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Building a clear future
A five-day work week is the norm for most Singaporeans, but not for Rodney Cheong. The managing director of Seiko Architectural Wall Systems has been turning up for work every day of the week for the past decade and more. "I sleep in a bit later on Sundays, and I go in to work after lunch, but have dinner with my family," says Mr Cheong.
At 50, he feels that he should slow down, but sees putting in the long hours as a worthy investment of his time. "I either give zero or 110 per cent to the task that I've been given. It is not my philosophy to give anything in between, especially when I'm responsible for so many people," he says.
Seiko currently has about 500 staff, across its factories and offices in Singapore, Malaysia and Shanghai. The firm designs, supplies, fabricates and installs building facade products and components, such as windows and doors, and curtain walls. Some of its recent projects include ARC 380 at Jalan Besar and the Centre for Healthcare Innovation at Jalan Tan Tock Seng.
The firm was co-founded by his family in 1978, as a glass fabricator, when it was first known as Seiko Glass. It later altered its name to Seiko Glass and Aluminium in the 1980s when it found an opportunity in dealing with aluminium wall panels, before adopting its present name of Seiko Architectural Wall Systems.
Mr Cheong joined the company in 1994 after graduating with an honours degree in electrical engineering. He started out as an assistant to co-founder Yan Chi Kong, before becoming MD in 2001.
WORK IS NEVER MONOTONOUS
"My father asked me to join the company as he felt it was a good place for me to learn. And, after 25 years, I'm still learning," he says. If he could, he would spend most of his time at project sites, "to see how the staff work, and to observe the processes because facade engineering cannot be learnt from textbooks", but more often than not, he is at its office in Jurong running the company.
Asked what he loves most about his job, he says it is the challenges. "The work is not monotonous, and there's the feeling of satisfaction when the challenges are overcome."
Over the years, Mr Cheong has had his share of challenges. In 2003, when Seiko first took on contracting, it faced so many problems that the firm nearly folded. Projects were completed late, and there were cash flow problems.
Mr Cheong's father asked if he wanted to continue the business, to which he replied with a firm yes. "It is my character to fight on and not give up," says Mr Cheong. With the financial support of family members, the company had a second chance to rebuild the business.
There is also the challenge of dealing with competitors. Rather than compete with bigger firms, which Mr Cheong calls tier one players, Seiko fabricates facade panels for them. "Seiko is positioned as a second tier player in the local market, so there is no competition. We support these companies instead. This business model is unique to us," he says.
Not one to stop working, Mr Cheong outlines several ways that he is taking the company into the next decade.
Construction in Singapore has been slowing down in the last few years, but Mr Cheong has already set his eyes on growing an overseas market.
Since 2017, Seiko has supplied facade panels to five projects in Canada and the United States. These are a mix of residential and commercial buildings. Mr Cheong says finding the right partners to work with for overseas projects is important, rather than going it alone on his own.
Growing the overseas market is the way to go, he says, of his new business model. Unlike for local projects which involve installation, Seiko only takes charge of the supplies to overseas ones. "We want to move away from being contractor to more of a manufacturing outfit," says Mr Cheong. "There is less business risk and higher profit margins." He hopes that, in the next few years, at least 50 per cent of the company's revenue is from its overseas projects.
The company is currently undergoing a rebranding exercise to make it a stronger player in the international field.
Mr Cheong also sees increasing productivity and output as a key issue. He declines to reveal too much, but says the company is automating its factory facilities. "Rather than having five men to do specific jobs, there will be machines to do the work," he says. Automating will require a high capital investment, but Mr Cheong believes it will pay off. "There will be more speed and accuracy, improved efficiency, and greater output," he says. "It will also give Seiko more visibility in the business."
New products are also in the works. Mr Cheong is tightlipped but would only reveal that Seiko is working on creating lift and slide doors that can be fitted on balconies. A handle slightly raises such doors a few millimetres onto the rollers, which reduces the friction and makes opening even the heaviest doors easy. Opening and closing the doors will also be quieter than conventional sliding doors.
"Seiko will design, test and manufacture them," says Mr Cheong.
As with most other industries in Singapore, Seiko is also facing manpower issues. It is working on getting fresh talent in from local institutions, such as by getting a steady stream of engineering interns coming in.
Seiko is also developing its current pool of talent, looking at ways to streamline and improve work processes, and conducting inhouse training programmes.
While he sees himself leading the firm for at least another 10 years, Mr Cheong is also planning for a successor. "You can't groom a person in five years, it will take 10 to 15 years, so I have to start now. I'm looking towards the future," he says.
This year, Seiko will be picking up the Singapore Enterprise 50 Award for the tenth consecutive year. On the achievement, Mr Cheong says, "it shows that the company and its business is sustainable."