Bert is not your average entrepreneur. With a rather dark beginning, Bert has thrown away his past as both a loan shark and a compulsive gambler and has since chased after his dream of owning a film production mega-house. Today, Bert is a successful entrepreneur with 4 film-production-related companies under his name. Giving back to the community, he has recently taken on the role as an industry partner with ITE to educate students with the practical skills needed to excel in the film industry. With a small but dedicative workforce behind him, Bert is guiding BLH to greater heights and is one step closer to completing his dream.
Bert Lighting House (BLH) is a major player in the film production equipment rental industry and it strives to become a one-stop production facility for all film productions carried out in Singapore. Being in this industry for more than 10 years, BLH is favored among many production houses, both local and overseas, and is well known for its quality equipment, excellent crew members and high dependability. As a ‘lighthouse’ to guide the Singapore film industry to greater heights, BLH recently took on the role as an industry partner, collaborating with ITE Central to offer the students a chance to get hands-on experience in filming and teaching them the necessary skills to perform well in this industry.
Do not be fooled by his casual dressing of polo top and shorts, Bert exudes an air of vigor when it comes down to business. Despite sitting on a fortune with 4 companies under his name, he is still working round the clock and making effort to go down to every shoot and oversee the production process whenever he can. I am sincerely impressed by his strong passion and how he has managed to transform all his shortcomings into a powerful motivation that drives him forward. Living behind his past as a loan shark and a compulsive gambler, Bert is living proof that you do not need to have a strong background to be successful. Always pushing himself to the limits and sticking to his dreams, he is an excellent role model to all aspiring entrepreneurs.
- What is the nature of your business?
My businesses involve the filming industry. They cover 4 broad areas – equipment supply, crew supply, filming and production support. I aim to create a one-stop solution for everything that involves filming.
- Why do you want to become an entrepreneur?
Why do I want to become an entrepreneur? Honestly, I don’t know.
In my early days, I was a gangster, a loan shark and also a compulsive gambler. For 14 years, I was involved in all these until I ended up with nothing. That was when I realized I needed to get my life back into shape. I became a crew for a production company and taught myself everything I needed to know about this industry. And throughout the next 16 years, I started saving up bit by bit and built this company.
- How did your business first started?
I started out as a crew member and helped in the moving of filming equipment. I didn’t know anything at that time and ended up getting scolded very often. I did this for a good 5 years and using the money I’ve earned, I bought my first piece of filming equipment. Over time, I started to save more and once I had enough money, I would purchase more equipment. A good friend of mine helped me by giving me his run-down truck. I bought myself a 5-year COE for that truck and I used it to build my business into what it is today.
- I see that you have a lot of equipment here in your office. Did you buy all of these?
Yes! Everything you see here is bought by me and these are the equipment that I rent out.
- Oh so in that context, whom do you normally rent out these equipment to? Who are your regular customers?
Production houses, both local and overseas. Mainly they are private production houses that are involved in commercials and movies.
- Your current office is now located in ITE Ang Mo Kio. Do you also teach the students here?
Yes I do. I’ve only recently shifted here for about a month. The ITE lecturers would teach the theory portion of filming and I am in charge of giving the students the opportunity to have a more hands-on approach by letting them use my filming equipment. In other words, you can say that I’m teaching them the practical lessons. I teach them how to operate these equipment otherwise, under normal circumstances, these students would not have a chance to come in contact them as they are very expensive. Even universities do not carry these equipment.
- Since you’ve said that these equipment are so expensive, what gave you the inspiration to go forth and purchase them?
After working for some time in this industry as a production crew member, I felt that this industry is highly lucrative. The main problem was that I did not have the necessary capital nor finances to buy these equipment. So for every small bit that I earned, I would save it and once I had enough, I would go forth and purchase the equipment, one piece at a time. Every piece of equipment you see here is paid for in cash and they are worth about 5 to 6 million.
- Other than it being highly lucrative, are there any other reasons which made you stepped into the film industry?
I have always been in this industry. From the time I stepped in as a crew member up until now, I have always found that this business is highly probable. Personally, as long as you are willing to learn, you will definitely be able to make it out someday. Look at me. I started this out myself and until now, I’ve single handedly created my own business. After 10 years in this line, things are getting a bit more comfortable. As the business stabilized, I have the opportunity to hire more people. Mostly, I’ve hired students because I want to give them the opportunity to learn. From polytechnic students to fresh graduates, I have about 10 people working for me now and most of them are students.
- Have you ever met any special customers or are there any interesting happenings you have come across in these recent years?
How would you define interesting? My customers are always changing. They range from famous celebrities to big corporations.
However, I can say that some jobs are more exciting than others. I have done filming that involves a lot of stunts and often these jobs will really test our creativity. Most of them are international productions.
- You mentioned movies? What are some of the movies that you have taken part in so far?
For example, international movies that have shot scenes in Singapore like House of Harmony by a German director and many other Hong Kong films. The most recent one would be this Chinese animation film called 我爱喜洋洋2 which is set to be released some time during August this year.
- Mr. Tan I know you are a very busy person, but if you weren’t in your office right now, what would you be doing?
*laughs* if I haven’t thought things through, I would still be a lousy person.
- Sorry I didn’t mean it that way. More accurately, if you had some free time right now, what would you be doing?
Oh! I would be diving. My hobby is to dive. I love to dive. Personally, I learnt diving because my work requires me to. When we are tasked to do underwater shoots, it is very difficult to find people whom are willing to do it. So many times, I end up doing it myself. Even though I didn’t have a diving license in the past, I would simply grab one oxygen tank and dive in to get the job done. This is especially so for all those Navy commercials that requires me to film underwater. However, doing this without any proper training is very dangerous. So after some years, I thought things through and decided to go take up a diving course and get my first license. And that was my very first certificate. My first certificate I’ve got in my entire life is my diving certificate *Laughs*
- Do you have any vision for your company?
I started off as a single person working in this company and now I have 4 companies under me. All my companies are in the same line of business. My vision is to create a one-stop hub for all filming projects. I’ve recently opened a company that does post-production which involves the editing of videos and another company that helps producers source for talented actors - a casting house. The last one is involved in aerial shots. Cameras would be attached on remote-controlled helicopters and this will allow the producers to take beautiful aerial shots for their film. We are the very first in Singapore to be involved in this. Have you heard of PinkDot? The aerial shot for their video was done by us. From underwater shots to aerial shots, we are doing everything.
- Have your vision changed after so many years in this industry?
Nope. It never changed. From the first time I stepped foot into this industry, my vision has always remained the same.
- Did you face any difficulties when you first started this business?
Yes, definitely. I had a lot of problems with capital. No one was willing to lend me money. Everything in this business involves cash and no credit.
- How did you overcome this problem of capital?
Simple. I work 32 days a month, 24 hours round the clock. Thankfully, I met my benefactor. He was the owner of a film equipment business and he really trusted me. Everything I wanted to buy, he would offer it to me and allow me to pay for them in installments. And every time I earned money, I would repay him immediately. 98% of all the filming equipment in my company is bought from him. Up until today, every piece of equipment that I need, I would buy it from him. And if he does not have it, I would go look for them myself. Sometimes, I would go out to source for dealerships and when I come across good dealers, I would recommend it to him.
- In your opinion, what do you think is the most important characteristic a person must have to become a successful entrepreneur?
Trust, worthiness and building good interpersonal relationship (信用，人缘). Never ever cheat your business partners, customers or employees. When it comes to work, when things cannot be done, be frank about it. Never lie about it.
- Can you recall the most memorable day in all your years in this business?
*Laughs* The most memorable day to me is the day when I wanted to quit this industry. Work was so taxing when I first started. I would need to be ready for work every day at 4:30am and work continued all the way until 2am the next day. After that, I still need to drive the truck back and get ready for work again at 430am. I barely had any time for sleep. This often lasts for 7 to 8 days in a row. I can still remember that it was a film for the army. And that was my very first day in this industry. Way before I started this company. It was then that I felt that this job is not suitable for any person to do and I really wanted to quit this industry.
- Wow. How did you manage to survive that?
I had no choice. I just had to endure through it. I needed the money. I lost all my money to gambling. At that point in my life, I gambled in almost everything.
- So what gave you the inspiration to turn over a new leaf?
I was a loan shark for 14 years. When I gambled so much until I reached the point where I had no more money and had to flee, that was when I realized I needed to do something about my life. So I came back and started working properly. At desperate times, you just have to do something (马死落地行 Cantonese). When I had everything figured out, I decided to settle down and find a job. That was when my brother introduced me to this line of business and the rest is history. I have 2 kids now and the oldest one is now 21 years old.
- When did you know that this business was going to work out for you? Since you mentioned about how tough it was when you first started out in this industry, so when did you finally realize that this was going to do well for u?
It was about one year after I stepped foot into this industry when I finally realized that this industry is profitable. The money is good and the salary is high. The only drawback was that the work was very tiresome. When I first started, I earned about $150 a day. If I add in the amount of overtime I do, the amount would be around $200 a day. It was good money so I persevered on and learnt more skills on the job. Slowly I progressed and by the 2nd year, I went on to do production lighting. That was when I started to save money and buy my own equipment. As mentioned earlier, I received an old truck and bought the COE for it. I bought the cheaper equipment then and started to rent it out. Bit by bit, I bought more and more equipment and the rest is history.
- In your whole life as a businessman, was there any benefactor that taught you all these relevant skills that you employ today?
Nope, there was none. No one taught me specifically what to do. Everything was self-taught and learnt on-the-job. There was no chance for me to consult anyone. You simply do the job and if you do it wrong, you get scolded and from there you learn from your mistakes and pick up the necessary skills to survive.
That being said, there was one benefactor whom I also mentioned earlier. And it was the person that was willing to sell me equipment and allow me to pay back in installments. If it wasn’t for him, there would be no Bert Lighting House today.
- Describe to me what was your proudest achievement in life?
I guess my proudest achievement would be being able to be in the position that I am in today. From a person with nothing – no education, no money, no degree, to a successful businessman now, I have to say this is my greatest achievement in life.
- It is so heartwarming to hear such stories – people who could build their business empire entirely from scratch. Do you still work as hard even after amassing this fortune?
People who know me call me Mustafa because I’m practically working around the clock. *Laughs* Nonetheless, I do not go out for shoots as frequently anymore. I spend the majority of my time doing the preparation instead. However, I still make it an effort to be there and help out with the lighting as much as I can. Recently, I have new clients from Korea and they brought in new equipment. I am still trying to figure out how to install and modify these equipment to fit in.
- What was the weirdest thing you have done in this line of business?
Well, there are many things. We have filmed lots of weird stuff such as horror movies, supernatural (ghosts) movies. There is no single weird thing *laughs*
- How would you describe the culture in your company?
I would say that there is a very strong learning culture in my company. You may be new to this line of business and no totally no experience in this industry, but what I want from my employees is their desire to learn and be willing to put in effort. As long as they can promise me that, they will definitely succeed. Whatever you learn from me stays with you. It is something that no one can ever take away from you. Even if you were to leave for other companies, I’m sure these skills that you have learnt from me will be beneficial. Therefore, I strive to cultivate a positive learning culture and atmosphere in my company.
I will put in effort to teach you and give you equipment to promote hands-on learning. I will find jobs for my employees to do and I will not receive any form of commission. If the client offers you $250, I will give you the full $250 and not even one cent less. What’s most important to me is that when you go out and perform your job for the client, you have to do it well and let every there know that you are from Bert Lighting House. That itself is enough for me.
- Since your current office is situated in ITE, do most of the students that you taught come back and join your company when they graduate?
I’ve only recently shifted here for slightly more than a month. This is my first batch of students and they are all very young. I wouldn’t know whether they would join me yet. However, most of my current staffs are diploma holders. Some are degree holders. It is not easy to find a job within this industry because the jobs require very niche skills. You may have a degree but lack the require skills to perform on the job. Whatever skills they learnt in school are only on paper. However, when you join me, you will have a more holistic experience on the practical skills needed to perform well. I like having students to join me because they have good IT and communication skills. I know nothing about computers and probably the only thing I know is how to create an invoice. Having students here helps to create a 2-way learning traffic. When new equipment comes to me, I would teach my employees how to operate them. When it comes to new IT knowledge, I would let my employees learn first and then they teach me how to use it.
- Other than the long term vision that you have for your company, do you have any plans for the next five years?
From the time I first set foot into this industry right up until now, my dream was to create a one-stop production house. It never changed. When my clients want to film in Singapore, they would come to me and I would have everything for them. Currently, I am close to achieving thing. The only thing I lacked is a large studio. When ITE invited me in to join their teaching cohort, they offered me the use of their studio. I could bring in projects to do and use their studio. So if you are asking about my plan for the next five years, I would have to say it would definitely be the ability to own my own studio and be able to give back to this industry. Whatever, I have now is bestow upon me by this industry. I want to be able to give something back to this industry.
- Do you have many competitors in this industry?
I sure do. Besides 2 other smaller scale companies, there are 3 other rental houses that are comparable in size, including me. 4 of us are on very good terms except the last one.
- How would people normally describe you? Let’s say that I was to ask your company employees, how would they describe you?
*laughs* How about you ask them yourself? Let me introduce you to my employees later.
- Moving on, how would you describe your relationship with your customers?
Hmmm, how should I phrase it? I am a problem-solver. I always put myself in my customers’ shoes and try to solve their problems to my utmost best. I would try to find out all the options to getting the problems solved. Even though my customers know me as a very rough person that likes to scold people, they continue to employ my services because I can get the job done. From my point of view, if I were to scold you, it simply shows that at least there is still hope for you to correct your mistakes. And if I were to not scold you, it just means that it’s a lost cause.
- Wow. From the way you phrase it, do you also scold your customers when they are doing the wrong things?
I sure do! Many of the producers I work with are fresh graduates. They have the necessary qualifications and certifications but many lack the experience in this industry. They often speak more than they actually work. When we are filming, they would often want many things to be done without considering the repercussions. What would happen if a production crew member were to fall or injured themselves? Moreover, the equipment are very expensive and the producer often just want to speed the production up without clear consideration for the entire production process. Some things should never be rushed.
- In your eyes, what is an ethical company?
For every businessman out there, the primary concern is always whether the business model is profitable. If it is not profitable, no one would ever want to start the company. In my opinion, an ethical company is one which doesn’t shortchange its employees. On no occasion should a businessman ever ‘eat’ his employees because the employees are there to help generate sales and income. Many unethical businesses out there often leech on their employees by shortchanging them or by trying to cut costs and making the job tougher for the employees. For example, a 5-man job might become a 3-man job and the company would pocket the additional 2-man salary. No company should ever do this. Such behavior doesn’t necessary relate to cost-savings for the companies. The job might end up being done poorly and company reputation will be at risk. Considering the nature of this industry where working hours are long, employees are also at risk of injuring themselves if they are pushed to their limits. The right number of people must be assigned to each job. Cutting corners rarely work out and jobs should always be done professionally. Always treat your employees fairly and treat them like family, only then will they work happily and that’s what most important in an ethical company.
- Particularly in Singapore where the labour force is small, how do you get the right employees to work for you?
Oh! That’s very difficult. Extremely difficult. This whole industry is cursing me because I have already grabbed every potential candidate to work under me.
- What are some business ideas that you come up with which critically shaped your success today?
I would have to say that it would the idea to create a one-stop production facility for all productions in Singapore. I know that if I am able to successfully implement this one-stop facility, my success rate would increase by leaps and bounds. I had no money when I started and the banks were unwilling to lend me money because I was nobody. I used my own hard earned money and bought my own equipment. Step by step, I pursued my idea of this one-stop facility and it was until this year, when I opened by post production company and ITE invited me into their place when I can safely say that my one-stop facility dream is almost completed.
- Mr Tan, on a rough gauge, how long more do you think it will take for you to accomplish your dream of owning your own one-stop production facility?
That’s very difficult to estimate. The standard of living in Singapore is steadily on the rise and everything is increasingly more expensive. I am already 50 years old. It’s about time for me to rest and slow down my pace. I haven’t been resting for the past 10 years and I’ve lost tracked of the days a long time ago. I could no longer remember which day of the week it is. Everything to me now is in numbers. Whether it’s the 4th, 5th or 6th of June. I’m working almost every day.
Even though I’m old, I’m still learning. My highest level of education is primary school and it took me 9 years to get through primary 3. Until the point where they chased me out and said that I’m too old to be in primary school. I became an apprentice in PSA and worked for 3.5 years. Even vocational school rejected me. Luckily for me, I managed to learn a bit of hands-on skills over there.
- How do you think your business has made an impact in Singapore’s society?
The Singapore government is promoting this industry. However, the quality of skills in this industry is really very bad. Ten years ago, the filming industry in Singapore is number 1 in Southeast Asia. We have the best equipment and the best crew around. Today, we are lousiest compared to our neighboring countries. There are many schools teaching production and filming, however, many of the graduates do not survive nor adapt well when they enter work. We have many diploma and degree holders that are all aiming to be producers and directors. Not many are willing to start from doing the entry level jobs. The quality of our production fell drastically. Which is why starting this year, ITE created this new course with a more hands-on approach to teaching rather than focusing on the theoretical aspect and they invited me as an industry partner to help train their students. I teach them the necessary skills and would send them out on jobs to help them build on their experience. In a way, my business helps the filming industry to grow by providing a workforce that has both the theoretical knowledge and the expert skills which is vital to their survival in this harsh industry. Given that the better production crews are all around my age and would be retiring soon, I am hoping that this new batch of students will be able to push this industry to greater heights.
- In your opinion, what does entrepreneurship mean to you?
Honestly, I am not very sure. However, I believe that if one wants to succeed, he must be able to push himself to his limits; to be able to put in more effort to think and plan ahead.
- In all your time in this industry and business, was there anyone that inspired you the most or encouraged you the most?
I have to say that it would be myself. I always tell myself that I must succeed. I have failed too many times in my early days that I just told myself that I have to succeed this time round. This was why I worked very hard and hardly rested for the past 10 years.
- What is one quality that you would like to impart to the younger generation?
*Laughs* Nobody wants to work in this industry anymore. I have such a hard time trying to employ people to work for me. I haven’t really given this much thought. Until the day when I have finally succeeded in building my own one-stop production facility, I wouldn’t really know what I want to impart to the next generation.
- What is one piece of advice that you will give to someone that is looking forward to start his own business and become an entrepreneur?
I would tell him to never be afraid of competition. Always make sure that your work has standard. Other people may compete with you by lowering prices but having quality work is something that others cannot imitate.
- With so much changes in Singapore in the past 10 years, would you say that the environment has become easier or harder for businesses to succeed?
With all these changes, it is definitely harder for companies to survive. Firstly, rising overhead cost is killing businesses by making them less profitable. Secondly, labour shortage is making it harder for businesses to continue operating. Very few Singaporeans and foreigners are willing to take up such manual jobs anymore. This is why people that eventually decide to work for me are those that have passion in doing this line of work. Times have changed and people now have so little patience to learn on-the-job.
- With so much difficulty in finding people to work for you, how do you source for good employees?
Most of the time, I would find for people that I have worked with before to ask if they are willing to work for me. For example, when we are at a shoot, I would see many fresh graduates working as personal assistants, going around helping to buy drinks or to help with the cleaning up. I would silently observe and see who is more hardworking and possesses a better working attitude. From there I would scout out potential candidates and I would approach them to see if they are willing to join me and learn on-the-job. I have found most of my employees via this approach and most of them stay with me for a good 3 years before moving forward into higher positions.