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Serving hospitals with innovation

UEMS Singapore, which supports many healthcare facilities here, has started to invest in data analytics and IoT technology to stay competitive.
Wednesday, November 16, 2016 - 05:50

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"We have invested heavily in different areas and programmes. We hire and retain productive staff, we conduct training to upskill them so that they can do a better job," says Ms Tan.

MOST people in the local corporate scene will be familiar with United Engineers, a homegrown engineering group that was one of Singapore's first companies to go public. Not as well known, perhaps, is one of the group's offshoots: a facilities management company that provides housekeeping and porter services for hospitals here.

But UEMS Singapore, which has been around for nearly three decades, is no less prominent in its own way. It is one of the biggest players in the healthcare facilities management industry. And though its ultimate parent company has changed - it is now owned by private equity fund Dymon Asia Private Equity, which bought its holding company in January 2015 - it remains as customer-focused as ever, says general manager Tan Cheh Tian.

The company, which Ms Tan reveals has started to invest in data analytics and Internet of Things (IoT) technology to stay competitive, is part of Singapore-based UEMS Group, which also has units in Malaysia and Taiwan.

UEMS Singapore accounts for about 45 per cent of the group's topline and nearly 80 per cent of net profit, she adds, at an interview at its office in UE Bizhub Central in Yio Chu Kang.

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An integrated facilities management company, UEMS Singapore has been providing facility management services to the healthcare sector since its inception.

It serves "10 to 15" healthcare facilities here including hospitals, community hospitals and nursing homes, Ms Tan says. Its client list includes KK Women's and Children's Hospital and Changi General Hospital.

It ventured into providing non-healthcare property and facilities management services to both the private and public sector in Singapore in 2012, and has clinched contracts to be the managing agent for well-known buildings such as Parliament House and The Treasury in High Street, she adds. Ms Tan joined UEMS Singapore in 2012 from a company in the property management industry.

GROWING DEMAND

UEMS Singapore was established in 1988 by United Engineers, which Ms Tan says had expected growing demand for outsourced non-clinical services in the healthcare sector as the local population aged. UEMS Group was later set up in 2005 as the holding company for UEMS Singapore.

It started off providing healthcare management support in housekeeping, linen and laundry and facilities engineering service operations where it provided "management expertise in running the operations". The company also set up management teams in the healthcare facilities it served to oversee the operations.

Over time, it expanded into providing portering services in the healthcare sector. Portering entails moving patients or items from one destination to another within the hospital. For instance, the company may help move patients from the emergency department to the operating theatre, or from clinics to wards. Its porters may also collect blood specimens or documents from wards and deliver them to laboratories.

Along with housekeeping, linen and laundry and portering, it also provides health attendants and disinfection services. "We are also expanding into nursing aides, transport nurse, concierge and other healthcare support services," Ms Tan adds.

Its other segment, property and facilities management services, includes facilities engineering, managing agent services, external facade maintenance, energy management and corporate real estate which involves marketing and leasing services to property owners and tenants, she says.

Its healthcare and built-up environment services segment accounts for the majority of UEMS Singapore's annual revenue, at roughly 80 per cent, while its non-healthcare services make up the remainder. The company intends to maintain these approximate proportions as it expands, Ms Tan says.

From a staff strength of just six people at UEMS Singapore when it first started out, the company has now grown to "more than 1,300" employees as at October 2016, she notes, estimating that roughly a third of its employees here are foreign workers.

Its topline has also climbed, though Ms Tan declines to discuss net profit numbers. UEMS Singapore's annual revenue was "about S$2 million" at the start, and came in at S$48.7 million in 2015. That translates to a compound annual growth rate of around 12.5 per cent from 1988 to 2015.

BIGGEST CHALLENGE

Growth was most rapid in the period from 2012 to 2015, she points out, adding that turnover had been S$25.1 million in 2012 and "is expected to cross the S$50 million mark" in 2016. But UEMS Singapore's biggest challenge is still that it remains "a people's business" that has to rely heavily on manpower, Ms Tan says, adding that it has "invested heavily in different areas and programmes" to retain local employees and raise productivity.

"The biggest challenges are labour and their escalating costs as we are operating in a very developed country. We have invested heavily in different areas and programmes. We hire and retain productive staff, we conduct training to upskill them so that they can do a better job."

Its new owner, a private equity fund linked to Singapore investment firm Temasek Holdings, has made "no major changes" to the management team and the company has put in place "better" recognition and reward schemes to attract and retain workers, she says, adding that it now places more emphasis on technology and training too.

One example of technological innovation is a system the company developed in-house called UETrack, which can track workers' locations and assign them jobs via a mobile app. The system has helped save two hours of staff time daily at one facility site, Ms Tan says. "We have had an example where a customer used the data analysed through UETrack to reduce the manpower requirement in a follow-up contract. In another example, we were able to work with our customer to change the deployment plan of our staff to balance weekday and weekend requirements of staff."

Another is the use of sensors and robots. It uses sensors to record how many people have been or are in a room to determine when to send staff to clean the room, rather than the "traditional way" of relying on a preset schedule, she notes.

The company also uses automation such as a toilet-cleaning machine that lets cleaners spray cleaning solution on fixtures and later vacuum the floor dry without having to scrub or wipe any surfaces by hand. "Based on manual cleaning, it would take about 40 minutes to clean a typical toilet with eight cubicles but with (the machine), it would now take only about 20 minutes."

The company has its eye on the Singapore healthcare market as a source of growth and intends to capitalise on an increase in outsourcing of facilities management in recent times. "In Singapore, the main growth segments continue to be in the healthcare sector, given that the healthcare infrastructure is set to increase further. With this, the number of hospital beds and care centres for the aged are expected to grow, in line with the Healthcare 2020 Master Plan," Ms Tan adds. "As for the property & facilities management business, due to increased outsourcing trend of facilities management services by both the public and private sectors, this would remain as one of UEMS Singapore's growth drivers."

Its future growth plans include regional expansion into Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia.

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