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Turning adversity into opportunity

Eng Liat Kiang, 97-year-old founder-chairman of diversified Sin Heng Chan Group, shares the values behind the longevity of his business
Monday, June 20, 2016 - 05:50
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"Strong willpower, determination and the ability to endure difficulties will see you through many challenging moments . . . Above all, always be trustworthy, reliable and honest - these are the important values." - Eng Liat Kiang, founder-chairman of Sin Heng Chan Group

HARDSHIP does not exist in the lexicon of Eng Liat Kiang, the founder-chairman of Sin Heng Chan Group - which has diverse businesses ranging from cement plants to commodities trading. Instead, Mr Eng strongly believes in "hard work, and things will work out for the better".

A true-blue Teochew who hailed from the rural district of Linxi in Chao'an county, Chaozhou in Guangdong province, he knows the value of hard work, coming as he did from a hardscrabble childhood.

The belief that things will work out for the better has also seen Mr Eng weather many business cycles over the decades, something which Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan has recognised by conferring him the Honorary Award, the highest honour of the inaugural Teochew Entrepreneur Award 2016.

Born almost a century ago in 1919, the 97-year-old Mr Eng was the youngest in the family. His parents tilled the land to eke a living but they fell ill and died when he was just three years old. His siblings looked after him after their parents' deaths. He studied the Chinese classics during his formative years which was to shape his character and outlook in life.

SEEKING HIS FORTUNE IN "NANYANG"

When the Japanese invaded China in the 1930s, Mr Eng knew it was time to leave his birthplace. He packed his few belongings and a parcel of the family's farmland was hocked to pay for his passage to Nanyang.

Singapore was his destination as Mr Eng had relatives living here. In 1936, after a week at sea, he arrived to start life anew.

He soon found work, making a princely four dollars a month. He settled in quickly, helped by the Teochew community where people spoke the same dialect and ate the same food.

However, Mr Eng saw the need to communicate with people of different cultural backgrounds and ethnicities and he picked up Malay, English and Indonesian on his own.

Not satisfied with working for someone, Mr Eng felt the first stirrings of his entrepreneurial spirit. "I had just come from China with no experience, what would I know about running businesses? But I knew that I had to do something," he says in Teochew.

EARLY BEGINNINGS

His first foray into business was in partnership with two friends. Together, they pooled their resources to open their first provision store on Rochor Road. But World War II broke out; the Japanese occupied Singapore from 1942 to 1945. Despite the tumult, Mr Eng was even more determined to succeed. Through various connections, he managed to secure the import of commodities such as sugar, tapioca flour and other goods to sell at his provision shops.

A factory to process edible oils in nearby Beach Road was also a success.

By 1945, with the war ending and the Japanese due to withdraw from Singapore, he spotted a business opportunity. Using all of the local currency he had (which would have become worthless once the Japanese left), he bought enough black pepper to fill three warehouses. When the Japanese withdrew, black pepper and other commodities were in high demand, yielding Mr Eng handsome profits.

In 1947, he rebuilt his business and established Sin Heng Chan, focusing on rice trading, a commodity which was in shortage then. Sin Heng Chan's office cum factory was located on Changi Road but as the business grew, it moved downtown in January 1955. It operated out of No 30 and 31 in Circular Road, where there was already a cluster of Teochew businessmen who were in the same line as Sin Heng Chan.

It expanded into feed milling in 1960, the same year that Mr Eng made Sin Heng Chan a private limited company.

TURNING OPPORTUNITIES INTO GROWTH

The 1960s to 1980s was a period of rapid growth for Sin Heng Chan, when it expanded into Malaysia. Towards the late 1970s, the company ventured into real estate, buying and developing land. Around the same time, Mr Eng also built a large feed mill in Jurong.

As Singapore industrialised, large swathes of farmland made way for factories. With his characteristic strong eye for opportunities, Mr Eng converted the Jurong feed mill factory into a cement terminal which sits on prime waterfront land.

It tapped the huge demand for cement as Singapore embarked on a massive development programme.

Sin Heng Chan's business diversity - cement and concrete, feed milling, rice and sugar trading and real estate - has become its strength.

The Asian Financial Crisis of 1997/98, which felled many big and small companies, had little impact on it.

Recognising the enormous potential of China, Mr Eng, in 2004, established a ready-mix cement factory in Chongqing, a major city in the country's south-west.

Today, his son, Bak Chim, manages the business which has operations and investments in several countries. It has also developed boutique properties in Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan, Australia and the UK.

VALUES THAT ENDURE

Through it all, Mr Eng remains an extraordinarily humble person, always ready to help. "I've been very fortunate that my company has been smooth sailing and the businesses I went into were successful," pointed out the award recipient, who hopes the Teochew Entrepreneur Award will inspire future generations of entrepreneurs.

Although the economic and political climate today is very different from the time he started the business decades ago, Mr Eng believes that some values of a great entrepreneur would never change. For example, technology, which is a boon for business, can never replace diligence.

"Strong willpower, determination and the ability to endure difficulties will see you through many challenging moments. Above all, always be trustworthy, reliable and honest - these are the important values."