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EY-STANDARD CHARTERED FAMILY BUSINESS AWARD OF EXCELLENCE: SING LUN HOLDINGS

Strong family support and values sew up win

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"If you go with me, I can bring you on this journey and it is on this journey I want to take care of all of you," says Mr Mark Lee.

WHEN Mark Lee was tipped to succeed his father as Sing Lun Holdings' chief executive officer, he sought a meeting with his uncles and aunts who hold shares in the family-owned company for an undertaking to stay united no matter what happened ahead.

These major shareholders in turn set a 10-year time frame for him to prove himself, and also made clear to him the amount of dividends they would need every year.

After the parameters were defined, these shareholders have provided staunch support to Mr Lee in his running of the firm that was set up by his grandfather Lee Chee Hung in 1951.

The third-generation leader has not only been generating the dividends required by the extended family year after year, but in the tenth year after taking over the helm from his father, also earned recognition for Sing Lun.

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The homegrown firm was honoured with this year's EY-Standard Chartered Family Business Award of Excellence.

The winner has shown that it is able to successfully balance family and corporate issues, grow the business and show responsibility for others through philanthropic or social engagements.

In an interview over unsweetened chrysanthemum tea that is also served free flow to 7,000 local and overseas staff, Mr Lee says more than once that he is blessed to have unwavering support from the extended family that meets every Sunday for lunch.

"There are no naysayers. I've always had a very supportive family," says the 45-year-old father of one who joined Sing Lun in 1999 after working stints elsewhere, and took over as Sing Lun's CEO in 2008.

Though the major shareholders are family members, Mr Lee - whose full name is Lee Kean Phi - takes a strictly business approach in the management of Sing Lun, which he describes as "family-owned, professionally run".

And this is extended to how he addresses his father Patrick Lee Kwok Kie as "Mr Lee" or "chairman" and his uncle "Mr David Lee" in front of the staff.

Mr Lee, together with his father, grand-uncle, an uncle and an aunt, sits on Sing Lun's investment committee.

"We are investing not just for my generation or my son's generation, but for two generations down the road. A very, very long-term approach," he explains.

Sing Lun has evolved from a textile trader in early days to a diversified group with three core pillars today, to ride out different economic cycles and to segregate business risks. The pillars are:

  • Sing Lun Industrial, which owns stakes in businesses including a sportswear manufacturer and a maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) services provider;
  • Sing Lun Investments, which invests as a private equity fund with a medium-term view, as well as manages a global portfolio of equities and fixed interest securities; and
  • Sing Lun Real Estate, which invests with a long-term horizon in property projects and development.

RE-FASHIONING THE BUSINESS

Before Mr Lee's time, Sing Lun had already ventured into real estate and other investments. However, he helped to structure and organise the other two pillars of businesses, as well as expanded the group further.

The 1.9m tall gung-ho Monash University graduate also re-fashioned the apparel manufacturing business into a sportswear maker. He would turn up at clients' offices in Sing Lun's sportswear but soon he realised that his heavy 96-kg frame was not making his products look flattering, so he started exercising and cut down on carbohydrates. Today, he tips the scale at 82kg.

Among the businesses, reasons for starting its MRO services unit are noteworthy.

Sing Lun's manufacturing facilities are located overseas. When its Singaporean manufacturing staff relocate back here from overseas bases, Sing Lun wants to continue tapping the know-how of these experienced employees even if they would not be working in apparel manufacturing here.

In addition, the company has its corporate social responsibility in mind.

"How do we continue to contribute to Singapore's economy, and continue to create jobs? We have engineers, we have supervisors, people who had gone out for us in the past. After they come back to Singapore, can the business in Singapore continue to support them?" Mr Lee shares.

So Sing Lun tied up with another family business, drawing on this pool of employees' skills to offer MRO services to oil companies.

Be responsible to the stakeholders and contribute back to the community - this is one of the three R principles that have shaped the Lees in running Sing Lun. Be resolute in business pursuits and be respectful to the stakeholders are the other two Rs.

Mr Lee is a member of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce & Industry and the Singapore Business Federation, playing an advisory role to small and medium-sized enterprises, as well as extending his network to fellow entrepreneurs.

Recently, he has taken over from his father as mentor to recipients of the scholarship Sing Lun has established for Singapore Management University's less-privileged undergraduates.

Besides sharing his corporate experience at the interaction sessions, Mr Lee would also be able to get access to a pipeline of talent for Sing Lun's various businesses.

Mr Lee sees filling the pipeline for talent as Sing Lun's greatest challenge now. And keeping his team hungry also keeps this leader awake at night.

However, he believes that alignment of everyone's goals and interests might be the answer. "If you go with me, I can bring you on this journey and it is on this journey I want to take care of all of you," he adds.