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Staying ahead of the curve in a fast-changing world

Wednesday, November 16, 2016 - 05:50

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"What was working till yesterday is not going to work today. What's working well today is going to be obsolete tomorrow. You have to continually build on things," says Mr Sareen.

IT is clear from the outset that GS Sareen is unlike many other SME (small and medium-sized enterprise) owners here in Singapore.

When most SME owners are fretting about the poor economy and their competition, the CEO and founder of tyre manufacturer and distributor Omni United tells The Business Times that he does quite the opposite.

The eloquent and poised ex-Indian Army captain says: "I have never bothered about the economy or what the indicators are."

Mr Sareen raises the 2008 global financial crisis as an example. "It started from the US, which was 65 per cent of our business. It didn't even cross my mind that it was a crisis - we grew our business 100 per cent year-on-year in the US for about five years during that time."

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Similarly, he has never concerned himself with his rivals and what they are up to. "I just put my head down and do what I need to. Too much energy is wasted in looking left and right instead of just doing your job and getting going."

Mr Sareen's frank, irreverent take on doing business might raise an eyebrow by those expecting SME owners to fit a certain mould, but one has to admit that he must be doing something right.

In a short span of 13 years, his Singapore-based company's revenue has grown to almost half a billion dollars, with a presence in 80 countries and counting.

Positioned as the "Ikea of tyres", Omni United is racing ahead of the field with Mr Sareen in the driver's seat.

DEVELOPMENTS

Mr Sareen shared an interesting exchange with his wife on the morning before the interview. He had just got back from Europe the previous day, and was jet-lagged.

"My wife said I looked so tired and asked me this: 'Why don't you stop growing the company? You have enough people and the business has grown big enough.' I had to explain to her that if we stop growing, that's the end of the story for the company," he points out.

In his words, it was not a matter of development, as much as it was on survival.

"What was working till yesterday is not going to work today. What's working well today is going to be obsolete tomorrow. You have to continually build on things."

He is upfront about the need to stay ahead of the curve. To Mr Sareen, this means having to "kill your own business model" and build a new one. That's because if you don't do it, someone else will, he says bluntly.

The rapid transformation in his business is testament to the company's agility and foresight to stay relevant in today's fast-changing business world.

When Omni United started in 2003, it was a pure trade play. Mr Sareen explains that, at that time, the arbitrage of information was the reason why companies in Singapore survived due to its proximity to China and other production bases. That meant that people in Singapore knew where to get products from, while those in other parts of the world did not.

But along came the Internet, which changed everything. So the company evolved from a trade play to include finance and supply chain, among other things.

After that, Mr Sareen realised the need to build a brand. "That meant destroying all that you have learned and built, and start all over again in brand-building."

But once he built his brands such as Radar Tires and started selling them, he realised that they didn't have the muscle of the established brands.

And that was when the company decided to move into buying distribution, which is the stage of evolution that Omni United is at right now.

Most recently, it has been actively raising its distribution profile in the US, with the acquisition of Texas-based A to Z Tire & Battery, a multi-brand distributor with a network across six states. It also took over Interstate Tire Distributor, a tyre wholesaler distributor based in California, last October.

These purchases are all expected to add more than US$120 million to its revenue next year, bringing expected total sales revenue close to US$500 million.

PEOPLE

While Omni United's breakneck expansion pace has left many others in the dust, Mr Sareen reveals that he has, in fact, been trying to hold back growth of the company.

"You can't madly grow without management bandwidth as you won't be able to sustain it. Every time we buy a company, there's talent and management that come with it. Getting people to understand your thought process takes time."

Right now, the company has close to 400 employees worldwide, with about 50 at the Singapore headquarters.

According to him, in the beginning, the only way to attract talent was by paying them more than they earned previously. But he realised this was unsustainable, so the company "somehow managed" with whatever people it had, and built the business from there.

Now that it has established a solid reputation both at home and abroad, Mr Sareen notes that it no longer has problems attracting talent compared to the first 10 years. "When you are a small company, people will think you are risky and who wants to risk it? But, as you grow and you continually prove that you are doing the right things, talent will slowly start coming to you."

He adds that it is a wrong conception that having many executives means that he can now take it easy, giving the unusual metaphor of horse-riding to make his point.

"If you have one horse to ride, then you only need to focus on that one horse. On the contrary, you have to be a very capable rider to ride 50 horses."

In the past, when the company was still small, Mr Sareen was able to follow up on every detail. But now that Omni United has grown to such a large extent, it became quite impossible.

One way that he has got around this is to drill into all his managers on the need to follow up, which has become a part of its culture.

"If there's one writing that I can put on every manager's desk, it will be to follow up. If you get that habit, chances are that you won't have issues. We can't be part of a conveyor belt, where the task comes to me, I do it and then it's no longer my responsibility - what comes before and after doesn't concern me. That's short-changing someone's capability. You have to know what is happening."

CHALLENGES

But when asked what differentiates Omni United from the rest, Mr Sareen says that it is perhaps a desire and a "crazy passion to grow".

He adds: "If you madly want something, chances are, you will end up getting it. And success is a result of that passion or madness, depending on how you look at it."

Looking forward, Mr Sareen says the company will continue to look at acquiring distribution from the US and Europe to further strengthen its market presence.

But he acknowledges that while buying companies may be easy, integrating them may be challenging due to differences in work culture. "There is no right or wrong way of doing a business. You just have to be respectful towards that and find a middle path."

If there's one thing that keeps him up at night, Mr Sareen reveals that it is excitement - even after all these years.

"The opportunities are endless today even though the economic situation is down. It's just how fast one can grab them and how sensible you can be about doing it. If you are in a business where the size is so huge and your percentage in that pie is negligible, can you imagine how much growth there could be?"

And one advice that Mr Sareen gives to new business owners is not to chase after money.

"If you are in a business to chase money, you are in the wrong line. Everyone has a grain, a natural tendency. Let that interest be your life."

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