Cut from a different cloth: how Sing Lun's third-gen taps talent, tech and innovation

Led now by its third-generation leader, Sing Lun Holdings taps talent, technology and innovation to stay ahead of the curve.

FAMILY-OWNED businesses in Singapore don't usually have a reputation for being cutting edge or innovative, but Sing Lun Holdings CEO and third-generation leader Mark Lee wants to change that.

The enterprise may not be a household name, but the brands they manufacture for certainly are. Its list of customers include global market-leading labels such as The North Face, Under Armour, Timberland and Puma.

The Singapore-headquartered company designs and makes "technical performance sportswear" across six countries in Asia, with operations spanning production development, manufacturing and sourcing.

Its main manufacturing bases in Vietnam and Cambodia have been crucial in driving cost efficiencies for the company, which ventured out with an internationalisation strategy during the 1990s, says Mr Lee.

The company is on a very different path from the textile trading business that Mr Lee's grandfather first started out with in 1951, or even the apparel manufacturing model of his father's time.

Instead, the third-generation leader describes it as being in the "sportswear and lifestyle supply chain management" business, with technological capabilities in design and development, and further down the value chain in its transportation and distribution of products.

Since he took over in 1999, Sing Lun's turnover has shot up from US$48 million in 1999 to a peak of US$235 million in 2015.

He tells The Business Times: "We are trying to change with the times. Even the way we operate, it is a hybrid of old school and new economy management. We run the company with tight financial discipline yet still with heart and family values."

It is a tough balance, but it is part of staying competitive, Mr Lee says.

Sing Lun may be family-owned, but it is professionally run. Aside from Mr Lee, there is no family member in the C-suite.

But like many family businesses out there, it is not all about maximising profits. Values such as investing in the long-term development of its people matter too. To date, it has more than 6,000 staff worldwide, including 155 in Singapore.

Mr Lee says the company has always been passionate about its pursuit of growth for several reasons. The first is to attract and retain talent.

"We believe that talent will only join you if your company is growing and they can progress. If a company is stagnant, the good ones will be poached, disillusioned or lose their drive. We won't attract the best if we don't grow."

Sing Lun also takes grooming the next generation of leaders seriously by empowering them to make decisions instead of simply taking directions from the boss. They can treat their business units as their own.

But despite the company's impressive growth over the past decade, attracting talent has been a challenge, especially in the early years, Mr Lee shares.

To increase its talent pool, one strategy that the company adopted is through mergers and acquisitions, by consolidating smaller companies with good teams into its fold. These are often smaller businesses within the same industry.

Aside from talent, the company is also tapping technology and innovation to stay ahead of the curve. Mr Lee categorises innovation into three main types. The first is process innovation - making small changes that can yield big results - which he describes as "low hanging fruits".

The second is innovation by deploying technology. One new advancement in the apparel manufacturing industry that Mr Lee has invested in is virtual fitting. Such augmented technology can fit the garment more quickly, and is more sustainable as less fabric is wasted. For example, four prototypes were needed in the past, but with technology, only two are necessary. The speed to market gets faster, he says.

The third type of innovation (or what he deems as "true innovation") is more tricky. It's creating a product that may not necessarily have a market yet.

Mr Lee reveals that Sing Lun is working on sportswear that can prevent muscle aches and monitor a user in terms of respiration and muscle output through sensors. Such innovation does not simply apply to the sports or the clothing sectors - the data collected can also potentially impact healthcare, which in the face of ageing populations worldwide is tremendously valuable.

Currently a lot of useful data is being wasted, he says. The company is exploring ways to store and channel the information. "We are currently looking at apps, tech companies that can integrate within the wearable space."

But while Sing Lun is best known for its contract apparel manufacturing arm, that is not the only part of its business. The company also invests in different businesses such as real estate, hotels, engineering and even beauty and cosmetics.

Mr Lee reveals that the company now has a stake in customised skincare brand MTM Skincare since this year. He is also on the board.

Asked if Sing Lun is veering too far away from its core competency of apparel manufacturing, he points out that Sing Lun has always been about riding on the megatrend of the century or even the future.

"In the past, we were more fashion related. With a growing population and the fact that people are living healthier, they want to age gracefully. Beauty and cosmetics is one part of health and wellness, just like sportswear."

In the case of MTM Skincare, Mr Lee says it was about what both parties can bring to the table. The skincare brand has deep expertise in its field, while Sing Lun has domain knowledge of scaling businesses and providing a form of structure. Therefore, there was a "natural inclination" to work together, he says.

Despite uncertain global economic conditions and increasing calls of protectionism around the world, he says the company will continue to push forward on its growth plans.

"I think it will be foolish not to be concerned, but you should not be paralysed," he says.

His tip for businesses to progress in today's uncertain times is this: "Staying competitive means making decisions for the good of the company. Be ready to not make so much money in the short term and invest in people - that makes you competitive, and more profitable in the long run."