Building Singaporean brands that we can be proud of

Ken Koh, Group Chief Executive Officer, Yang Kee Logistics

BEFORE I graduated from Nanyang Technological University in 2001, I had a discussion with my friends on which companies to join after graduation. The common responses were companies such as GE, Siemens, Citibank, Honeywell, etc. When I said that I was joining Yang Kee Logistics, there were always confused looks on their faces. 

“Why would you choose to join a local company?” they asked. 

The moment I explained that it was the family business, their confusion cleared up. “Oh! Family business," they would exclaim with relief.

This has set me thinking since, why is it that we Singaporeans can’t take pride in our homegrown businesses. Why do our best talent choose to shun Singaporean companies and go for foreign companies? What future does it hold for a small country such as Singapore when we can’t even take pride in ourselves?

Many who have been following Yang Kee Logistics’ growth story would think it is novel or unconventional, if not perilous. While many Singaporean companies are being acquired by foreign companies and while others saw more hope in Asia, Yang Kee, a local homegrown player decided to walk a path less travelled by many other companies, and taking the risk to venture into Oceania, the US and Europe.

What fuelled my passion and fire to venture aggressively overseas in the last five years was what I saw as a challenge to convince customers, partners and employees to take more pride in the Singaporean brand. This drove Yang Kee to acquire Western logistics companies so that we could be a global logistics company. Changing the perception that “foreign is always better” is, and still continues to be, a great challenge to overcome.

It was my vision then to build and professionalise my family’s logistics business, to be a Singaporean company able to attract multinational talent, thereby making us a global logistics player that is as good as, if not better, than our multinational peers. 

This is an uphill task considering logistics is an industry that has extremes. On one extreme, there is the low-end segment that is still relatively traditional, fragmented and unattractive. On the other extreme, are the global juggernauts that have way more capital, size and capabilities than we have.

The journey is very tough, but today, one of my proudest achievements is to have talented Singaporean professionals choosing to join Yang Kee over the likes of global logistics companies, in varying roles across the company, and helping the company to transform and grow. Customers and employees now view Yang Kee potentially as good as any of our foreign multinational peers in terms of best practices and operational excellence.

How do we attract the best people?

1.       Ambitions: Having an ambitious vision that these talent can be a part of the company to make a difference, and giving them a sense of the future. Often, we might think to get the best talent, it’s the money that matters. But for many, they realise that a sense of purpose and the future becomes more important. They want to be part of something exciting, and that is what Yang Kee has to offer.

2.       Empowerment: Professionalising the culture, giving talent the free hand and drive to thrive in an entrepreneurial setting, where they can make a difference and not be tied down by corporate politics and red tape. This also means setting bold and enterprising aspirations to become truly global, and not limited to just Asia, so that they can all be part of a high growth trajectory and a common vision.

3.       Internationalisation: Our founding prime minister has often emphasised how small and vulnerable Singapore is and we need to make the world our market. Having travelled and explored the world the past 20 years, it dawned on me just how tiny Singapore is as a market, and the need to globalise, especially for a business like logistics that succeeds on a strong global network.  

Why not Asia?

Singaporean SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) typically do not venture into Western markets due to distance and bigger investments required. It takes at least eight to 20 hours to travel to Europe, the US and the Oceania region. Hence, many do not see value in spending the time, money and resources to expand there.

While the current hype is in Asian markets, especially with the growing population and middle-class income groups particularly in South-east Asia, I saw more potential in the Western economies where there are higher levels of transparency, and an established rule of law and governance. 

The people in those economies are more trustworthy and honest in their way of doing business, with a high regard and respect for laws and contracts. They welcome the Singapore brand and are open to us investing and venturing into their markets. Moreover, these countries have a more stable government and currency, a major factor to consider before deciding on any business investments. 

Today, we are in 11 countries across Asia, Oceania and the US and are still expanding our global footprint organically and inorganically. With that as a backdrop, here are five countries from my travels around the world that I recommend as the best places to do business in, and why you should, if possible, explore them.

Germany & Switzerland

In the European region, especially northern Europe such as Germany and Switzerland, the culture of trust and transparency is very similar to Singapore's. They are also both open to accepting foreigners, and have great admiration and respect for the Singapore brand name, making it easier to do business there. 

These countries house some of the top innovation and tech companies. I believe we can also glean tips and learn their best practices, thereby improving Singapore companies’ capabilities along the way!

US

Being the largest consumer market in the world, the largest national economy and leading global trader, the US is definitely a country to consider. Moreover, many Fortune 500 companies are headquartered in the US, and key decision makers are based there. 

Despite having a presence in Asia, we sometimes find decision making not taking place at the local level, but where the headquarters are. This makes the US an important place to be in if you are looking to build your clientele around global firms.

Oceania

Doing business is not all that unfamiliar in Australia and New Zealand considering both countries are adequately acquainted with the Asian market through China and Indonesia. 

In addition, the laws and basic legal principles in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore are based on the English common law. Hence, our legal structures and requirements would be broadly similar, even if they are not completely identical. 

There is also in Singapore, an ease of enforcement of judgements given by the Australian and New Zealand courts, and vice versa of judgements of Singapore courts in Australia and New Zealand due to reciprocal enforcement laws. For example, if someone owes you money, and you have taken legal action and the judgement is in your favour, then there's definitely a procedure for you to enforce the judgement in either of the countries.

Summary

While Asia is growing, and by the sheer convenience due to its proximity to Singapore, may seem like an ideal area to grow your business in, there are also other factors to consider when making strategic business investments that would minimize your risks and maximise value-add to your business.

I still believe Europe, the US and the Oceania regions have plenty to offer with their population size, their robust legal and financial systems as well as infrastructures.

Lastly, I would like to encourage more of us to continue taking pride in our Singaporean brands, and for fellow entrepreneurs to continue pressing on to fly the Singapore flag globally, beyond Asia.