In an alternate universe, we wouldn’t have travelled to the far west of the island to meet Eric Lew for this interview and spent over two hours chatting with the executive director of engineering group Wong Fong Industries. Any face-to-face conversation at his office in Joo Koon would have been unnecessary, nor would loathsome typing of e-mail messages to arrange this meeting be required. We would simply be downloading his responses because our brains would be linked to computers – if Elon Musk had his way with his latest venture Neural Lace, which aims to merge biological intelligence and artificial intelligence.
Talk about thinking out loud.
Far from looking forward to this plausible future that promises efficiency and convenience, Lew is actually glad that it is not a reality – yet. “Artificial intelligence doesn’t excite me; it scares me,” the 44-year-old says. “It will cause a lot of changes in the industry – even in politics. It will affect all facets of life and may cause social issues. Machines are getting smarter every day. “Right now, you read a story and you get inspired. But what if I tell you that you can soon download an inspiration? Everyone’s consciousness will be in this system.”
But Lew, who is spearheading Wong Fong’s business development, has no spare moment now to muse over fears and what-ifs. The next few years will be crucial in ensuring the group’s longevity. “For the first 50 years of Wong Fong, we rode on the post-World War II hydraulic and mechanical wave for our growth. Now, we have to find the next wave. Things are moving so fast and changes are occurring all the time. We have to study new technologies in order to know how to respond to them.”
His response: Wong Fong Research and Innovation Centre (WFRIC). Set up four years ago, it focuses on creating products outside of Wong Fong’s core business in designing and servicing equipment for the construction, logistics, waste handling and military sectors.
WFRIC is more than just a think-tank and prototyping centre; perhaps one of its most critical functions is birthing businesses. “One of the first things that WFRIC did was to identify the mega trends – telematics, robotics, autonomous vehicles and electric mobility,” Lew says, as he takes us on a tour of the facilities. “We don’t have to create a new trend. But we need clarity and direction, in order to know how we can capitalise on that next wave. How do we position ourselves for that?”
OLD DOG, NEW TRICKS
To a visitor, nothing about WFRIC’s bare bones interior might suggest that it is brewing up innovative, experimental solutions. There are no designer furniture pieces or shiny appliances to burnish its currency and, indeed, progressiveness; the fluorescent-lit WFRIC is stark and, well, functional.
Various tools and metal parts of every shape and size are strewn across what looks like a typical messy workshop. A collection of new electric bikes and its analogue predecessors occupies one corner, ready to be taken apart and studied. Laser cutters and 3-D printers reside in another nook. Perched on the edge of a workstation is an erect foreign-looking contraption.
“Tailgates usually open from the top and have a dual function as a platform, so we created one that also has double doors (for easy access into a truck’s cabin). This is our intellectual property,” says Lew, who was nominated for The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year 2016. That honour went to Olympian Joseph Schooling.
Perhaps it is only in such a minimalist environment, stripped of pomp and pageantry, where innovation can take root. To date, WFRIC has successfully incubated Vanda Electrics, a spin-off e-mobility company in which Wong Fong has a minority stake.
Next on his to-do list is the upcoming Advanced Collaboration Development Centre (ACDC). On a micro level, it is yet another of his initiatives to expand Wong Fong’s footprint. But Lew has bigger plans for this “hardware accelerator”. He hopes to create an alliance among hardware companies and institutions to pool resources and build marketable products that would jolt Singapore out of its creative rut.
“Look at the economy. What’s next for Singapore? I’m concerned. We have very good project managers/executors, but we don’t have many creators/inventors. What we’re saying here is that we have to start creating our own intellectual property, products and brands,” Lew says.
“So you see, WFRIC has become an accelerator and incubator. We have new products, and we are also giving birth to independent companies and even an R&D centre. As an SME, we don’t have deep pockets. To be able to respond fast, you need an ecosystem. You need to surround yourself with like-minded people, and you ‘feed off ’ one another. WFRIC is not effective alone. We don’t have a monopoly on good ideas. There are companies with good technology but they don’t know how to bring it to the market. Our team is strong in product design and branding,” adds Lew, who has already found partners for ACDC in the transport, logistics and aerospace sectors.
“The business should outlive the family. Eventually, it should be planned in such a way that the family still has a say in the company’s direction, but we may not necessarily have to run it ourselves.”
– Eric Lew
In part, this push for Wong Fong’s reinvention reflects his curiosity about life. He’s currently reading The Master Algorithm by Pedro Domingos to learn more about artificial intelligence, and cites Facebook as a convenient source of valuable information. Human nature is at the heart of it all, he says, and to do his job better, he has to understand people. Books like Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell help him to do just that.
To think that it has taken an auditor to make engineering exciting and glamorous.
A trained accountant, Lew worked at KPMG for three years after graduating from Nanyang Technological University. In what he refers to as a “quarter-life crisis”, he decided he had had enough of counting beans and went on to volunteer at non-profit organisation Touch Community Services for two years. He finally returned to Wong Fong in 2003 because “deep down, maybe there is that obligation to do something for the family business and you just know that it’s time to go back”, says Lew, whose earliest memories of being at the Wong Fong workshop goes back to his pre-kindergarten days.
Even though Lew, who has found his groove in business development, seems to be in a hurry to carve out niches for and invigorate the Catalist-listed group, the former Anglo-Chinese School (Barker Road) boy admits his father and uncle, who co-founded the company in 1964, needed convincing – and understandably so, as commerce’s current emphasis on public presence and perception might be foreign to baby boomers.
Take Wong Fong’s rebranding exercise in 2008. The elders did not see the immediate benefits and strategy, he shares. “It’s a new concept to them. But why is The Peak here today? Maybe our marketing strategy has worked and attracted media interest. The older generation may not understand the intrinsic value of such practices. They just want to be in the workshop and do things; they value diligence and commitment,” says Lew.
Even when he mooted the idea of WFRIC in 2013, he admits that it was not immediately accepted. “It’s like any venture. It’s up to us to sell a new idea to the board,” Lew says. “As long as it’s not too outrageous, they will give us the benefit of doubt and give it/us a chance. My father always tells us: ‘把它做好 (Do it well)’.”
He adds: “The younger generation is more aggressive, in terms of going into new businesses and leveraging. But we have to compromise. The family has to thrash it out – we talk over beer or something. It’s about communication. Family relations are the most important, but sometimes we forget to separate that from the business.”
By younger generation, Lew is referring to his older brother (chief technical officer) and older sister (in supply chain management).
“The tendency is to get people you know – family, friends – those whom you know well and can trust. Maybe that’s why some prefer not to be involved in the family business because they find themselves confronting issues they’d rather not deal with. They might end up fighting and that affects relationships.
“Did I answer your question? I have a few points in that answer,” the auditor in him checks in, ticking off a mental list of points and accounting for his reply.
Attracting and retaining talent haven’t always been easy. After all, many would be lured by the glitz of MNCs. Which is why Lew pushed for Wong Fong, which also has offices in Malaysia, Myanmar and China, to launch an IPO last July to boost its profile in the public eye. A professional management team is key to the sustainability of a family business, he believes. He says: “The business should outlive the family. Eventually, it should be planned in such a way that the family still has a say in the company’s direction, but we may not necessarily have to run it ourselves.”
SHOOT FOR THE STARS
By the time you read this, Lew’s daughter – his first-born – would be nearly a month old. With a new subject of affection, he’s toying with the idea of buying a camera and picking up photography again, a hobby that has been neglected because of work. Looking at the world through the eyes of his baby girl, he may bring to pass greater technological breakthroughs with this renewed curiosity about life.
“I don’t know what I don’t know. This phrase may seem simple and innocent, but it always spurs me to take action,” Lew says. “When we think we are defeated, it may not be so. Maybe we don’t have all the facts or have not exhausted all options. This awareness will motivate us to find out more.”
This article was first published in the August 2017 edition of The Peak.