

This has rubbed off on Mr Tan, who is always on the lookout for his next big thing, and it's not surprising, since he has built his business in China for the last 16 years.

Six years ago, the group transformed its business from a pure manufacturing base to a technology one, providing automation and software solutions to its customers.

"Our short- to mid-term goal is to convert our manufacturing-based customers to automation- and solutions-based businesses. For the mid to long term, the group is expanding quickly into the region and transforming towards big data analytics and fintech solutions moving higher up the value chain," Mr Tan said, adding that its expansion into regional markets is via joint ventures with local partners and mergers and acquisitions. Today, JK Tech is a Singapore company involved in fintech smart cards business process outsourcing and an automated solution service provider in the Asia-Pacific region with a vision "to improve people's quality of life through technology".

"Whichever sector I choose to go into, there must be these two important elements - stable customers and assurance of payment. Customers like that are usually the banks. At least you know that they won't disappear and that they can pay you. So, I chose to supply products and services to the banks. Until today we are doing the same thing even though we have expanded into fintech and other tech products," Mr Tan said.

JK Tech invests heavily in "research and development with over 300 research staff working in the space of biometric technology for identification and payment authentication, cloud computing, big data processing and analytics, encryption and smart payment applications" and is collaborating with leading institutions here and in China.

"We know that if you want to sustain growth in Singapore, the only way is to look outwards. A country with a population of five million cannot offer a sustainable market for businesses to grow continuously. We should look outwards for that growth," Mr Tan said.