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By Bryant Chan
WITH so many successes under its belt, one might think that it has always been smooth sailing for Seiko Architectural Wall Systems.
After all, 2017 is the eighth consecutive year that the company has been a recipient of the Enterprise 50 Awards — a record matched by few other companies.
But it was far from easy for the firm to get to this commendable position.
Since it was established in 1978 under the name of Seiko Glass as a glass fabricator and installer, the management has made it a point to reinvent the company constantly to keep it competitive.
Six years after it was set up, the company’s name was changed to Seiko Glass & Aluminium Co, and its catalogue expanded to include aluminium cladding and exporting to overseas countries.
But business flagged in the 1990s, due to the availability of cheaper aluminium cladding supplies from alternative sources like China. That was when managing director Rodney Cheong, 48, knew he had to do something to revitalise the business.
In 2002, he renamed the company Seiko Architectural Wall Systems to reflect its new specialisation — the design and installation of external facade systems.
But this transition from supplier to contractor did not come about easily.
Mr Cheong, who assumed leadership in 2001 after seven years with the company, says it requires a different mindset to run a contracting business as compared to managing a supply business.
“If you go into the contracting field without being familiar with it, you may end up paying more than what you would make in the factory,” he says.
Mr Cheong would learn this lesson firsthand soon after making the transition. Helmed by a management team inexperienced in contracting, Seiko Architectural Wall Systems saw itself plunge so deep in the red in the early days that the business came close to folding in 2004.
Only through the financial support of a close family member was Mr Cheong able to pull the company out of the gloom.
Helios Residences at Cairnhill Circle, one of Seiko Architectural Wall Systems’ projects. Photo: Seiko Architectural Wall Systems
Perseverance pays off
To get the company back on track, the team pursued any and all types of jobs.
According to Mr Cheong, Seiko staff would travel from company to company, asking for contracts.
“No job was too small then,” he recalls. “We would take any job that came to us.
“We would even take the jobs other people scoffed at, including contracts valued as low as $300,000.”
This dogged perseverance has paid off. Today, Seiko receives contracts ranging from $10 million to $30 million — a far cry from the days when its employees had to make door-to-door visits and take on small jobs.
The company has left an indelible mark on buildings across the country — for instance, the beautiful facades of The Light and Helios Residences at Cairnhill Circle, and the Carlton Hotel Singapore at Bras Basah Road.
Currently, its subsidiary companies are working on several projects in the Novena and Tanglin areas.
Even though it nearly brought him to financial ruin, Mr Cheong knows that switching his business model from supplying to contracting was the right choice to make.
He says: “Business models are dynamic. It’s difficult to make the switch overnight, but in the end, you have to do what’s best for the company.”
No one can accuse Mr Cheong of not having the company’s best interests at heart either. He works six-and-a-half days a week, taking time off only on Saturday and Sunday to have lunch or dinner with his family.
Unlike most other managing directors, he regularly makes site visits to get first-hand updates on progress, morale and site logistics. As a result, his dress pants and shoes often have concrete dust marks on them.
Still, he shrugs and says such measures are “necessary”.
“Running a business is about having information,” he says. “It’s all about knowing the market, and more importantly, knowing yourself.”