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Exploring new worlds

Two-decade-old electronics firm Superworld is ready to exit sectors it has established itself in and move into R&D and new markets.

"No more laptops, printers, but more of the higher-end applications - that's the way to maximise our profits," says Mr Chen.

CHANGES are afoot at Superworld as it gravitates towards new frontiers.

One change was the creation of two new full-time positions earlier this year to engage in product engineering and design. At the same time, Superworld is reaching out to new markets while winding down its presence in old ones.

With these changes, Superworld hopes to reorientate itself towards a rapidly changing landscape in the global electronics manufacturing industry.

"As the economy changes, we can't stay put with our old ways of doing business," says the company's managing director Johnson Chen. "Right now we are trying to be more orientated towards design and engineering."

It is this commitment to innovation that has helped Superworld remain relevant throughout its 22-year history - and a frequent winner of the Enterprise 50 awards.

It clinched the award five times previously as Superworld Electronics, and this will be the first time it is being awarded as Superworld Holdings.

Superworld Electronics started out in 1993 as a sales and trading company for electronics components. It then gradually expanded its operations to include manufacturing of these components.

As its operations grew, Superworld Holdings was created in 2002 to help manage the finances and investments of the Superworld group of companies and subsidiaries.

Now, Superworld sells products such as multi-layer chip beads, power inductors, transformers, connectors and cables to other electronics companies.

Its products are designed and manufactured in Singapore, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Customers then use these products in their own manufacture of electronics end-products such as mobile phones, electronics controller, LED lighting, hard disk drives and graphic cards, for both industrial and consumer end-users, including Motorola, Dell, Hewlett Packard and Dyson.

Aside from sales and manufacturing, Superworld is making another push to move up the manufacturing value chain.

Superworld employed a design engineering manager in January this year, and a fresh graduate was hired as product engineer a few months later in June. Together, these two engineers will work on conceptualising new designs and possible new products from a 90-square-metre engineering laboratory in the company's headquarters located along New Industrial Road in Bartley.

Mr Chen highlights the need to move up the value chain and increase profit margins as competition is getting more keen in the sector that the company is primarily in - producing components for consumer electronics like television sets, laptops and printers.

The engineering laboratory is also expected to help lead Superworld's forays into new frontiers.

"It will be a place that drives our innovation, creating better products to improve the well-being . . . of our end-consumers," says Mr Chen.

Superworld is not driving change only from within the confines of its headquarters in Bartley. It recently started to speak to university professors in Singapore to find out if the company could collaborate with students on product innovation projects.

More significantly, Superworld is ready to exit sectors that it has established itself in and enter new ones.

Mr Chen notes for example that there is a clear trend towards consumers using wearable electronics like smartwatches.

Automotive companies are also looking to incorporate smart technologies into their vehicles. For example, just by looking at what's shown on the car's dashboard, the driver will be able to know how strong the pressure is in the car's tyres. This is made possible by sensors built into the tyres, and this requires microelectronic components to do the trick.


Wireless charging is another growing sector. Already, some furniture makers are incorporating wireless chargers into their products. Then there are smart metres that Superworld is looking at. It is in touch with Agilent Technologies of the United States and Landis+Gyr's Australian office to produce components for their smart metres.

Mr Chen says that the market is rapidly expanding in these sectors, so Superworld is re-orienting itself in that direction by conducting research and making innovations in related components to accommodate any such requests from current and potential customers.

"No more laptops, printers, but more of the higher-end applications," he says. "That's the way to maximise our profits."

Re-orientation came at a cost to Superworld, however. In 2012, the company reported an annual turnover of about S$75.3 million. This dropped to about S$59.4 million in 2013, and then to S$59.2 million last year.

The fall between 2012 and 2013 was attributed to Superworld Holdings disposing 90 per cent of its equity interest in one of its wholly- owned subsidiaries in August 2012.

"We were trying to fine-tune our operations," explains Mr Chen. "And it was then that we gave up some of the lower-end products, specifically consumer products, and moved towards higher-end ones."

Hence, Superworld is hoping to employ more product and design engineers in Singapore to venture into future growth areas, but Mr Chen concedes that this is no easy task.

For one, the increasing costs of labour and rent in Singapore are constant worries that the company needs to address before deciding to invest more in R&D.

To mitigate this, Superworld is bringing down overheads by investing in automation.

By introducing automated production lines in its Dongguan factory in China, where labour costs are rising rapidly, Superworld has managed to halve its staff size from about 800 to a total of 284 at present, says Mr Chen. The Singapore headquarters has 33 employees.

But even after reducing its reliance on labour, hiring of talent remains a problem for the company as the talent pool in Singapore is too small, according to Mr Chen.

For example, when Superworld approached a university professor here to see if his students would collaborate on materials engineering so that the company's product can achieve a smaller form factor, the professor said that they did not have the know-how.

In the mean time, the company is developing clearer career paths for its employees to increase staff retention rates.


Superworld also places a heavy emphasis on training, welfare and corporate social responsibility. This not only increases the morale of the staff, but also helps the image of the company.

Mr Chen believes that its emphasis on teamwork and a sense of belonging have helped Superworld stay relevant amid the changing demands of the global electronics sector.

This strong sense of teamwork is immediately clear when one steps into the company's office: all its staff don maroon jackets when visitors are around, there are many photos of the company's employees enjoying themselves at various events and maxims on integrity and character are emblazoned on the walls facing the entrance to exhort and advise employees.

"Out of an open mind comes true wisdom; out of meekness comes true strength," states one quote in Chinese.

Perhaps this is also a saying that has helped Superworld adapt to an ever-changing electronics world over the past two decades.