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Inspiring entrepreneurial journeys

The four recipients of the 14th EY Entrepreneur Of The Year 2015 Awards share the highlights of their careers

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"From a business perspective, this year Fullerton Healthcare has gone from strength to strength, adding world-renowned businesses to our client roster while retaining our existing client base . . . Fullerton Healthcare's mission is to transform the standards of healthcare throughout Asia and improve the lives of all the people we serve and all the communities in which we operate." - Michael Tan, group CEO and co-founder, Fullerton Healthcare Group

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"At Garena, we are constantly looking out for ways we can use technology to meet our users' daily needs. . . Being an Internet and mobile platform provider, our business needs to adapt quickly in order to address consumers' changing needs. Our business has been evolving to keep up with the changing trends, from entertainment services to social commerce and financial services." - Forrest Li, founder, chairman and group CEO, Garena

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"Business is all about its people. We have in place a strong company culture and staff welfare practices. We have also managed to stand out in the field of over 300 catering companies because of our unrelenting focus on quality in terms of food, service and presentation of the buffet line. I always share with my staff that we are not only in the catering business but also in the IT business. " - Neo Kah Kiat, founder, chairman and CEO, Neo Group

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"Always have a positive outlook and persevere through difficult moments of crisis. However, this is not about blind faith, but taking a calculated position in what you believe in, and staying the course. This also means that you must always know what your worst-case scenarios for you and your company will entail - can you and the company survive a 'knock-out' punch . . . I always say we plan for the worst, but hope for the best." - Mark Lee, CEO, Sing Lun Holdings

ROUNDTABLE PARTICIPANTS

  • EY Entrepreneur Of The Year (Health Care): Michael Tan, group CEO and co-founder, Fullerton Healthcare Group
  • EY Entrepreneur Of The Year (Internet and Mobile): Forrest Li, founder, chairman and group CEO, Garena
  • EY Entrepreneur Of The Year (Food and Beverage): Neo Kah Kiat, founder, chairman and CEO, Neo Group
  • EY Entrepreneur Of The Year (Manufacturing): Mark Lee, CEO, Sing Lun Holdings

Moderator: Francis Kan

The Business Times: What do you see as the key success factors for your business?

Michael Tan: Fullerton Healthcare has experienced tremendous growth in recent years. Operating in six countries with over 175 fully owned medical clinics, we now work with 25,000 companies, including some of the world's most recognised brands, to care for over eight million lives.

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The foundation of our success is simple: we uphold the highest standards of medical care and champion constant innovation to make healthcare better, more accessible and affordable in all the countries in which we operate.

This is underpinned by a strong leadership team and supported by experienced doctors and healthcare support staff, who all work together to ensure our patients and partners have affordable access to market-leading healthcare services.

Forrest Li: At Garena, we are constantly looking out for ways we can use technology to meet our users' daily needs. We place a huge emphasis on customer-centric innovations with the purpose of serving the underserved and meeting unmet needs in the region. One example is AirPay, our payment system specifically designed to serve this underserved market by enabling users to convert physical cash to digital currency which they can use online or on mobile phones.

We also strongly believe that talents are the most important asset for long-term success and sustainability of any company. As such, we place a huge emphasis on creating an organisation where talented people can thrive at scale and enjoy freedom of ideas to achieve the unimaginable.

Mark Lee: Our people are the key success factor for our business. Their positive mindset, never-say-die attitude, and willingness to make effort to change along with the company are what make Sing Lun what we are today. Our clients also know that the Sing Lun brand stands for consistent and reliable quality, good service and strong financial standing. Having been around since 1953, it's an old brand that gives our clients comfort.

Our ability to plan succession at all levels, from C-suite to our directors and managers, gives confidence to our clients that we not only have the right equipment, right manufacturing locations, right products but also the right people to execute our three to five year plan. We plan to be around for them for a long time!

Neo Kah Kiat: Business is all about its people. We have in place a strong company culture and staff welfare practices. We have also managed to stand out in the field of over 300 catering companies because of our unrelenting focus on quality in terms of food, service and presentation of the buffet line. I always share with my staff that we are not only in the catering business but also in the IT business. Technology is the heart of our business and we implement IT measures in every department. We have four dedicated engineers to innovate, build and maintain our solutions. Only with technology, we can scale.

The Business Times: What have been some of the biggest challenges you've faced along the way and how did you overcome them?

Michael Tan: My co-founder Dr Daniel Chan and I founded Fullerton Healthcare because we believed there was a better way to do healthcare in Asia. Like any entrepreneurial businesses, we've faced and overcome varied challenges that are typical of a nascent organisation, from ensuring we have the right processes in place, the right people and the right investment.

To meet these challenges successfully, it's vital that you surround yourself with good people. If you can find good partners in life, you can achieve a lot more than on your own. I have been very fortunate to have good business partners in Dr Chan and David Sin, and the talent and determination of all our employees, who have been instrumental in the success of Fullerton Healthcare.

Forrest Li: Being an Internet and mobile platform provider, our business needs to adapt quickly in order to address consumers' changing needs. Our business has been evolving to keep up with the changing trends, from entertainment services to social commerce and financial services. It is not easy, but we enjoy developing products and services that create a real social impact and empower millions of users through technology.

Attracting and retaining talent is critical for Garena's success and has also proven to be a huge challenge. We have developed in-house training programmes to groom future leaders for the industry.

Mark Lee: During the beginning of the Great Financial Crisis in 2008, one of our customers had a major management shift that resulted in an exit from business from some countries that we were operating in. This exit meant the loss of 30 per cent of our capacity overnight as orders retreated, forcing the closure of two of the oldest plants and the retrenchment of 600 loyal staff.

 Most of the employees had grown with my dad, and literally seen me grow up, from a young child to now CEO of the company. They were more family than employees and breaking such difficult news was not easy. Standing in front of everyone with a microphone, and explaining the situation while watching them worry is a moment I will never forget.

 Determined to ensure that Sing Lun would never again be over reliant on a single customer, we now represent more than two dozen reputable apparel brands, ranging from performance sportswear, fashion wear and children's brands.

Neo Kah Kiat: One of the most significant events was probably the fire that broke out in one of our central kitchens two weeks before Chinese New Year in the early morning of Feb 7, 2007. Chinese New Year has always been the peak period for business, but everything was destroyed in the fire.

The kitchen was flooded, equipment were all damaged. But I refused to let the situation get the better of me. Instead of cancelling orders, arrangements were made to transfer the orders to another of our kitchens in the East. By the third day after the fire, operations were back up and we were issuing orders from our central kitchen again.

The Business Times: What has been some of the highlights in your entrepreneurial career so far?

Michael Tan: From a business perspective, this year Fullerton Healthcare has gone from strength to strength, adding world-renowned businesses to our client roster while retaining our existing client base, expanding into North Asia.

A personal highlight of my entrepreneurial career to date has been the effectiveness of our approach to mergers and acquisitions. M&A is one of the cornerstones of our growth strategy, and our resolute approach to post-merger integration ensures our people across all markets deliver the same level of service that our clients and patients have come to expect. Being an entrepreneur has also allowed my partners - co-founder and deputy group CEO Dr Chan and executive chairman Mr Sin - to pursue community initiatives that have a positive impact on the lives of those less fortunate. This year, we are hugely proud to have partnered grassroots organisation in Jurong GRC to provide the elderly and low-income patients free medical consultations and medicine on a quarterly basis.

Forrest Li: Investing in high potential startups is a strategic aspect of our aspiration to build the region's entrepreneurial ecosystem. To nurture these tech startups, we provide not only funding but also market intelligence, operational expertise and regional exposure. An example would be our investment in online grocery store RedMart which is now the top company in its industry here in Singapore.We launched Garena's Management Associate programme with the goal of nurturing talent and growing the talent pool in the region.

Today, we are really proud of how far they have come - the first two batches of MAs have graduated to lead critical projects and take on leadership positions.

Mark Lee: One of my milestones was transitioning the company from a family business to a business that now has professional employees as our C-suite leadership team but instilling family values of respect, responsibility and long-term investment horizons within our business decisions. My personal view is that to take a company through to each growth milestone, S$100 million to S$300 million to S$500 million and beyond, we will need different management skillsets. This will mean making difficult but necessary changes to management and leadership. Unless one is resolute and determined to identify these gaps and close them, the company will stand still.

Neo Kah Kiat: To build the company from just one brand that was not widely recognised, to being the No 1 events caterer in Singapore today. We have increased our headcount from eight when we started 23 years ago, to 1,100 today. As the business scaled, we have also expanded our premises.

When we started, we operated from a shared kitchen in Joo Chiat of about 2,000 square feet. In 2014, we consolidated our operations and corporate headquarters to our new building that spans 76,000 sq ft. We listed the company on SGX Catalist on July 11, 2012, a testament to the hard work from the group over the years. In 2015, I was recognised as the Buffet King.

The Business Times: Looking ahead, what do you see as the key challenges for your business?

Michael Tan: Fullerton Healthcare's mission is to transform the standards of healthcare throughout Asia and improve the lives of all the people we serve and all the communities in which we operate. We do this by making quality healthcare accessible and affordable to all.

The challenges, though, are considerable. Many disparities still exist across Asia in terms of health-risks, health outcomes and the quality of healthcare solutions, while population ageing is having a significant impact on healthcare spending in developed and developing countries.

We believe that we can redefine the patient experience through technology, and by bringing doctors, patients and businesses together to make access to healthcare easier, quicker, more affordable and ultimately better.

Forrest Li: This year, we ventured into an entirely new business because we noticed a gap in the C2C space that is yet to be filled by other providers. This is a challenging task for us but we are excited to witness the incredible growth and positive feedback from the community. The provision of a fuss-free and highly secure mobile shopping platform with fully integrated logistics and payment services has truly paid off.

Mark Lee: Our business is a labour intensive industry. This means reviewing and enhancing our working environment, our HR policies, and even aligning culture to attract the millennials. The fight for talent will only become more intense and I spend my time thinking about how to make us more attractive beyond pay. The Internet is really a game changer within the industry. It's affecting the entire supply chain, from how the consumer buys their products, which will change the tenant base of a shopping mall, to how goods will be shipped from manufacturers to customers.

Neo Kah Kiat: The prices of raw materials will have a big impact on smaller businesses that cannot find ways to manage. In 2010, I set up NKK Import and Export Trading, our in-house trading firm to do bulk purchase and import directly from the supplier. Costs are cut down and quality kept consistent.

Employees now are also more educated and they may demand more - better pay with better job titles, work-life balance - yet they do not have the gritty mentality of the previous generation. In land-scarce Singapore, rental has also become a significant overhead that companies have to stomach.

The Business Times: What advice do you have for new entrepreneurs in light of the uncertain business environment?

Michael Tan: Perseverance is the single most important attribute to have for a successful career and is what will make your dream a vision, and your vision a reality. When you are faced with a challenge, push through because there is no greater feeling than when you do.

Forrest Li: Focus on developing a sustainable business and not focus purely on fundraising. To us, it is important to develop products and services that ultimately create a real social impact and improve people's lives in the region we serve. Only then can the business last for generations. Lastly, surround yourself with highly talented people whom you trust, and have courage and passion to think differently and to persist - Garena started from people and we stayed the course as we believe the core values of our business, our team and our shared vision made all the difference to Garena today.

Mark Lee: Always have a positive outlook and persevere through difficult moments of crisis. However, this is not about blind faith, but taking a calculated position in what you believe in, and staying the course.

This also means that you must always know what your worst-case scenarios for you and your company will entail - can you and the company survive a "knock-out" punch, or are you able to live, stand up and fight another day? I always say we plan for the worst, but hope for the best.

Neo Kah Kiat: Entrepreneurship is a long journey, and there is no U-turn in business. I believe it takes 1,000 days to test an entrepreneur's stamina and endurance. In light of the uncertain business environment, I urge new entrepreneurs not to give up easily.

Another thing I have noticed is that young entrepreneurs may put too much focus on networking. To put it plainly, if you work hard to show results, the networking sessions will follow naturally. My advice is for them to focus more on their business and build a strong foundation.

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