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OPHTHALMOLOGIST Julian Theng seems to have it all: a flourishing private practice called Eagle Eye Centre, comprising a chain of seven clinics, and a close knit family with three kids whom he describes as ''amazing'' and loving. Yet he has also taken on the challenge of a lifestyle business. At the core of the lifestyle EagleWings Group - where his sister and lawyer Lisa Theng is his partner - is a yacht charter business, which grew out of a passion for the sun, sea and fishing. And there is also retail, cinema, and food & beverage businesses which emerged out of his commitment to revitalise the King Albert Park (KAP) Mall, a strata mixed development on 9 King Albert Park.
To get the mall on its feet, Dr Theng and Ms Theng galvanised the various landlords, reached out on their behalf to potential anchor tenants, and set up businesses such as the boutique cinema EagleWings Cinematics to take up leases, even to the extent of incurring out-of-pocket expenses to secure tenants for the various landlords. As he tells it, it was literally a labour of love. ''We went in with a calling to bring meaningful life into the KAP community, to make it vibrant, and it has taken on a life of its own… I still shed a tear over what we went through, but I see the joy in so many people. The place is now so different. It was worthwhile.''
Growing up, it seems that the medical profession was always on the cards for him, thanks to his parents' urging. As a teenager, Dr Theng had an early taste of administering injections. ''We thought we would be doctors because our parents said so… They went to the extent of rooming me with my grandmother and I had to give her insulin injections. I was 13 or 14, so it became natural for me.'' He is the third of four children. The eldest sibling is in the IT business; Ms Theng is the second eldest. The youngest son is also a doctor.
After graduating with a medical degree, he wasn't quite sure he wanted to pursue further specialisation. He was posted in ophthalmology as a medical officer and there he experienced something of an epiphany.
''So many procedures were life changing for patients. Cataract surgery and they can see; with Lasik they can do without glasses. I saw the joy in patients and I thought this was probably it. I knew it would be very tough to get in… I believe God paved the way.'' Dr Theng is a devoted Christian.
He obtained his MBBS (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) from the National University of Singapore in 1992. The intake into MMeD (Master of Medicine) for ophthalmology was competitive. He stood out as an all-rounder, with a keen interest in musical drama and competitive tennis.
He became a cornea specialist, with particular expertise in Lasik and refractive surgery and cornea transplants. He worked at the Singapore National Eye Centre for around 13 years before he ventured out to set up a private practice in 2006 with his colleague and co-founder Lim Wee Kiak (Member of Parliament for Sembawang GRC). The rest, as they say, is history.
''Right at the start, we took a big unit at Mount Alvernia hospital. We had to set up a Lasik suite. It was costly but I was already doing a high volume of procedures. Cataract and Lasik were quite important. I also wanted to grow in the field of presbyopia… Until today I've been practicing the best ways to make people spectacle-free. It was steady, organic growth. I never dreamed it would become what it is today.''
THROUGH the Eagle Eye Clinic, the partners offer a gamut of expertise from cornea and refractive surgery to ocular inflammation and immunology services, pediatrics and complex cataract services. It is the largest ophthalmology practice in Singapore and accounts for roughly 40 per cent of Lasik operations, for instance. A couple of years ago, it caught the eye of a private equity firm which invested in a minority stake.
He counts his friend and Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan as a mentor. Dr Balakrishnan, an ophthalmologist, became SNEC's deputy director in 1997 and was appointed medical director in 1999.
''He inspired me a lot. He really cared for his people and staff at SNEC. He believed every staff is an asset to the organisation, in whatever role they played.''
Dr Theng's foray into the yacht charter business is rooted in his love for the sun and sea. ''Yachting started as a passion. I was renting yachts to take my kids out fishing.''
Roughly four years ago after attending a boat show, he explored the purchase of a secondhand yacht. But he was persuaded to buy a larger catamaran, at the time a first in the market in terms of its spacious design. He knew the maintenance for yachts was costly; berthing fees at a marina alone are in the thousands of dollars a month.
''I was sure I wasn't going to buy, but (the salesperson) kept lowering the price. She made an offer I couldn't refuse in a way… I asked 10 other doctors to chip in. We could share it and everyone can enjoy it. They said - cheers, just invite me.'' Hence was born the idea of a charter business. ''If my friends didn't want to share the cost with me, I can share it with the public.''
The yacht was large enough for corporate events. ''I did some sums, but I made sure it was viable and the service was meant to defray the cost of running the boat. Most owners won't rent out their boats from day one. But I wasn't sentimental about it. I got to share it with others and made it affordable for all.''
HE ENDED up purchasing a second smaller yacht in a fire sale. The service, called EagleWings Yacht Charters, has taken off and become profitable in the last one to two years. It cost S$3,400 to charter the larger 68-foot yacht for four hours on the weekdays. It can accommodate 50 people. The second 60-foot yacht costs S$1,700 for four hours on weekdays, and can accommodate 15 people. Today, EagleWings is among the top yacht charters in Singapore and Asia.
To cater to charter clients, the group set up F&B services. At the time, the siblings also owned three units at KAP Mall, which they bought in 2016 on the expectation that McDonald's and Cold Storage would come in as anchor tenants. This did not materialise. The mall was bereft of foot traffic and tenants; almost every unit was for sale or rent.
''I told my sister we have to do something for this place or it will become desolate. We prayed about it and decided that the answer was to bring love to the community in a meaningful way.'' He began to approach supermarket chains such as Giant, Cold Storage and NTUC FairPrice in an effort to bring in an anchor tenant.
Ultimately it was the siblings' efforts and investments that became the much-needed catalyst to get KAP Mall on its feet. They set up businesses that themselves served as an chor tenants. They rented three units and set up EagleWings Loft, an expansion of the F&B services they offered to yacht charter clients.
They set up boutique cinema EagleWings Cinematics, which put together as many as 12 leases, and undertook major renovations to ensure that carpark and restroom facilities complied with regulations. In the end, more than 20 units were taken up by the EagleWings Group and related parties.
EAGLEWINGS Cinematics, he says, was a ''gamechanger''. ''It was so difficult. I envisioned bringing family life and love into KAP in a meaningful way. I realised that without some anchor (tenant) it was hard to convince anyone else.'' In addition to EagleWings Cinematics, which boasts 153 seats, there are also Carl's Junior and Taiwanese sugar-free Camaca; an Eagle Eye Centre clinic; and an optical shop run by EagleWings's related parties. Clothing store JoMaChi is also part of EagleWings. To date, around 95 per cent of the mall is occupied. ''We negotiated for everyone. If we didn't do this people wouldn't come in… Now the mall is vibrant and businesses are coming to us. Strata title malls typically don't find a nice mix, so we needed this effort and the support of the MCST.'' Dr Theng is the mall's MCST vice-chairman.
Says his sister Ms Theng: ''Many of the owners invested their life savings into their units. And they had zero rentals for up to two years; they couldn't sell or rent. If they sold it would have been at a loss. They are so grateful for what we've done. But it's also a risk for us, because we pay rent. They're our landlords.'' The EagleWings Group has started a membership scheme which the partners hope would set the stage for the ''next level''. ''We're developing EagleWings further... where we get the community and other interested investors to be vested in the growing group and together, we can make it vibrant and sustainable for the community and perhaps even duplicate it for other communities in need of a similar boost in the near future.''
He is braced for what he calls the socio-economic ''tsunami'' that Covid-19 has spawned. The cinema has closed in line with new measures to contain Covid-19, dealing a blow to business. ''We are bracing ourselves first by mainly focusing on safety for all our guests, mindful of our social responsibilities. And by staying lean yet caring for our staff so that we can give our best service as we ride the wave or storm together.
''It's going to be challenging and painful, but we believe God will see us through this difficulty, and as a community we can bounce back stronger.''