DR. CHENG ENG WAH
- What is the nature of your business?
Dental healthcare, it is a form of service. We perform aesthetic dentistry and general dentistry.
- When and why did you decide to become an entrepreneur / take over your family business? NOTE: If it is not a family business, ask: Do your parents have their own businesses too? Have they inspired you in one way or another? (Select appropriate question according to the entrepreneur being interviewed.)
After graduating in 1986, within 9 months, I came out to run my own show. I had a partner to spread the risks. There was no family business previously, but I was good with my hands, so it was a natural thing for me to go into Dentistry. My parents owned a bicycle store. My dad was a handy man, just like him, I am a handy man as well. When something breaks down at home, we will fix it ourselves. We even made our own guns. In the old days, there were not many shops selling things, a lot of things we had to do it ourselves. For example, I took bamboo sticks to make a bow and arrow. However, I do not think that my parents inspired me because as a dentist, I either work for the government or for myself, which I decided to work for myself at the start.
- What are your reasons for choosing to do business in this particular industry? (compulsory)
I chose Dentistry, as I know I am very dexterous with my hands. In the old days I built soldier toys and model planes. It was a natural progression. When I went to university, I chose Science, Biology, which was my favourite subject. When I graduated, since I trained to be a dentist, I think it is better to be a dentist, so I continue to be a dentist. A dentist can either be a clinician, or entrepreneur where we run the business and practice. In the old days, I did not think much about doing it as a business. I did it as a clinician because I loved doing what I did, which is also why I started.
- 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. (compulsory)
Of course, everything starts out very small. First we get a partner. As we were young, we were also very worried when starting out, so we got partners to spread our risks. I found another partner, and we each came out with half of the capital. Of course the money came from our parents initially. In the old days, we did not really advertise in the newspapers as well. I just had a paper, stuck it outside my door, and someone comes in for an interview. So that’s how we started off, it was very small, in fact just one room. We shared the space with the medical clinic. It was mostly about shared costs as we were not sure in the beginning. The other partner worked at another clinic, whereas I worked at this clinic. When we started, our patient pull was not big, so when he worked at the other clinic he had some money as well as building up his patient pool, so we combined the income and split into two. We spread risks and spread incomes. Our first unit was at Kampong Ubi. We were young, we wanted to start something, and we wanted to be our boss. We saw the newspapers that some dentists wanted to give the place up, so “blindly” we took the place. Of course, once we got the place, we realised that location is very important. If you are in a obscure location, it is very hard to build a practice. Then, we had some problems, so we split and I went to main road. Because of the better location, it was so much more accessible and visible.
- What are some interesting stories you have about your first few customers/first few years in business?
I had a patient, very interestingly, who said he had no money, so he asked my staff whether he could do the dentures and pay later. So when my staff asked me, I said okay. When I first started, I just do, I didn’t care how much they paid me. After when I got to know him, I found out that he is a boss, a very rich man and that he just wanted to test me. He used to work for the Japanese during the World War 2, as a little kid. They would call him a “kima” as his teeth looked like that of a mouse. He fell and broke his teeth. As somehow he was close to a Japanese soldier, when he fell and broke his teeth, the soldier brought him to see the dentist, who was supposed to make him dentures. After that, the dentist quoted a certain price, but as the Japanese soldier was not of a very high rank, he took out all he had, but it was still not enough. The dentist refused to do, so the Japanese soldier got so angry he took out his sword and said that either the dentist did the dentures or die. Of course, the dentist had no choice. I think that the dentist was abit crazy, he should have jolly well did it. So in the end, the boy got his dentures done, and he was very grateful to the Japanese. When I spoke to him, he said that not all Japanese are bad, maybe because he did quite well when the Japanese helped him. He wanted to test me if I would see him without paying. We became very good friends and he makes sushi for me. He recently passed away which was quite sad.
- What is your company vision and mission? How do you convey these to your company staff and team members?
Right from the start, my company’s logo has the words integrity and innovation. Therefore, from the beginning, integrity has become a very important part of what I do. If I promise my patients, I will do it and it will be done right for them. If the patients request for something and I think it is not right, I will tell them not to waste money. A lot of people think that I’m nuts. They say, “You will not be able to do well.” They say that if you want to be a businessman you have to beaggressive. Integrity has become second nature to me, that is why I always tell my doctors, treat all your patients just like how you treat your friends and family members.. That is how I run the show all along. We talk about integrity in what we do. Everything is about trying to help others to solve their problems, instead of just the financial returns. As a result of that, I built a pool of loyal and trusting patients who will come to me for a second or third opinion because they believe and trust that I will act in the best of their interest.
Resilience and Overcoming Adversity
- What are some of the challenges you faced when you first went into business?
My first challenge was to build and retain a customer base. When I had time in the earlier years, I would make it a point to meet up with friends over lunch and ask if they need dental services.. Getting every patient is a challenge. Once the customer database has built up, it is less of an issue. Another challenge is that we are a small enterprise and therefore do not have a lot of resources. I learned everything from scratch based on my own experience, without the benefit of knowing the best practices adopted by the big boys in the market. On hindsight, it would have been a more smooth-sailing experience if I had started out with a bigger organisation and build up my base from there. Many young people think they are smart, but there are smarter people out there. I am a clinician with minimal experience in Human Resource and Marketing training. When we first started out, the business grew very slowly. Fortunately, I am very passionate in what I do, so I just focus on serving my patients. I was happy and eventually established very strong relationships with my patients who have been very supportive over the years. With the tightening of the foreign workers’ quota by the Singapore Government in recent years, staffing became a challenge for all SMEs. We are no exception. To make things worse, big corporations, have the muscle power to tie up with ITEs and Polytechnics. They have the resources to provide good pay and benefits and invest in staff training, and hence usually get the better workersThe SMEs ‘lose out’ in a sense as we do not have the muscle power like big corporations.
- How did you overcome these challenges? Please share some specific examples of the action you took to overcome the challenges.
We shared risk by starting out our business together. We also had another income source to make things viable, so that a new start up could build up. Other than that, was getting patients. How I overcame this, was that I do have a lot of friends. A bit of networking is very important. People who come to see you, they want to help you. So a lot of my friends came, and there were a lot of recommendations. Being honest, doing a good job also helps. One patient will recommend the whole family. I’m very good with 2 categories of patients – children and elderly. Children are very difficult to treat as they are running around and you really need a lot of patience to see them. So when I see the children well, the whole family comes to see me as well. Grandma is the one who says, “Dr Cheng is good, everyone must all go to see him!” I am very good at making dentures and very accommodative. If it is not good, I will make a new one and I do not charge them, things like that. Words get spread around and it moved very fast naturally. I am able to build up a big pool of patients in a relatively short time.
- 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?
Not the feeling of giving up, but I had a problem with my partner the other time, so it was really about integrity. When we had a problem that time, the whole bank account got froze, so we could not pay our suppliers. They all chased after me as I was running the place and they thought that I would not pay them. It became an integrity problem because they thought that I was holding the money. It was a company account and it had been frozen because of some dispute with the partners, and so I could not use the money to pay. It dragged on a about a year, I kept telling them it is not because I did not want to pay them. Fortunately, I had good friend who helped me sort it out, in the end it was sorted out quite amicably.
- Can you share some of the lessons you learnt from overcoming your own business challenges that you think will help other businesses?
I think before even starting to think of doing any business, you need to first understand the business well, do your research, do not think that because you are new young and full of energy, you are able to do anything. Do your homework, maybe attach yourself to some company in the area of business that you are interested in and see what are their best practices and see if it is what you really want to do. Try to learn the best practice as much as you can, then improvise and make it even better. The next thing is location, as much as you would say that the place is very expensive, at the end of the day, if you have a wrong location and nobody comes to you, you just cannot do the job. Unless if you are doing a different type of business. Location is very important. You pay a premium for location, and location helps a lot. Certain businesses sell things on the Internet and it does work. I realise that social media is very important. So nowadays, we budget some money for social media. We also engage social media consultant to do such things for us. We realise that once we reach a certain stage of development, we had to take care of the brand. We are doing a lot of branding. People do not recognize me just by myself. If I were going to build more clinics, I would not be around in all the clinics. The patients need to recognize the brand instead of me
- When was the moment you realised the business would work and support you?
I think in the first month after I started, I already started to cover cost. I had no issues from day one. When we went to a small place, the rental was really cheap. It was good in a way because we started out small. Rental is low so costs are low, but return will be as equally low. When we branched out, we moved to Shenton Way. After that everything changed. We see a whole new pool of patients. My wife also came in, she has Marketing background because she used to work for an MNC and she helped out initially with the clinic brand positioning and marketing strategties.
- What are some of your proudest business achievements to date? And why are they so important and meaningful to you?
My proudest moment would be the Invisalign Dedicated Clinic. This is among the first in Asia. It was conceptualised with the aim of an Apple iPhone shop, to showcase and include everything about Invisalign and to provide a holistic aesthetic experience not available in other non invisalign flagship practice with focus on customer service and a good patient experience, so we talked to the principal, and they chose us to set up the flagship store, where we focused solely on Invisalign. I am very proud that we were one of the first to open in Singapore. If you go by timing, we are the first. There are 2 in Singapore. Bangkok is opening soon as well. If you go to the flagship store, you would feel that the look and feel of things is the same, for example the uniforms. The principal company is trying to use us as a role model for the rest to copy. I am very proud that I am in this big whole scheme of things. It is one of the fastest moving products in Singapore. If the price is right, it is going to overtake braces. Of course, in the next couple of years there will be a lot of copycats who come up with cheaper substitutes. Some of them are already here, but it really depends of what the customers want, the original or the cheaper substitutes. It is a trend that I don’t think can be reversed. Braces would be something that would be less and less popular in the future.
- Can you describe the company culture that you have? How does it contribute to the performance of your company growth?
Integrity is the first thing so we treat all patients well. Similarly, as I treat patients well, I treat my staff well too. When there are any problems, they would come to me, and normally I would handle them individually. Handling HR is very tough, as each of them have their own problems. Some of them, because of the amount of energy and effort we put in to help them, are pretty loyal to us. So that is how we build our business. Of course as we move along, the younger generation y are motivated slightly different from the older staff. Now we are looking at different things, like incentives, group outings, overseas trip, things like that. I need to change. Myself being a baby boomer, we are generally loyal people, but generation y looks at things very differently, focusing on dollar and cents and to have a lot more free time. Hence, we are doing a lot of transition work.
Sometimes during lunch, I would go out with them and buy them lunch. They already take it for good and would not stand out to pay. We would sit and talk. Of course we have training programmes overseas as well. Recently we even had social grooming etiquette classes for them, teaching them what to wear, what makeup to do. We have a lot of such training programmes. We also want them to work well, so we have consultants to teach them about understanding each other, decipher each other personalities so that they can work well with each other.
Secondly we will invest our returns on buying evidence based new technology that will improve patient’s comfort and provide a faster more effective treatment outcome. We have acquired the whold suite of new dental equipment and technology ranging from 3D from Finland and I flew there personally for training in April. We use laser technology for better comfort and reduce pain in certain treatment. And Cone Beam CT scan, Cadcam 3D scanner and milling machine for faster, better treatment
- How do you promote learning within your Company? What are the training opportunities that you provide your staff?
I come in very early in the morning. At 8 – 8.30am, my staff will book me and I would teach them clinical stuff. After 8.30am, it would be a clinic meeting, running through what to improve, what they have not done well, to set in some protocols and habits so that it becomes a routine. This is because sometimes people tend to forget the things they do, so every morning I would come to remind them. “Look at yourselves, are you all dressed properly, hair tied up?” I take it on myself to train them well. Getting the right people is very tough in Singapore, both Foreigners and Singaporeans. It is a chicken and egg thing. If your clinic is small, no one wants to join you, then you cannot become big. It is tough to break out, but it doesn’t mean it cannot be done.
- What do you see for your business in the next 5 years, and does it include any plans for expansion?
My current plan is consolidation. What we have now, we really want to do it well. There is a lot of emphasis on customer service. Everyday I am doing revision, looking at customer service protocols and procedures. our GM also do good job in tidying up procedures such as in the areas of claims and payments. There is also inter-clinic linking up with each other. As for our appointment booking now, we also move towards e-booking, so one can see all the doctors availability at all the clinics. Now I can book an appointment even when I am at home. A lot of things are in the pipeline because we want to tidy things up. Next up, if everything is done properly, I would like to have a clinic in the west. I have one in the north, east and central, so I am still short of one in the west.
Personal integrity and Ethics
- In your opinion, what is a good and ethical business? How do you think this helps you in your Company/ business?
Definitely it would help. As for integrity, in whatever I do, patients’ interests come first and everything is secondary. When I do any analysis, it is always patients’ interests. If it is not necessary, I would not do it, but I would give them a lot of options. That is very important, as with that, I have a very stable and solid base of patients.
- How will you describe your working relationship with your customers, suppliers and service providers?
A lot of them are my friends. They invite me for their wedding, and they sometimes will announce my name in the podium. A lot of my patients also become friends. The old patients sometimes refuse to see other dentists. I have a patient whose daughter called me from America. It was a long distance call, so I picked it up. She asked if I could do a favour. She said her mum kept calling her because I was not seeing her mum anymore. I reached a stage where I specialise in doing Invisalign, so I recommended the mum to see my good friend for her a root canal procedure. She kept complaining that the guy is very bad, very lousy. I saw the mum already, but her root canal is beyond me, I only cleaned it half-way, and the rest is too difficult for me. Yet the mum said that I could do it. The daughter asked me to do her a favour, if not, her mum would call her almost every hour. So I called her mum and asked her to see me. I cleaned and filled up the best I could, and she was happy, happy because I touched her mouth (laughs). The relationships with my customers are like that of friends.
Suppliers are also my good friends. A lot of times, when I buy my equipment from that, I do not even test them. Sometimes the equipment comes in brand new and I am the first guy who buys. Sometimes I regret buying them. Sometimes I buy because of the friendship and not because of the machine. That is the thing. After a while we became friends. I tend to value friends a lot. I always tell them, you become my friend it is easy for you, because when I buy things I don’t really check to see. But it is not a good thing. As I grew bigger, I did tell my suppliers, I have to be slightly more practical, because after a while, they might make my job difficult. I want to be friends, but they must also give me things that are workable, otherwise it might impede or obstruct what I am doing. Now I am slightly changed. Friends are important; I still must make sure my business is well. There are changes, my old self I would put friendship first, but now, it doesn’t work that way.
- Can you share the working terms (e.g payment terms) that you have established with your suppliers?
No issue. If they need money they would tell me. Normally it is 30 days, if they need anything, they would tell me. It is very easy.
- How do you differentiate your business from your competitors? Please provide specific examples.
Of course my differentiation is the 2 keywords – innovation and integrity. We treat patients very well. We give them our honest opinions and try our best. Our best might not be good, but at least we try our best. Another thing is innovation. If you look at my clinic, we really buy a lot of things. Anything new we will try and buy, and I do not stinge. My dental chairs are not old, they all rather new because after a while I will change and upgrade my equipment. The X-ray machines also the latest. I just went to Finland for training in using some of my latest equipment. We want to differentiate ourselves from the others, so we give things which are really value for money.
- What are some business ideas you have implemented that created great results in your business?
Lately, social media is a big one. It generated a lot of leads for us. A lot of patients call up because of that. I think the young generation do not read the newspapers anymore. Anything they would just search. I asked “How do you know me?” Last time it was simple, they would say “So and so recommended.” I knew hey were expecting a discount. But I am a kind person, so it is okay. Nowadays, they would tell me “Through Google, there were a lot of good comments, so I came” Luckily, my wife is in marketing, and we have a lot of consultants in this area so it helped us a lot.
- Where or who do you get your business ideas from?
By intuition, and also by reading the newspapers. Nowadays I am smarter, I do not just depend on myself, I would ask when I don’t know. We engage people to tell us what is going on. Of course, my wife is in marketing, so she will go through the Internet, go through what people are doing and see what is working and what is not. Also, she has experience in dealing with other professions. Some things we will try it out, of course it is very industry-specific, it might not work for some industries, and not for ours, so we will try it out to see. We are also thinking of new ideas now, but some ideas would not be very convenient to share with you.
- How have these business ideas impacted your Company or business? Please specify the qualitative and quantitative terms of the impact.
I think we bring in 15-20% more patients. It depends on what we want. When we do certain Internet stuff, can generate a lot of interest. It really depends on what we want to focus on with our marketing dollars and cents.
- How do you think your business have made a positive impact or contribute to the community that you serve? For example: creating jobs for Singaporeans or underprivileged; upgrading the skills of employees; improving livelihoods or lifestyles of customers.
A lot of staff joined me and they are of a “different level”. Some of them are “ah-mas” at hospitals, some of them work as operators, and some of them havesome medical history. They tell me and I always employ them. I don’t think I have reached a limit yet. My staffs sometimes salute me on why I cannot get angry. I try my best to teach whatever I can, so quite a lot of them stay. I got one girl who speaks zero English. It took me about one year to train her for her to be operationally functional. The “ah-mas’ who work at hospitals they also say they do not know anything, but I say it’s okay if they don’t know I can teach them. Of course there are really those who cannot make it at the end. It is not that we didn’t try. We tried very hard. So these are the things.
Currently we are also doing CSR programmes. About a month’s time back, we tied up with Singtel/ Signpost to give free dental treatment to Children’s Home. We are looking at ventures to see how we can support the community. I think all my staffs are very happy doing such things. When I approach them with the idea, they are very happy and excited to do all these things. We try to make a yearly affair. We try to give whatever we can back. We try our best to give back to society. Even in small ways, such as when old people who come in and say they do not have enough money, I would say it is okay. That being said, I have patients who come in and said they want to do dentures, and I said that it is free because government pays for them, but they do not believe me. They kept saying “Wah! Dr Cheng is very good” but actually it is the government who subsidises. Nowadays there is a blue card, and I will change them exactly to what the blue card states. I gave some feedback to the grassroots that they need to inform the people who really need help. Some people really need the help, but they do not know of such things. Those people who come in for treatment are those who speak super good English, asking for cheap treatments. Sometimes I would disturb them, asking if they really need those cards, but they said “Government give, I take lor!” I feel that some people abuse the system because they actually might not need it. For those people who really need it, even when they have the card, they also might not know how to use.
As I told you, we take in almost all types of staff, but after a while, we realise certain staff are not very good in certain places. However, we do not penalise them, we restrict their work based on their strengths. We do not look at the weak points. If they are not good at talking to customers, we make them do other things. For instance, some staff are very meticulous, so we give them responsibility in inventory management.
About the entrepreneur
- What does entrepreneurship mean to you?
I don’t know what is entrepreneurship initially. I think it is basically when someone who wants to do things, start a business oneself and watch as things grow. I do not know if I am an entrepreneur because I started my business as I did not want to work for others and wanted to be my own boss. It was a long journey, I learnt the hard way. Basically I think that being an entrepreneur, you have a vision in the first place, you wanted something and then go about doing it. Eventually whether you will become successful, that is the key thing. Some people fall off after a while, some persist and continue.
- What are some entrepreneurship qualities that you have which has helped you come this far?
First thing, you have to be honest. Next is perseverance, plus a lot of patience. Sometimes you have to deal with situations that are going to make you jump. As you grow bigger, there could me manpower issues, you have got to be cool in handling things. Also, there is a need to get good staff. As a person, it is difficult to run a show by oneself and you need people to help. Also one should try to learn from others, but don’t copy wholesale, try to learn from what they are doing and improve.
- In your opinion, what other qualities does a person need in order to be successful in business? And why? (e.g. Educational qualification, work experience, family influence, attitude, etc)
Maybe culture, by having the drive. For me it was simple. When I was a little boy, family is very important to me. At the end of the day, I would want to provide for my current family and future family. So the driving force is very strong. I wanted to do well to provide for everybody, not just myself. Culturally, for me it is very strong, my culture to take care of my family. So because of that, I need to work very hard. Of course, working hard is not enough. You have to be smart. That is still my guiding principle; I just want to take care of my family well. Of course there is a saying in chinese, “if you never have a family you will never be able to have a good country”. If everyone runs their family well, the government does not need to take care of you because you can take care of yourself. I started off with a small nucleus group and the drive was very strong.
- What are some of your business values and what would you like to pass down to others, particularly the younger generation?
I think we have spoken a lot about generation y. We really need to moderate our expectations. Nothing can be achieved without working hard; we really need to have a lot of hardship. It does not mean that we have to suffer, but it means that we have to put in a lot of effort to learn, try out things and value certain things. Respect the old people and their teachings. So these things I don’t know if it is easy for the young generation to pick up. For me, I always respect the old people, for instance, my old patients; I would always treat them with huge respect. For instance, when we take things from them, one must use 2 hands. I also inculcate these values to my staff. Everything that we take, we must say thank you. These are values. Going forward, new generation people should have some values in guiding them in what they do in business. Sometimes doing business can be very dirty. In the pursuit of wealth, you get lost, so it gets very thin between what is good and bad.
- Can you share some of the more significant events / incidents that affected or shaped your business philosophy and the way you conduct your business? I.e. SARS, new competition or shifts in market behaviour and trends, etc.
Being honest, I’m quite a traditional guy and everything to me is about family. Of course, I recognise the trend, and I think the government also recognised the trend. PM Lee Hsien Loong also does a lot of social media now, such as on Facebook. If he could do it, I could do it as well. Initially I was quite resistant to such things, but my wife is the one who pushed me for such things. I used to say “No, I treat patients because they like me.” But she said, “Nobody knows that you are good now, how?” Which is true, so now it comes a different ball game because we need to put ourselves there to let people know. The new thing is social media. The government is embracing social media as well. It can be a good or bad thing. People can say bad things about you. It is a double-edged sword, but if you are okay, you should not be worried. We cannot be pleasing everybody, while we try to, but we cannot. We will try our best, as long as we know what we are doing and we are honest with ourselves and the patients, I think it is okay.
- 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?
Yes, it comes both ways. Easier because all the young people are better trained. In my days, we did not have HR and business training. Now there are a lot of modules on entrepreneurship. Maybe you are sitting here because you are doing one of the modules, so they actually do train you and guide you. The government also gives a lot of money to start your own practice, a lot of loans, a lot of structures that help you and encourage you to do, so in a way it is good. On the other side, with everyone coming on, it becomes very competitive. You will see more failures, as it is impossible for everyone to be successful. Of course, with manpower shortage and new regulations, it will be very difficult. In the old days, when I opened a clinic and ran it, it was very easy; I did not need licenses other than a registration license. Now when I open a clinic I need to have a registration license, clinic license, fire safety license, even the compressor needs a license. There is a license for everything. Licenses mean money. I would pay first and patients pay second. With that, the costs escalate. In a way, government helps to make it easy, but the environment is not easy now. It is very competitive, everyone wants to be an entrepreneur. Last time it was easier because very few people want to open their own clinic, as everyone wanted to work for the government. So when I came out, I was very lucky because I was one of the few who opened my own clinic.
- What advice would you give young people who want to start their own business?
You have to do your homework, learn, and identify what you want to do. You should work with the big boys, and understand the nature of the work. Also networking is super important. Network way earlier, meaning college days. Those friends you have in college are just pure friends because there are no financial connections or any other connections, but when you go bigger it becomes very artificial, people see others based on their position, for instance, “so and so is a director of a company”. When you only know your faculty people, it wouldn’t help you. Those are all your competitors; they are never people who will help you. Those who would help you are from the law, medical, engineering faculty people, people who are from the other faculties. Everyone in your faculty is your “enemy” in that sense; they are going to be your competitors, fighting for the same cake. So what can you do? Stay in hostel, make different friends from different faculties, join CCAs, and tie with your friends tightly, go out with them. Now it is more artificial, last time is might really just for the friendship, but I am teaching you to get to know people, so that you get a big group of network, so hopefully one or two of them become very big. Nowadays, people tend to employ others from the same school, alumni is very strong. Do not underestimate networking. These are some of the things I advise, to really network as it makes your life super easy. Of course it would also depend on the right timing, right place, and right opportunity. These are things that you cannot foresee, but things that you can do now, are those I told you, networking, do your homework, work for people, choose a right place, if you are not sure, always ask. Attach yourself to different companies; so maybe you can see if you have different interests. You need to work very hard, and smart to be different from others. If you take the safe route, you will not be an entrepreneur. You must think out of the box, and be one step ahead of them. Think ahead, if others do this way, you must do slightly better than them.