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Building quality facades on time
MAKE no mistake, Seiko Architectural Wall Systems is not affiliated to the popular Japanese watch brand we've come to know. To managing director Rodney Cheong's knowledge, this name came about because its founder, Yan Chi Kong, thought it was a prestigious brand often identified with time.
"We want to finish our job on time, and it's easy for people to associate in terms of quality and time delivery," says Mr Cheong.
Starting out as an assistant to Mr Yan, Mr Cheong eventually took the helm in 2001. He reveals his employee pass which has the exact date he joined imprinted on it - Oct 31, 1994 - and jokes that the photo shows a more handsome version of his younger self.
"I think in the early part of your career, anything is learning. As I said, 22 years I'm here and I'm still a trainee," adds Mr Cheong.
Indeed, it was this constant drive that stood him in good stead as he experienced first-hand how the company constantly reinvented itself to stay relevant.
First established in 1978 as a glass fabricator, the company underwent various transformations over the years, explaining its name changes.
CHANGE IN BUSINESS MODEL
Known as Seiko Glass in the 1970s, the firm altered its name to Seiko Glass and Aluminium in the 1980s when it found an opportunity in dealing with aluminium wall panels, before landing with its present name of Seiko Architectural Wall Systems.
As Mr Cheong explains, the final revision in 2002 was to reflect the company's change in its business model, from a mere supplier of building materials to a systems integrated entity.
"We're the envelope of a building, like the clothing of a person," he explains.
Providing a range of services from design to installation, Seiko Architectural Wall Systems is now a facade contractor with about 410 employees. Its design team resides in Shanghai and it has subsidiaries in Singapore and Malaysia. In fact, one of its most interesting projects include the luxurious condominium Le Nouvel Ardmore (think motorised aluminium panels that can control the amount of sunlight entering homes, perfect for sleeping in on weekends).
Moreover, the company is no stranger to accolades. 2016 is the seventh year it has received the Enterprise 50 (E50) Award.
Asked about why the firm thinks it's important to continue participating each year, Mr Cheong highlights that awards like these can affect how internal and external parties view the company.
"When we first applied for this award, my thinking was that recognition by external parties, one of them being the banks, will contribute to our company in terms of the ease of obtaining funds, because credit rating is important for us," notes Mr Cheong.
Additionally, he asserts that obtaining such recognition allows existing employees to have confidence in the company and helps in attracting fresh talent.
Of course, getting to this point didn't come easy. A main challenge was converting from a supplier to a contractor. Mr Cheong stresses that while they were still within the same industry, this switch represented a drastic change in their business model. "It's totally different in terms of infrastructure, the people you have, or the mindset."
Comparing both business models, the risk of just supplying building materials was much smaller as this was done within a controlled environment.
With contracting, however, the risk is very much higher because liquidated damages and contracting law are involved.
"Once you go into the field of contracting, if you're not familiar with it, you will pay more than what you make in the factory," says Mr Cheong.
And the company learnt it the hard way.
As an inexperienced team in 2002 when it first took on contracting, Seiko Architectural Wall Systems faced so many obstacles that there were thoughts of closing up shop. Fortunately, with the financial support of family members, the company was granted a second chance to rebuild the business.
And Mr Cheong attributes this to his father, whom he said asked him only one thing back then - whether he was willing to fight on. To which Mr Cheong replied yes, as it was "not his character to give up".
"I have this philosophy in life that has brought me to understand a lot of things. You work hard for your money," he says.
Leading by example, Mr Cheong claims that he works seven days a week, heading into the office after his breakfast on Sundays. On this note, however, he mentions that there are sacrifices one must be willing to take to attain a certain level of success.
"If you want this, you won't have that. Of course, you say balance, but balance means you dilute this and don't have that. It's all about individuals, what do you want in your life? That's your choice."
NO COOKIE-CUTTER SOLUTIONS
Because each job is different, cookie-cutter solutions don't work well at Seiko Architectural Wall Systems.
"You have to appreciate the fact that facades and curtain walls are not the same in every project," notes Mr Cheong.
Since solutions and materials are customised according to the requirements of clients, the company doesn't enjoy economies of scale all the time. As such, the firm's strategy in recent years has been to concentrate its resources and take on fewer jobs.
This led the company to a group turnover of S$26 million as of March 2016. While this represents a 38 per cent decline from the year before, Mr Cheong highlights that this approach goes towards sustaining a healthier bottom line.
"You choose which market you want, focus and get it done," explains Mr Cheong. "We're not going out to swamp the market, taking everything and expanding a lot of factories. At this juncture we're seeing if we can do good jobs for people and that's where the repeat business comes. Then you grow."
Amid the backdrop of a slowing economy, Mr Cheong suggests that having few competitors has helped to cushion the impact of a downturn. Citing that Singapore's market is too small, the company has set its sight on expanding beyond Malaysia.
"Now that the construction market is down, maybe (we'll) have more resources to look outside," he concludes.