SME Spotlight

Firm goes green cleaning up industrial grime

TuffChem Environmental Services provides industrial cleaning services and chemical sales but unlike similar firms, it focuses on the environment with clean processes and green chemicals. In the first of a four-part series about local firms tapping the emerging sector of environmental services, TuffChem founder Allister Rochstad tells Tiffany Cheong about the challenges that environmental firms face and what makes her company unique.

Q: How was TuffChem born?

A: I founded TuffChem Environmental Services in 1991 with management and staff operation training as my core businesses.

With over 10 years of experience in the oil and gas industries, I had realised most works were done using cheap processes that were neither safe nor green. Also, such industries often used manual, cheap labour with poor working conditions.

Through my working experience, it had dawned on me that environmental degradation is a real issue, and that I had a duty to save the environment in my own capacity.

I wanted to create a clean and safer environment for man and nature. In 2000, I decided to focus on clean technology and processes.

TuffChem's core business involves industrial cleaning services like dry-ice blasting and foam cleaning, as well as chemical sales.


Through my working experience, it dawned on me that environmental degradation is a real issue, and that I had a duty to save the environment in my own capacity. I wanted to create a clean and safer environment for man and nature. In 2000, I decided to focus on clean technology and processes.

MS ALLISTER ROCHSTAD, TuffChem founder, on the origins of the company.

These processes are non-hazardous, require fewer labourers than conventional cleaning services and reduce waste generation.

This is in line with our vision of providing services and technologies that will reduce environment pollution and improve safety.

Q: How will TuffChem's operations help to protect the environment?

A: Our target customers are refineries, power and gas plants, shipyards, and offshore oil and gas operators. Our headquarters are in Singapore, with offices in Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Malaysia. We have established ourselves through agents in Asean and the Middle East. Our notable clients include Shell and Samsung.

We aim to provide quality and cost-effective services, while using cleaner processes. To accomplish this, we continually source for new products and progressive technologies through research and development (R&D).

We were the first in Singapore to introduce closed-loop decontamination for equipment. It is a process where machinery does not need to be dismantled to be cleaned. It improves efficiency, decreases wastewater production and reduces the time required to shut down the plant for cleaning. It also improves safety by decreasing water jetting operations, which has high pressure and speed, and can be dangerous for inexperienced workers.

TuffChem Environmental Chemistry was set up six years ago as a subsidiary of TuffChem Environmental Services. It develops eco-friendly chemicals, like biodegradable and non-corrosive cleaners, to replace harmful chemicals used in industrial cleaning and decontamination.

When heated, harmful chemicals release hazardous fumes. Our clean chemicals are non-toxic. This also prevents soil contamination and water pollution, which lowers waste management costs.

We collaborate with education institutions like Ngee Ann Polytechnic to manufacture chemicals that prevent skin burns when spilt.

Q: Has TuffChem faced any challenges in its operations?

A: Insisting on using green technology is challenging as clients are price sensitive. Many have the notion that clean processes are more expensive than conventional ones.

For instance, many industries choose to use water jetting, which is perceived to be cheaper, rather than chemical cleaning. This is a misconception as water jetting is more time consuming and increases water wastage.

With chemical cleaning processes like closed-loop decontamination, it takes as little as one day, compared with 13 days for water jetting.

As a specialist, it is a double- edged sword. While we provide quality services, they are not regularly used but on a case-by-case basis.

Our services are used when firms shut down their operations for major cleaning. This is typically done every three to four years. During recessions, intervals may be even four to six years.

The challenge is to find continuous projects. We are finding longer-term, bigger-sized projects of higher revenue.

To expand, executing projects overseas is a necessity. However, projects may take three to six months and require staff to stay overseas for long periods.

To prevent our staff from compromising their family time, we operate on a rotational basis. Every two months, we switch the team stationed overseas.

This increases operational costs by 5 to 8 per cent, but I see it as part of our human resource strategies. From a moral perspective, apart from making money, we must ensure our staff are well treated.

Q: What sets TuffChem's services apart from other environmental firms?

A: Unlike many industrial competitors that offer off-the-shelf services, we offer customers not only cleaning services but also consultancy services. We study their needs and perform lab tests prior to advising them on appropriate, customised services, including the processes, technologies and chemicals chosen.

Staff need training for specialised processes. We sponsor them for certification courses for their area of expertise. We believe that equipping them with knowledge can boost their skills, confidence and productivity. We are able to retain our staff as we work like a family.

Business sustainability relies on a firm's ability to renew itself and create an edge over competitors. Between late last year and now, we have invested almost $1 million into R&D - 10 per cent of our total investments.

We are developing two processes involving recovering, reusing and recycling in the oil and gas industry.

Q: How else are you looking to grow TuffChem?

A: We will continually renew ourselves with new processes and technologies. We are exploring digital programming to reduce manual labour for monitoring processes and chemical calculations. We have just invested almost $70,000 into digital monitoring equipment.

We are bringing in second-generation staff for expansion. We aim to further expand in the Middle East and the Commonwealth of Independent States (in eastern Europe), and double our staff within the next two years.

Head here for the full four-part series of interviews with SMEs in the emerging environmental services sector.