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An indispensable driving force

To be closer to its customers, vehicle leasing giant Goldbell Group has expanded into SME financing and fleet management

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'You want to have as many touch points as possible. If you do one thing for your customer, you're dispensable. But if you do 10 things for them, you're not.' - Goldbell chief operating officer Alex Chua.

IT IS not often that the company you rented your truck from can offer you a business loan too. But Goldbell Group's latest undertaking in financial services, says chief operating officer Alex Chua, is a natural step in a long journey of growing with its customers. The company is already the largest player in leasing commercial and industrial vehicles in Singapore. It owns a fleet of over 7,500 trucks, vans, cars, buses and forklifts which it rents to businesses like transport firms and logistics start-ups. It is also a market leader in distributing vehicles, including trucks, vans and buses.

Yet Goldbell is always trying to do more. It is now extending loans to all kinds of small and medium enterprises (SMEs), targeting a segment not optimally covered by the local banks. Within two years of starting the business, its loan book has grown substantially. "Being business owners ourselves, we understand the various nuances beyond the financial numbers," Mr Chua says.

The company is also building up its after-sales service capabilities in the form of a state-of-the-art, robotics-enabled workshop. It is investing in a fleet management system as well as overseas start-ups.

"You want to have as many touch points as possible. If you do one thing for your customer, you're dispensable. But if you do 10 things for them, you're not," says Mr Chua. "I dream that the customer can engage us on multiple fronts, from leasing to financing to fleet management."

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Mr Chua, who was previously head of South-east Asia equity derivatives structured products at JPMorgan Chase, joined the family business in 2012. He is currently in charge of Goldbell's financial services and leasing businesses.

Younger brother Arthur, who has been with Goldbell since the beginning, is chief executive officer and in charge of the company's distribution and new businesses. His youngest brother is working in a logistics start-up. "I felt a personal duty to come back. My father is happy that two sons are now in the business," he says.

The tech push

The Chua brothers are now taking Goldbell into its next phase of growth. The company began in 1980 as a forklift distribution business, and soon expanded into distributing Mitsubishi Fuso trucks.

It expanded into leasing in 1990 to provide an option to customers who did not want to purchase their vehicles. The maintenance business grew as well. In 2005, Goldbell expanded its fleet to 2,000 vehicles after an acquisition.

Goldbell Financial Services, meanwhile, began in 2015 after feedback from customers that they needed financing for their purchases, as well as for their businesses.

Despite lending for all kinds of business needs, default rates have been very low, Mr Chua says. Goldbell has a skilled credit team that has bank-related experience to assess the numbers, he says. "People joined us because they believe in our vision in helping smaller business enterprises. We always believe in supporting SMEs, and we don't believe in taking advantage of them."

Other than financing, Goldbell is growing its pie by investing in technology and introducing fleet management systems to fleet owners, a service that Mr Chua says few competitors can provide.

"With our experience in managing large fleets, how can we share our accumulated knowledge? The answer is providing them a service to help them maintain their fleet, advising on administration of the fleet, accident recovery, optimising insurance costs and even buy-sell opportunities," Mr Chua says.

He has also invested in a car repair and servicing start-up from India, which aggregates workshops, parts used, pricing, services and payments into a single platform.

For repairs and maintenance, meanwhile, a computerised system will help diagnose problems. Goldbell is currently building a multi-storey workshop in Tuas which is outfitted with cutting edge technology such as automated guidance vehicles, to deliver parts to repair bays.

"The system helps us cut down on wastage and misdiagnoses. We are trying to transplant the know-how in our mechanics and diagnostics staff into it," Mr Chua says.

Goldbell is also preparing for a future where all vehicles might run on electricity instead of petrol. The new Tuas workshop comes with specifications for sufficient power supply to charge vehicles, if needed. Even if electric vehicles become dominant, the existing market structure might not change much, he says.

Overseas expansion

Beyond growing its businesses here, Goldbell is also expanding into the region, with Malaysia and Vietnam now contributing 10 per cent to its revenue.

The business in Malaysia began five years ago after the company bought a forklift distributor and it also leases port handling equipment.

Following the success of Goldbell Financial Services in Singapore, Mr Chua plans to expand its offerings to clients in Malaysia, Vietnam and Australia.

Possible niches include finance leases for machinery and factoring, a practice where an SME sells its income stream from receivables in exchange for cashflow upfront. "We try not to compete head on with banks," he says.

Five years ago, Goldbell entered the Vietnam market, where it is concentrating on selling forklifts. Goldbell has also expanded into the car rental business in Australia this year.

There is a lot going on for the family-owned enterprise of some 830 employees. Mr Chua said that despite 37 years of history, Goldbell is always looking ahead to identify future challenges and pursue new opportunities.

Internally, the company's employees undergo frequent training, while a culture of transparency aims to promote a sense of togetherness and a positive working environment.

He is enjoying himself. "I was once a cog in the machine. Now, I get to bring about real change," he says. "We're just getting started, there is so much more to do and it's very exciting."

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