RICHARD LIM MOOK SENG
Casually dressed in a black T-shirt and blue jeans, Richard Lim Mook Seng, does not look like your typical businessman. At 56, he has 3 beautiful girls aged 20, 18 and 16. His eldest, Andrea took the "road less traveled" is now in a liberal arts college - Reed College, majoring in Economics. Married to Meilisa, who helps him run his business, his mission is to help improve the standards of dentistry with more of the latest innovative equipment
For the past 32 years, Eastland Dental Supplies' vision is to provide the best equipment and materials at the most affordable prices. To distinguish ourselves from the main-stream suppliers, we have very innovative equipment like a painless injection system, a special saddle-stool to prevent and even relief chronic back-ache, unique dental art collections and the widest range in the market of top quality hand instruments.
When I first saw Mr. Richard, I was a bit worried about the interview because of his serious-looking face and quiet personality. However, he turned out to be very willing to share his life story, the dental industry, as well as his family. Born in a business family, he has to take over his family business even though it was not what he liked. There were struggles, hopelessness, and hardship, but in the end, he found his way out and now is totally immersing in this industry. Same applies to our life: Most of the time, we don't have a choice but have to accept whatever happens. Instead of complaining, we should keep exploring that "we" in this particular environment.
- What is the nature of your business?
It is mainly dental supplies. We have been in the market since 1980. We have about 32 years experience supplying all the dental markets in Singapore, and regional.
- When and why did you decide to become an entrepreneur / take over your family business?
Actually it is by default. I never wanted to do this business. It is a family business. My younger sisters and brother excelled in their own careers and so did I, initially. My mom started this company and begged me to come back. I joined Eastland Dental when I was 32 years old. Before this I was a sales manager for the agents of Fiat cars. It was a tough decision to leave as I had started from scratch as a rookie salesman. I hated it when I switched to this business because there was nobody to teach me. Though my mom was in this business, she doesn't have much product knowledge. She is good with people relationship as she was very honest, sincere and obliging. My father also joined in after retiring from his previous job. In this line, there is really a lot to learn. I was overwhelmed and could not understand why. For extraction forceps alone there were more than a hundred patterns. Then there were English patterns and US patterns which doubled up the models. To make matters worse, I also heard that some very skilled dentists only required two forceps, one for upper teeth and one for lower. For the burs which are used for drilling, there are about few thousand designs. Till now, though I've been in this business for more than 20 years, I am still learning.
- What are your reasons for choosing to do business in this particular industry?
Same as above, it is a family business so I need to take over this business.
- 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.
Most of them were there already, but it was very basic. We didn't have so many brands then and the business was basically supplying what the dentists asked for. Now we have not only retail, we also wholesale and participate actively in government and hospital tenders. Our turnover was about $200,000. Last year we did about $5,000,000. We have been on the rise. Every year I feel like this may just be a lucky year and next year we may be not as lucky but I am happy that I am wrong. We cannot simply depend on luck for any kind of business. We need to be enterprising and innovative all the time.
Manpower wise, we only had one administrator, my mom, my father, myself and one delivery man. There were only 5 of us.
- How do you think your position now compared with your previous job?
I'm totally immersed in it. If you hate your job, you are not going to survive for long. One must be adaptable and the sooner you learn to love what you are doing, the sooner you will feel that work is not a chore. For me it was from one side of the coin to another. Later I found out that the market was placing bets on how long I would last. Since the days of selling cars, I hate to dress up, and my "uniform" till this day is a black T-shirt and a pair of jeans. I started from a sales rep here though this is my family business. This is the best and only way. There was one dentist whom I waited for 4 hours, after which, he just took a look at the products and thanked me for coming. I was so patient that patience could not keep up with my patience. Later he became my best customer. He ended up buying 4 dental units from me to set up his new dental surgery.
- When did you officially take over the business?
About 5-6 years later but out of respect to my parents, to me they are still my bosses.
- What is your company vision and mission? How do you convey these to your company staff and team members?
Our mission is to involve ourselves in a lot of charity work. About 10 years ago, we donated the dental units for volunteer dentists to treat residents in old folks home. We had actually been asked to quote them for the units which cost an average of $20,000. I do not even remember the name of the home now but if I need to check, I will find out and let you know. If you are successful and you have made money from your business, we believe that giving back to the society is a very important part of life. We also contribute a lot to people going on mission trips. Nowadays, many dentists go overseas for charity work. Whenever they approach us for supplies, we try our best to donate to them or bear half the cost. If they, as dentists can sacrifice so much time and effort to volunteer their skills, we are always thankful for the opportunity to do our part by contributing, since we do not have the expertise to treat as they do. If my fellow dental suppliers get to read this, I sincerely hope that they too will be inspired to contribute even more than we can afford; especially those who are also very successful.
Our vision is not only to make a success of our business (which is what every entrepreneur wants) but to also benefit society in doing so. I know it sounds very cliche when I say that we want to make this world a better place to live in with our contributions to society (and I am sure many of you out there also want to do the same) but we should all make concerted efforts to make this a reality.
- 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?
Of course. I would say that such challenges come out at any time. I am by nature an optimist but unfortunately very few businessmen are so lucky as to not face difficult obstacles. However, whenever we triumph by overcoming such situations, we come out stronger and the euphoria that comes with it is what makes us achieve greater heights. A few years ago, due to change in management in one of our manufacturer's organization, we lost the agency which was our biggest cash cow. We used to import from them more than a million dollars worth of equipment annually. Instead of counting our losses we had to quickly diversify to concentrate on other areas. Surprisingly, we even managed to exceed our previous years' figures thereafter. The most recent one for us is Medical Device Registration. This is something so unexpected as we have been doing our business without it for so long. It has cost us about $100,000 so far. There is a lot of work to be done. We need to get the "GDPMDS", which is something to do with proper storage and distribution system. We have to be certified before you can qualify for our Importer's License and Wholesaler's License. Only with these 3 can we register our products. Registration is a very tedious process. We have had manufacturers who said "forget it, your market is so small but you ask for so many things". They just cannot be bothered to supply us with so much data to submit so if we cannot register we cannot sell. We even have to engage a Regulatory Consultant to do the submissions. However, I must also add that this initiative, by the Health Science Authority (HSA) is for the benefit of the population because now we have much stricter controls for medical devices being used on them. I now belong to the Association of Medical Device Industries (AMDI) where I am serving as Secretary-General. This organization was formed to assist the medical and dental industry in medical device registration matters and we are trying our best to assist HSA to enhance the system for the benefit of the industry and the public. In life, we have to be resilient and adaptable-to flow with the current which we cannot go against but while flowing with the current we must also be ready to escape before it takes us over the edge. In the true spirit of enterprise, we must learn to "never say die" and fight till the end.
- How do you deal with these "surprises"?
1) I have this philosophy in life which I have adopted for many years already--"Precious Present". All of us have a very precious present. Even as I speak now, the present becomes the past. I have learnt that anytime when you are faced with a problem which you are anticipating in say, one month's time, you start worrying and your daily life gets stressed. When the anticipated problem comes up in one month's time, you manage to solve it quite easily. This is something that is not worth worrying about. Of course you also cannot just not bother at all about it. Just prepare to deal with it but do not get too stressed until it creates other problems. You should look forward to your future and make the best of your present. Life is very short and precious. Time is very precious. We all never have enough of it, especially when it is coming to an end.
2) Most people say that when they first see me, I look very scary. Some say that I look very unapproachable. For me, of course this is a disadvantage. Because of this I need to make more effort to be nicer to people. So once they get to know me, hopefully they would like me more.
- What are some of your proudest business achievements to date? And why are they so important and meaningful to you?
One of the best is the time when I waited for the dentist 4 hours and in the end I got to sell 4 units to him. I would say that for the present moment, to be nominated for this award is one of my proudest moments too. As far as I know, I don't know of any dental suppliers who have been nominated before. If I can reach the final stage, it should be a very proud moment for me, although I am the kind of guy who does not care too much to be in the limelight.
- How many staff do you have now? Do you have any trainings for them?
Right now, we have 13 full time staff and 2-3 part-timers. We try to send product specialists overseas for training whenever our manufacturers have such courses. Or when our principal comes down, we will have it in Singapore. We are in the process of renovating our office. We are one of the few dental suppliers who are still located in the city. Our office space is actually very expensive and is not as big as we would like it to be but the location makes it very convenient for our customers. We are now in the midst of renovating as it is very essential to have proper conference room and training room if we want to take our business to the next level. For our administrative and store personnel, we send them for upgrading courses. We even have a dental therapist and dentist in our sales team.
- What do you see for your business in the next 5 years, and does it include any plans for expansion?
We are expanding all the time.
In terms of our company size, the past 1-2 years, we've been expanding quite a fair bit. My brother who refused to work with us before, is an engineer. He has just retired from his other job and now we welcome him aboard because he is very good at IT matters, and being an engineer, he can help us with all the technical matters which I am quite hopeless at. All this while we never had a full-time technician as it was more sensible to engage a few on ad-hoc basis. We are always trying to innovate with new products to offer to the dentists. It is certainly a far cry from the early days when we only brought in things which they asked for.
With so much competition, it is also impossible to become rich by depending solely in this business. We also have to diversify by investing in some property. We used to rent our premises and got fed-up with landlords either increasing our rental or being moved out because of a sale of the property. We then decided to purchase the premises we are in and have benefitted indirectly as the value has more than doubled. We also bought commercial properties which we intended to shift to in future, which is having good rental yields at the moment. So if we finally decide to move there in 5 years time, I hope the value has doubled too by then.
- How will you describe your working relationship with your customers, suppliers and staff?
Our suppliers come from all over the world. We have had 100% good track record. One of the main things that the suppliers like, is to be paid on time. When we sell, we are also hoping that they pay us on time. We always make sure that payment is always on time to our suppliers. It has been our tradition all this while. It also works in the sense that when we want to be agent for new suppliers, they will ask for reference and we always get excellent recommendations.
For our customers, we try to bend over backwards to satisfy them. There are certain products that they specifically want, which may even be from our competitors, we will then buy it from our competitors for them because it is convenient for them to buy all the things from one supplier. There are certain things that suppliers don't want to supply which are of low profit and very heavy. It might be something like 25kg bags of plaster that we don't even stock ourselves that we will collect from the importers and deliver to them.
For our staff, we treat them and pay them well enough. You must keep your staff happy so that they will work diligently. We can't monitor their movements all the time. We give them the respect that they should be doing what they are supposed to do. Over 32 years, we have only dismissed 2 staff. One could never reach even half her target and the other just could not get get along with others. I experienced it myself when I came into the job market in my early twenties. I was dismissed unexpectedly. I know what it feels like when you lose a job and try my best never to do it to anyone else.
- Do you have any competitors, and how do you differentiate yourself from them?
There are simply too much. There are only about 1300 dentist but more than 30 suppliers. So it works out about less than 50 dentists per supplier.
1) We try to be more innovative. 10 years ago, we even started selling dental toys. The dentists who bought them had very good responses because the kids will tell their parents that they want to go back to the same dentist. Children like unique things. We also bring in things like dental art. They are assembled by an artist in Germany. As they are all hand assembled, no two pieces are the same; so besides being decoratively unusual, they are also valuable collectors' items.
2) Also we have to make sure that after-sales service is good and the delivery is fast. Some dentists order today and they expect delivery "yesterday". They need it because the patient is coming already and did not realize they were out of stock. Besides our regular deliveryman we also use courier service and in real emergencies, I also double up as a deliveryman. One true story I must tell you. When my dear wife (who has been working with me since I started) made a delivery to a clinic in Mt Elizabeth. She went up to the counter and the receptionist looked up and asked, "Yes, what can I do for you?" My wife said "Delivery". The receptionist told her, "You came to the wrong place. This is a dental surgery. The gynaecologist is the one opposite"
My wife was 9 months pregnant with my first daughter at that time.
- What does entrepreneurship mean to you?
First of all, our dental business is not an interesting business. In this sense, we have to change our mindset and we have to be very flexible in the way we think. We have to free our mind to let it flow like water. Be adaptable with changes. Come out with new ideas all the time. Although it is very easy for your competitors to follow, you need to try to be 1 or 2 steps ahead. If they walk, we must jog. Once they start running, we must jump into a car and start driving. One of my favorite sayings is "If a man doesn't keep pace with his companions, perhaps it's because he hears a different drummer; let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away". This is very appropriate for "Spirit of Entrepreneurship". In any trade, you just have to dare to be different to really make a difference.
- 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?
When you want to start a business, of course it is never easy. I would say it's always getting harder and harder. There are more players in the market. Everything is so open in the market nowadays. In the past years you may have your own secrets. It's very easy for people to notice your new successes and they will learn from you and even do better. For you to survive, you have to evolve all the time and have to be innovative and enterprising to think of new ways to bring it up again. If we have actually just done the business in the way it is usually done, maybe we could not have been so successful. One of the things we did was that we concentrated on a few ranges of products but these have conflicting interests. Suppliers usually concentrate on one brand but we have 3-4 brands of similar products. Initially our manufacturers don't like this idea, but we managed to convince them. In this way, we are able to give our buyers more choices in niche items.
- What advice would you give young people who want to start their own business?
1) Honesty for everything. Traditionally, around the world people say that you can never trust a car salesman. Things may have changed now as we even have university graduates selling cars and I am sure most car salesmen are very trustworthy now but during my time, the stigma was still there. At that early stage, I was quite successful because I was straightforward and honest. I never gave my customers a bad deal. My customers always come back to me and I had many good referrals. We were required to wear a tie, but had my own identity and mostly wore jeans. In the end, my manager just let me be because I could sell. From being at the bottom of the food chain, I climbed to sales manager within 5 years. That was with no relevant experience and I just went into it, with only A levels. This is one of the main things I want to say--you need to be honest and once you get the person's trust, everything will be much easier.
2) "If it is to be, it is up to me." So it's all up to you. You can be given an opportunity to become a millionaire, but if you don't work on it, it could just go away. Nowadays, it is so easy to spend away a million dollars but not so easy to make it into ten million or more. Everything depends on yourself though luck is also important. At the end of the day, it is all what you do that makes the difference.
- Any other things you would like to share with us?
I would like to add that I also owe much of my success to my dear wife who has been very supportive and believed in me. People say that it is not advisable to have your wife working with you as we would be facing each other 24 hours but I am so glad that they are wrong. She has inspired me and supported me through thick and thin and my enterprising spirit would not have emerged if not for her encouragement. Life in general is very complex and to succeed there are so many elements that come into play. One of the most important for me and which I am sure all of you will agree is to have good family support; as a man cannot reach his full potential if he does not feel happy and secure at home.