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Dare to change
WONG Heang Fine, group chief executive officer of Surbana Jurong Private Limited, is keeping a tight schedule, and it is not difficult to see why. Mr Wong is busy deploying the Singapore consultancy's expertise in urban, industrial and infrastructure projects across the world. In two short years since the company was formed after the merger of Surbana International and Jurong International in 2015, Surbana Jurong has transformed into an industry giant.
"At any moment in time, we have more than 7,000 projects ongoing," he says. "We are designing a system to clean a lake in China. We are proposing an integrated resort in Vietnam. We are building hydroelectric dams in Malaysia as well as in Nepal, road projects in India and Bangladesh, and MRT and mining projects in Australia."
From 3,200 employees and annual revenue of S$400 million right after the merger, Surbana Jurong now employs over 13,000 people in 113 offices across 44 countries. Almost half of all its employees are professionals including architects, engineers, planners, project managers and quantity surveyors.
Revenue today has more than tripled to S$1.3 billion. The firm is executing projects across Asia, Australia, the Middle East, Africa, and the Americas. Such rapid growth was possible because of a deliberate strategy to deepen its talent pool. Surbana Jurong has also adopted best practices to enable its global operations.
Its substantial track record of Singapore projects over more than 50 years, meanwhile, enables the company to successfully bid for projects in other countries.
"We had to take bold steps, make bold decisions and challenge the norms. We took a hard look at ourselves to understand where we can play in the global landscape," says Mr Wong.
To grow Surbana Jurong, Mr Wong is expanding its pool of talent, depth and breadth of its capabilities and its geographical coverage. This is done through organic growth, as well as through fostering more partnerships, including acquisitions. "We have to compete against the best in the world by deepening our core capabilities," he says.
A significant acquisition was SMEC Holdings, an Australian infrastructure consultancy which Surbana Jurong bought for S$400 million in 2016. The acquisition catapulted the firm to become one of the most comprehensive, and largest, development consultancy groups in the region, and evened out its revenue stream with counter-cyclical infrastructure projects.
The acquisitions of Australia's SMEC, together with that of Singapore engineering firm KTP Consultants and China design firm Sino-Sun Architects & Engineering Co Ltd, added a network and talent base that the firm can tap on.
"All the acquisitions have worked out well. For example, SMEC brought in infrastructural expertise, and Sino-Sun came with design licences we can use to tender for urban projects in China," Mr Wong says.
Surbana Jurong also works with other firms through joint ventures and partnerships. It has partnered Safdie Architects, led by renowned architect Moshe Safdie, to take on more high-profile design projects in the region.
In 2017, the firm partnered China Highway Engineering Consulting Corporation to provide design and consultancy services for highway and municipal projects in China. One of the latest developments is the establishment of a financial services arm. "We aim to help the client plan projects in a way such that banks can support them," he says.
A partnership with the Credit Guarantee & Investment Facility, which provides guarantees to investors of infrastructure projects, aims to boost infrastructure development in the region.
Changing internal processes
As the group grows, employees will have the opportunity to work on bigger and more global projects. Adopting a global mindset and cross-cultural appreciation is critical, Mr Wong says. Other than growing its pool of talent, going global also means the firm's operational processes have to be reshaped.
In Singapore, the system of procuring projects and receiving payment for them is relatively straightforward. But tackling the global market requires Surbana Jurong to understand the different stakeholders involved and the risks of payment delays.
In taking the firm global, procedures have to be worked out around understanding its clients such that projects can be evaluated and priced accordingly, Mr Wong says.
The risk of delayed payments is important because manpower costs have to be incurred first. To mitigate such risks, projects can be cut into smaller stages. Foreign exchange risks, meanwhile, can be reduced by hiring more local staff, thus balancing incoming revenues with outgoing costs.
Exporting the Singapore story
Surbana Jurong's track record in Singapore, meanwhile, comes in handy at a time of rapid industrialisation and urbanisation in Asia. Many growing Asian cities face similar constraints which Singapore faced around land and resources, Mr Wong says.
Part of Surbana Jurong's value proposition is that there is a compelling testimonial in Singapore's rapid development, which clients can witness with their own eyes. Surbana started out in 1960 as part of the Housing Development Board (HDB) tasked to solve Singapore's housing crisis, while Jurong International began its work in the 1960s to oversee the development of Jurong Industrial Estate. "In Singapore, you can see everything we've done," Mr Wong says.
"We've helped design over a million public homes, and also community spaces like hawker centres, libraries and malls. We were involved in the reclamation of the land in Changi Airport, the highway from the airport to the city, the industrial estates, the sewerage and water systems, and now the next biggest port here in Tuas," he says.
In all, Surbana Jurong's track record in Singapore, along with its newly acquired pool of in-house expertise and its revamped internal processes, have shaped it to become a one-stop consultancy with a hard-to-beat value proposition, Mr Wong says.
Its urban and economic planners can plan for an entire city, such as Amaravati, the new capital city of India's Andhra Pradesh state that Surbana Jurong has designed.
Its geotechnical engineers can understand issues around reclamation and soil formation, its mechanical and electrical engineers understand building requirements, its rail specialists can plan signalling and ticketing systems, and its civil engineers can plan for bridges and highways.
In planning for buildings, Surbana Jurong has an existing division that handles facilities management, such as maintaining air-conditioning units and lifts. Last year, it acquired security services firm AETOS Holdings to complete the value chain.
Having successfully taken Surbana Jurong global in just two years, the task remains for the firm to execute successfully on its projects and continue building an enviable track record.
"We want to be Asia's powerhouse and a global leader for urbanisation, industrialisation and infrastructure projects," Mr Wong says. "Now, we have every trade, every discipline in the company. There are very few companies in the world today that can claim the same."