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Seeking redemption in Walmart receipt

Equation CEO is betting the house on his firm's digital lock for consumer electronics.
Monday, December 12, 2016 - 05:50

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If DiSa takes off, Equation Summit could be in the black next year, says Mr Chng.

Singapore

EQUATION Summit chief executive Eddie Chng is looking for redemption in a Walmart sales receipt.

It has been 15 years since he was kicked out of his first listed company, 15 since he infamously ran afoul of the takeover code, 13 since he came back to Singapore for a second shot and 12 since he started developing an anti-theft technology that failed in an earlier iteration but on which he is now betting the house.

After all of that, a little bit of vindication would be nice.

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"I think it's the typical story of an entrepreneur," Mr Chng says. "Coming back to redeem myself in a bigger way."

And so a Walmart sales receipt has captured Mr Chng's attention. It is no ordinary receipt, although if Mr Chng had his way, that receipt would one day be the most common and ubiquitous thing in the world.

An activation code printed on the receipt lies at the heart of DiSa, Equation's proprietary anti-theft technology that the company has been developing since 2004.

DiSa is a digital lock that manufacturers can instal in consumer electronics such as tablets. A locked product will not work unless it is freed by an activation code that is unique to each item. To obtain that code, a customer has to first pay for the product at the store. Upon payment, the store's point-of-sale system calls up DiSa's servers to get the code, and prints that code onto the sales receipt.

That is a more efficient and sales-friendly way to prevent theft than the traditional physical locks and cables, Mr Chng says. Retailers do not have to hide items behind glass cabinets or cumbersome box cables, for example. And a digital lock is more effective than physical ones in preventing pilferage, since physical ones can be easily broken with the right tools, he argues.

Equation and DiSa charge manufacturers for the technology, but to get the manufacturers to sign on, DiSa is reaching out to the retailers to get them to support the technology. If the retailers want the technology, the thinking goes, the manufacturers will have to add it to their products.

It is a a strategy that DiSa initially tried by targeting German retailer ALDI back in 2011.

"We came up with the design, we went to Germany, we talked to the German retailer, we failed, we rebuilt the system again and this time around we bring it to the US," Mr Chng says.

He says the new and improved DiSa does not need any additional investment by the retailers, an issue that helped to doom the first attempt. Equation is also aiming higher in terms of retailers, picking none other than Walmart, the world's largest retailer, as its proof of concept entrance in America.

Mr Chng describes the first round of proof-of-concept testing at Walmart as a success, and the second round of testing is about 60 per cent completed as at press time.

If Walmart is supportive of the new technology, DiSa and Equation will take that support to the manufacturers and try to persuade them to use DiSa. By adopting DiSa, manufacturers can hope for better placement in stores since their products are not encumbered by physical anti-theft devices, Mr Chng argues. And when Walmart backs something, the industry tends to follow, he added.

"Walmart is a juggernaut," Mr Chng says. "It's a huge juggernaut. . . When they say, 'I want this', do you have a chance? The suppliers don't have a chance to say no."

Mr Chng is so confident about the prospects for DiSa that he is shifting the company to fully focus on this business and moving away from all of the other investments and businesses that Equation currently has, which - to be fair - does not amount to much at the moment. The company has not been profitable in the last four financial years. For the 12 months ended June 2016, Equation reported just S$837,000 of revenue and a net loss of S$4.4 million. If DiSa takes off, Mr Chng expects the company to be in the black in 2017.

About half of current sales come from energy management services, and the other half from e-waste and recycling. The plan is to replace all of that with DiSa.

"We are very optimistic about the future," Mr Chng says. "Eventually all those (other businesses) will be disposed of. As quickly as next quarter (Q1 2017) you will see that Equation has nothing except DiSa."

The market might be a little wary about Mr Chng's optimism, given that he has been accused of over-promising in the past.

In 2001, Mr Chng was the chief executive of Serial System. He and his navy buddy, Derek Goh, had built up the company and listed it on Singapore Exchange, but things soured between them after Mr Chng took over CEO duties from Mr Goh, who took on the chairman role. Mr Chng left at the start of 2001 after he lost a no-confidence vote by Serial's board of directors.

A few months after that, it emerged that Mr Chng had, through his own shares and through parties considered to be in concert with him, controlled more than 25 per cent of Serial's shares, which at the time would have required him to make a general offer for the company. But Mr Chng had not made that offer, because he had not disclosed the extent to which he controlled the company's shares, the Securities Industry Council found.

Mr Chng was eventually required to compensate Serial shareholders for his breach.

Down and out in Singapore, Mr Chng left for Hong Kong and China, where he began anew. But the nature of his work in China was mostly "finding ways to make a cheaper typewriter instead of making a word processor", he says. Hoping to do more value-added work, Mr Chng returned to Singapore in 2003, as a white knight investor for the financially troubled Heshe Holdings, as Equation Summit was then called.

Mr Chng says he saw Heshe as a vehicle for investments to find new and interesting businesses. That meant jettisoning Heshe's former businesses in garment retailing and property for the current suite of businesses, none of which have yet to prove particularly high-growing or profitable.

"I guess it's a journey. If you ask me, it's a journey that is very rich in experience," he says. "I don't regret that. It's a lesson well learned."

Now, Mr Chng is putting what he has learnt to the test. He has placed his ability and vision as an entrepreneur on the table for all to judge with this all-in bet on DiSa.

Rarely has one receipt carried so much hope. "I think DiSa will be my homerun," Mr Chng says.

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