CHAN CHIK WENG
Ltc (Ret) Chan started as a passive investor in the pest control business as he was involved in a number of other businesses. He was a ‘reluctant’ pest control executive. However, a turn of event at SITA Pest Control & Fumigation Services Pte Ltd (SITA) caused him to take over the reins of the company in 2003. Faced with many serious challenges then, he mustered all his experience and resolve to lead SITA through some very tumultuous times. He credits the success to his Team who fought the recovery battles together with him to make what SITA is today. SITA’s motto is “Today’s Best Choice” for pest control and to do that the SITA Team needs to continually improve and to strive to meet the future challenges faced by the Company and the Industry.
Sita Pest Control (SITA) was founded as a subsidiary of Sita Holdings, a French global waste management conglomerate, in 1988. The majority stakes were acquired by PestBusters Asia Pacific Pte Ltd (PBAP) in 1997. PBAP is a Singaporean-owned investment company, having licensing agreements with good pest control operators in Cambodia and Vietnam operating under the PestBusters brand.
Sita is well established as one of Singapore’s leading pest management companies. Serving government agencies, GLCs, MNCs, SMEs, MCSTs and individuals who own homes and other properties, SITA has been relied upon to provide prompt, efficient and professional quality service. This reliability is achieved and recognised because the management and staff are trained professionals.
It was an enriching experience interviewing Col Chan who has led SITA Pest Control out of turbulent times and continues to spearhead its growth. Through this interview I did not just learn about the amazing business acumen of Col Chan but also his style of managing his staff and gained valuable insights about the Pest Control Industry in Asia. I sincerely thank Col Chan for his time and his sharing during the session. My discussions with him were thought provoking and have inspired me to pursue the entrepreneurial track.
- What is the nature of your business?
SITA Pest Control (SITA) provides quality pest control services to a diverse group of clientele including households, condo estates managers, industrial and commercial buildings owners, construction companies, MNCs, GLCs, Government Agencies, etc. Mainly a B2C company, SITA delivers good results to its clients that demand a range of needs and budgets.
- When and why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?
I’ve been a businessman since I left military service. You can say that my family, especially my late mother influenced me to do business as she was an entrepreneur of sort. After I left the military employment in 1979, I went into a few businesses, mostly family-owned with my siblings, where I honed my skills.
I decided to leave the family businesses to venture on my own in 1992. Amongst other new businesses that I got into then, I ventured into pest control quite by chance. As I was involved in pesticides and chemical blending business before, I got invited by an expatriate (an ex-client) to start pest control business in Cambodia towards the end of 1993. Having very little pest control services knowledge, I asked my brother for reference. He introduced me to Mr. Thomas Fernandez, who by then had established a good reputation for quality pest control services, a good PestBusters branding, as well as being an aggressive and fearless entrepreneur. We then founded PestBusters Asia Pacific Pte Ltd (PBAP) and used it to venture into Cambodia and Vietnam. One thing led to another, PBAP decided to acquire SITA when it was up for acquisition in 1997.
- What are your reasons for choosing to do business in this particular industry?
I have already told you how I got into the pest control business. Thomas and I became partners in 1994 in PBAP. In 1997 when SITA Holdings (a French global MNC in waste management) was looking at divesting SITA Pest Control we negotiated to acquire it using PBAP. Thus, it was primarily my faith in Mr. Fernandez’s fore-sight, knowledge and experience in the pest control industry that convinced me to go into this venture. Also, having the experience in turning around some family businesses previously gave me the confidence to take control of SITA when the existing management was not delivering to our expectation after 5 years.
- How did you put together all the resources needed to start your business?
We bought the business. Initially when we took over the business in 1997, we were more like investors. We had an agreement with the key incumbent to run the company with the existing management for 5 years. However, not soon after the acquisition, this key incumbent started to try to drive a wedge between Thomas and I. I was wise to that and refused to go along. This key incumbent then became uncooperative and his own and SITA’s performance dropped in the subsequent years and the company stagnated. This went on until three months before the end of the stipulated 5 years management agreement, when I gave the incumbent due notice to end his services. He was not satisfied and took us to courts alleging oppression. The Honourable Judge found no oppression as alleged but advised us to buy out the appellant’s shares. We decided to settle by buying him out in August 2003. Just as when we thought we had settled, he then sued SITA for wrongful termination of employment on a technical ground. SITA counter-sued for his abuses during his tour as MD & CEO. He dragged the case for almost 6 years, and the matter was only finally settled in chambers in 2009.
When we bought him out in 2003, our first thought was how the business should proceed. Initially we discussed about hiring another new CEO. I finally decided to take a shot at running SITA instead of relying on hired help after the bad experience earlier. I decided to handover my business in controlled blasting to my partners. Despite the lack of hands-on experienced, I knew if I could change how things were run, with a reasonable market standing of SITA then, a revitalised team at the company could turn things around. What SITA needed then were strong leadership and a committed team to succeed.
As the new chief executive of SITA, I identified some key areas of weakness and introduced ways for cutting costs and improving profitability. However, even with these measures, the company ended up in a sizeable loss into 2004. Opportunely, a very experienced former operations manager at SITA re-joined the company in early 2004 for another assignment. However, seeing the red ink, I got him to revamp Ops and look into systemising with emphasis on productivity improvements. After a few rounds of reviews on restructurings for productivity and getting the different departments to focus on their specific tasks, we soon got the company back in the black in 2005. Using the 2003 and 2004 revenue figures as guide, I started setting annual targets and the SITA team did well to push for and achieve them despite the various challenges. We grew the business almost 4 times without significant investment in staff strength. During the last 10 years, the SITA Team worked very hard. We can say, we achieved some measure of success, although we still have some way to say we have arrived. The success achieved is the effort of the whole team, everyone putting in his or her very best to contribute to the progress of the company.
- What are some interesting stories you have about your first few customers/first few years in business?
I took over an existing business at SITA. To me every customer is interesting and posts certain challenges to meet the different demands. It is too much to tell just like things that happened in my first few years in business. These, I shall leave to an opportunity to share at a sharing forum or with some young students pursuing entrepreneurship training or studies.
- What is your company’s vision and mission? How do you convey these to your company staff and team members?
These are stated in SITA’s website. Please do visit www.sitapest.com.
SITA’s management ensures that our Vision and Mission are conveyed to all every staff all the time. SITA’s Management Team must believe in these and lead by example.
- 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?
At SITA, the period for me must be 2002 to 2004. PBAP and I were embroiled in legal battles with the former MD/CEO, staff morale was low, SITA was not doing well, contracts and staff poaching were rampant and cash flow was a big problem. It was depressing. Competitors and even some suppliers thought SITA would not last long. For me, there was no time to be sad or go into depression. This was a time to think, and think fast, on how to turn things around. Fortunately, staff loyalty and their willingness to change the way things were done progressively put SITA back on to the path of recovery and subsequent improvements. My training and stint in the military helped to build a strong resolve. I put to action a recovery plan for the Team and it worked.
- This initial period seems to be the most challenging part of your business. Do you remember the specific measures you took to get the company back on track?
The most important task was to re-structure the organisation to allow for better communication, management and focus on the business. Finance situation must be strengthened following the difficult 2002 to 2004 period. We concurrently re-built the Ops Dept and whole SITA Team for better capabilities, better productivity and better performance. We beefed up the sales team to increase sales. I gave new sales and revenue targets annually. Without fail, the SITA Team achieved their annual targets set by me from then until now. We also introduced new technologies to improve efficiency and productivity even before the PIC Scheme was launched by the government.
- Can you share some of the lessons you learnt from overcoming your own business challenges that you think will help other businesses?
The important lesson is not to be defeated by any challenge or adverse situation. The ability to think and plan a recovery or overcoming the situation is next. We cannot sit or lie down and wait for help or hope for the best. Walking away from the challenges or quit the business must be last resort. Everything is about timing in business. It is most important for any business to weather the storm and stay resilient in the time of crisis. Most times, there will be light at the end of the tunnel and if one sees the rainbow, there might be a pot of gold at the end of it too, philosophically speaking. Simply put, business is not for the weak hearted.
- When was the moment you realised the business would work and support you?
There was no miracle really. Until I saw my Management started to gel and function as a team, and my SITA Team started to do things differently from the past, I could then see things moving in a better direction from the 4th quarter of 2004. There were a lot of rough edges and turbulence. We need to take tough decisions and keep managing along. At the end of 2005, things got better and in 2006 I could really feel that the company was truly out of the crisis mode.
- What are some of your proudest achievements to date? And why are they so important and meaningful to you?
Really, it should not just be my proud moment. It was indeed SITA Team’s proud moment when we were ranked a “SINGAPORE SME 500 COMPANY” in 2009 and 2010. After that we were ranked a “SINGAPORE SME 1000 COMPANY” from 2011 to 2014. The ranking publications were organized by DP Information Group and Ernst & Young, and supported by ACRA, IDA, IE, SPRING, SBF, ANZ and DHL. The annual ranking recognised SITA’s achievements. That said something.
- Can you describe the company culture that you have? How does it contribute to the performance of your company growth?
Coming from a military background I believe strongly in having a good management structure within the company, where hierarchy and job scopes are clearly spelt with performance expectations. We are not rigid and have moderated accordingly to make a culture work for us. Communications are open and the work place cordiality and respect are encouraged all the time. Good performance is rewarded according to merits. Weaker staff members are helped to improve and old staff members are retained if they are still fit and wish to continue working. This culture motivates staff and enabled SITA to achieve our targets annually.
- How do you promote learning within your company? What are the training opportunities that you provide your staff?
Firstly, all new incoming staff receive an on the job training (OJT) classroom course before the actual OJT practical on the ground. SITA is a recognised OJT Centre. We also send them to NEA approved technician’s training at ITE. Our staff members are also sent for exposure events such as industry seminars, trade exhibitions, and conferences both locally and abroad. Products and systems specific trainings are conducted by suppliers to both Sales Team and Ops Managers. Additionally, as incentive, we also have other overseas associate programmes where we send our employees for overseas assignments. For those eligible staff members who wish to pursue further studies, selected deserving ones are subsidised to encourage learning.
- Where do you see your business in the next 5 years, and does it include any plans for expansion?
If we continue to grow the business at our current rate, we are looking expanding by around 30% in 5 years’ time. However, due to the manpower situation, this target might be challenging as we need more workers. Nevertheless, we will do our best in growing the business through more productivity and innovations. Expansion plans are in place into synergistic services such as odour control and other hygiene services to grow revenues and profits.
- How will you describe your working relationship with our customers, suppliers, and service providers?
We do have good working relationships with our clients, suppliers and service providers. We give value to our customers by doing a good job for their money’s worth. Their confidence is evident from the repeat orders or contracts we get from them despite not being cheap. We do not compromise on the service quality just to lower our prices. We handle inputs and complaints expeditiously. For suppliers and services providers, we demand good products and quality service but pay them timely. We buy not so much based on relationship, but rather quality products and services that our staff members want to use in carrying out their work effectively.
- How do you differentiate your business from your competitors? Please provide specific examples.
Pest control business is quite standard. Every pest control company seems to be doing about the same things. Thus, we do not differentiate much in our products and services offers like others. However, we do focus in certain niche market. The probable main differences might be in the way we operate our business, the way we manage our staff and handling our clients in a fair and reasonable way. This is a people’s business, so we focus highly on managing people well. Advanced and new technologies, products and equipment are promptly implemented to give the edge over others. Most of our clients are repeat (contracted) clients who come back to us because they see value in us and acknowledge our reasonable business practices.
Another way we differentiate ourselves is by going green, ie eco-friendly. We adopt more eco-friendly methods for pest control, including using non-hazardous and bio-degradable agents to treat and control pests. The long-term benefit is to save our environment.
- How do you think your business has made a positive impact or contributed to the community you serve?
Certainly, our business in providing pest control services has made a positive impact. Controlling pests is essential for both hygiene and diseases control in Singapore. The NEA considers pest control companies as partners in controlling pests. The community at large is safer due to a pest-free environment. For example, controlling mosquitoes helps to control the spread of mosquito-borne diseases such as Malaria and Dengue, etc. Control of rodents prevents disease and property damages. Termites control is essential to prevent expensive property damages.
Another way we contribute to society is to help the less fortunate. We donate to any bona fide charity organization that writes to us to request. We do not commit to any particular CSR but try to help as many as possible.
- In your opinion, what quality does a person needs to succeed in business?
The person must have the enterprising spirit, and willing to take some risks. He or she must have the vision and drive to succeed. Other than that one should be a good person, be upright, honest and willing to help others. A good business must make money, but achieving profits using unethical or illegal ways, to me, should never be the agenda of a successful business person. To be successful one must do well by fair means, and that includes taking care of staff well and the environment.
- Who or what motivates and inspires you?
Most of us will usually say it was our parents or some teachers inspired us. It’s not much difference with me. However, the one that inspired me most was an ex-boss. I served as the military personal secretary from 1973 to 1975 to the late Dr Goh Keng Swee when he was the Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister of Singapore. Serving him helped me shape my thinking and the way to do things. He was, in my view, the truly great entrepreneur of Singapore. I worked under him for two and a half years, a period of tough learning yet a very enriching time and experience.
- 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?
My view is under any condition will be born some champions. The fittest will survive. The current trends of rising costs and labour shortage suggest a tough time to do business, but in my view, it is the tough ones that will overcome the toughness. One cannot be a ‘chicken’ in tough situations. You have to ride the bull by its horn. If you are not prepared to take tough actions or willing to change with the times, you will not succeed.