GN CHIANG YAM

An engineer by training, Mr. Gn started as an air conditioning engineer and began working for the Ministry of Defense. He joined one or two other companies before a friend recommended him to join this company in 1985.

Business Profile:

The Hart Group was established in 1971 and have a span of about 40 years. It has expanded its business from being an engineerring contractor of Singapore to a specialist supplier, manufacturer and contractor in the field of fire protection system, access flooring system, industrial safety products, air-conditioning accessory and products as well as building products, etc.

Interviewer's Comments:

Through the interview, i can gather that Mr. Gn places strong emphaise on maintaining a close, ethical and loyal relationship with the people around him. Be it his customers, suppliers, competitors and staff alike, his commitment to be a reliable and trustworthy brand left a deep impact on me.

Interview:

  • What is the nature of your business?
    We are in the fire protection business, established in 1970. We service land projects on the island. We provide supply and installation of fire prevention systems and maintenance. We also supply fire protection products. Not only are we engineers but also manufacturers.
  • When and why did you decide to become an entrepreneur / take over your family business? 
    Engineer by training, I started as an air conditioning engineer. I began working for the Ministry of Defense and joined one or two other companies before a friend recommended me to join this company in 1985. I did a management buyout of the company in 1993. I know most of the staff since they were young. I was offered this chance to run the company by the partners that left. I was part of the group of successors.
  • What are your reasons for choosing to do business in this particular industry?
    Different engineers go into different industries, a lot of mechanical engineers head off to technical fields such as aircraft, automotive and manufacturing industries. Another group heads off to what is known as the building industry. Every building needs lots of input from electrical and mechanical engineers. Air conditioning, lighting and fire protection are an example of such things. I started first in air-conditioning. When my friend asked me if I wanted to switch to Fire protection, I agreed. It was mechanical based and that suited my background. I also found it quite meaningful. Air conditioning provided comfort, Fire protection provided safety. It is meaningful and more worthwhile. The scope of the work changed, but I think its a very meaningful job to do.
  • How did you put together all the resources needed to start your business? For example: getting the start-up capital, hiring staff, doing sales and marketing, advertising, etc.
    To diversify our business, from a building fire protection contractor, we did it through using retained profit we generated through our operations. Our revenues and profits drove our expansion. None of our operational expansions was done with loans or other forms of capital. Talent wise, wee a very diverse company. Due to Singaporean engineers leaving to work in MNCs and many prefer to become bankers; wee relied a lot from foreign talent in the form of Chinese, Malay and Myanmar workers. We advertise, but very few Singapore engineers want to work in SMEs these days. It was easier in the past to attractive fresh Singapore engineer graduates.
  • What are some interesting stories you have about your first few customers/first few years in business?
    Our competitors became our customers. What happened is that the financial downturn at the end of 1997 and 2008 hit many contractors in the building industry hard. We were originally doing supplying and installing. Installing was what took up much of our man-hours and resources. Gradually, we phased out our installation services and only supplied the fire protection products. Some of our customers initially remarked that they felt they couldn utilize our business as much now because we decided not to do installation anymore. This process took a long time, probably close to 6, 7 years before we fully phased it out. Our competitors were still doing installation work in 2008 and a lot of them remarked that they weren getting paid on time and because as a contractor they were always financially leveraged by the main contractor, when the crisis hit and their volumes dropped, they suffered. Many of them went out of business. I thought it would be a good idea to combine their contracting services with our product supply services and packaged them together to our customers. It would help them cut costs and stay alive while allowing us to have an integrated service available to our customers. It was a win-win, a deal for us. Our competitors agreed to this plan on the condition that we promise not to compete with them. We promised them that and that is how our competitors became our customers.
  • What are some of the challenges you faced when you first went into business?
    One of the upfront challenges is the competition. Market is quite saturated. Fire business is highly competitive in nature. The question is how do we overcome these challenges? How do you win more and better business?
  • How did you overcome these challenges? Please share some specific examples of the action you took to overcome the challenges.
    Providing better quality and reliable products and services. The goal is to make our customer more comfortable with and confident with us. Our customers want cheaper but they want good service at the same time. The reminder I give to my people, we must make good products and provide good service but maintain cheap prices. Being cheap is not good enough. Being good is also not enough. Being good and cheap is a must. We always study to find means to see how we can keep costs down while not compromising quality.
  • Can you remember your worst day in business or a time when you felt like giving up? What happened that made you feel that way and how did you triumph over it?
    We had some projects that were going wrong in between 2005 & 2006. We had cost overrun, trouble meeting deadlines and unable to deliver our services. I was not aware because as CEO I had to focus on many other concerns and left this work to my senior manager. We almost went bankrupt because of the poorly managed projects.  To solve it, I basically went to the problem sites and moved my office there to oversee these projects myself. Secondly, I also had to find money to fix this. I went to my family, siblings and banks to find this money. I manage to offer my customers that we were on top of the problem and we were working on solving them. I spent 6 to 7 months at the site with the help of other staff to settle the crisis.
  • Can you share some of the lessons you learnt from overcoming your own business challenges that you think will help other businesses?
    Never abandon your commitment toward your business and personal at times of crisis. Your staff, customers and creditors support your business survival. The key is to remain committed at times of crisis. This also applies especially to your supportive creditors. I promised them I will pay them, but just needed time. All creditors want you to survive rather than die off and pay nothing. We were facing multiple lawsuits at the time of crisis. We were able to convince everyone to give us time. This allowed us to pay back everyone at the end of the day. Second is to hire the right people. If you hire the right people, they will propel your company forward. Matching these people to the right business model is also exceptionally important. Pairing the wrong business model with the right people will also quickly demoralize them. So you must devise the right business model with the hiring of the right people to run the business with you.
  • What are some business values that youd like to pass down to others, particularly the young generation?
    Senior people passing on knowledge to the new guys should be done to the fullest. For fear of building up future competitors, you mustnt hold your knowledge back to prevent them from succeeding. Teaching does not kill you because for someone to learn from you, you must be better than them, or else teachers wouldnt exist. And if you are better, you should not fear being beaten. Having business experience is good but would like to pass down our technical expertise. Our know how is very specialized and passing it down to the right people would be very good.
  • What are some of your proudest business achievements to date? And why are they so important and meaningful to you?
    Overcoming the 2005 crisis is by far the most important and proudest achievement in this business thus far. I was proud of the fact my people support me and stood behind me handling crisis after crisis and remember if we had not managed it right, we wouldve been bankrupt and not been around today.
  • How do you differentiate your business from your competitors? Please provide specific examples.
    Our business isnt just focused on services and installation. Weve diversified into manufacturing, supplying into the regional markets. This way we dont get affected by the economic downturns as much as our competitors.
  • How do you think your business have made a positive impact or contribute to the community that you serve?
    First and foremost I think our contribution in making people and assets safer in Singapore. I think we have done a lot in giving opportunities to Singaporeans to work for us. I am proud to say 60-65% of our employees are Singaporean. We are also not short of giving away other donations or social supports in kind to the society as and when we can.
  • Where or who do you get your business ideas from?
    See how other companies operate their business. Ask why they are doing well. You have to spend a lot of time analyzing why they are doing well and see what you are not doing. I will sit down and think of all good ideas and pass it on to my division heads. I tell them this is something that could be viable. I let my senior managers think about it whether I am right or wrong and hear back from them if they think it is possible. Someone must sit there and think in order to grow the business. DHL for example is one business I look at. They are able to track your package to the day, it is amazing!
  • How much have your business grown since you have started? In terms of $ revenue, customers base, number of employees and number of branches? (rate of growth in percentage or numbers)
    What do you see for your business in the next 2 to 5 years amid the current market condition in 2009, and does it include any plans for expansion?
    Were discussing partnering with a much bigger company to merge. Another possible option for us is to go IPO. For us, an Enterprise 50 company, getting IPO status is not too difficult. A key milestone is where we are going from here? Market wise, we are moving forward to Myanmar now because the pace of development is speeding up. Another country we are exploring is China. Despite it being a mature market, there are still many opportunities in China. Besides that, we also have presence in Malaysia, but we will be putting more emphasis in those areas.

  • What does entrepreneurship mean to you?
    Entrepreneurship to me is about taking calculated risks. You have to be dissatisfied with something. You cannot be content with everything. In my job, I am always looking for something to make better and make our business better. If I can do that, I am happy.
  • What are some entrepreneurship qualities that you have which has helped you come this far?
    I always want to make things better. I always believe in making life better for someone. Another thing is I always want to try new things.
  • In your opinion, what other qualities does a person need in order to be successful in business? And why? (eg. Educational qualification, work experience, family influence, attitude, etc)
    Education is important initially, but what I think one must have above all else is EQ. Combine EQ with your ability to network with the society and an attitude of wanting to make life better are more important than Education. Family of course is also important to help you feeling supported at home when you need encouragement.
  • In your opinion, what does it mean to have the 'spirit of enterprise'?
    The spirit for me is the culture and belief in the company. Our core culture is driven by our vision and direction. These beliefs and culture then drive our spirit in the enterprise.
  • Who or what motivates and inspires you?
    I think for me the desire for progression and changing things, improving, and making lives better, this drive me to move forward. If I think something is not right, I will go and change it.
  • What are some of your business values and what would you like to pass down to others, particularly the younger generation?
    Senior people passing on knowledge to the new guys should be done to the fullest. For fear of building up future competitors, you mustnt hold your knowledge back to prevent them from succeeding. Teaching does not kill you because for someone to learn from you, you must be better than them, or else teachers wouldnt exist. And if you are better, you should not fear being beaten. Having business experience is good but would like to pass down our technical expertise. Our know how is very specialized and passing it down to the right people would be very good.
  • Can you describe the company culture that you have? How does it contribute to the performance of your company growth?
    Constantly thinking and analyzing how we can do better. When we recovered from the 2005 crisis, we realized the contracting business is becoming more and more cutthroat and we needed to diversify our business. We treat all people very fairly including our workers, suppliers, customers and in particular my own staff. We have a lot of bonding between our staff. This bond creates very strong loyalty and comfort with each other. When it comes to crisis, they know where management stands and is always ready to stand with the company. They know they have a career future and something to count on with us. This isnt just an 8-5 pm job. We are very particular about creating a work-life balance for them, so they dont have to work until late night. They can go back quite on time and still get things done on time.
  • With the changes in the market today, do you think it has become harder or easier to succeed in business? Why do you say so?
    It has become much harder. When we started our business, there were only 3 fire protection companies in Singapore. Now there are 20 or 30 just in contracting line alone. I think with the new batch of young entrepreneurs, they will need to be able to spot the hidden opportunities. In that sense, they need to be much sharper than we were
  • What advice would you give young people who want to start their own business?
    Do start your businesses but dont do it right out of school. If you are from a rich family, you might do something but common businesses like F&B or bookstores come and go. It would be better to orientate yourself first, work for others a few years then when you spot an opportunity, ensure your network of customers will support you if you go and then go for it. Alternatively, during the course of your work, you spot a technology that you think can be better used, then go for it.
  • What is your company vision and mission? How do you convey these to your company staff and team members?
    Our people are always made aware of changes in our business model and given a chance to input their suggestions. Our vision is to be one of the best and well-managed fire protection specialists in terms of manufacturing of fire-protection products and supply fire-protection services. We used to focus specifically in Singapore but now, our mission is looking to expand our products and services.
  • Can you describe the company culture that you have? How does it contribute to the performance of your company growth?
    Constantly thinking and analyzing how we can do better. When we recovered from the 2005 crisis, we realized the contracting business is becoming more and more cutthroat and we needed to diversify our business. We treat all people very fairly including our workers, suppliers, customers and in particular my own staff. We have a lot of bonding between our staff. This bond creates very strong loyalty and comfort with each other. When it comes to crisis, they know where management stands and is always ready to stand with the company. They know they have a career future and something to count on with us. This isnt just an 8-5 pm job. We are very particular about creating a work-life balance for them, so they dont have to work until late night. They can go back quite on time and still get things done on time.
  • How do you promote learning within your company? What are the training opportunities that you provide your staff?
    We send our staff for training of which is all paid for by the company. We are fortunate in that we have a lot of product training. Our suppliers hosts product training sessions for us. We send our staff for management training courses. Sometimes our staff reflects that the courses they are being trained is for other industries such as the hospitality industry. I say, hey treating customers well is a good idea, so learn what you can. I am also very particular about productivity courses for our staff. For us, we cant afford low productivity. We have to overcome low productivity barriers. Our constant focus is on boosting productivity.
  • In your opinion, what is a good and ethical business? How do you think this helps you in your Company/business?
    A good ethical business is where the management cares about their workers, customers and vendors. The principle is we treat our employees, customers and suppliers well. We paid them on time, we pay them well. Good ethics is to stay committed to what we do and keeping our promises. I think this is why we are still growing because our customers, suppliers know us.
  • How will you describe your working relationship with your customers, suppliers and service providers?
    Our relationships with our customers if not excellent should be very good. I have not received much feedback that our people have not been doing their jobs and giving good service. Similarly with our suppliers, I make sure they are taken care of well. We treat everyone fairly, our customers, landlord and suppliers. We fulfill the promise whether they are your customer or your supplier. I can quite confidently say, if not excellent, it is very good to my knowledge.