Eric Lew, a leading provider of land transport engineering solutions and systems with a presence in Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmar and China. He also helped start Wong Fong Research & Innovation Centre (WFRIC).
In the short span of 5 years, Eric helped inject a can-do spirit in his family business, and listed the company on SGX in 2016. Today, he shares his insights and journey with us.
What were some motivations for joining the family business?
There was always an obligation to help my dad and uncle, who were working so hard. It was really out of the feeling that I could contribute and make things easier for them.
What difficulties did you face in trying to convince them to digitalize?
The generation gap poses a real challenge especially in family businesses, as the generations were brought up differently resulting in different opinions and approaches. The way to overcome these differences would be to present your ideas in a professional and logical way, and debate it bearing in mind our common objectives.
It is also important to be respectful of the core business. Don’t try to change it, but look at evolving and innovating from the core business model. The predecessors have taken much pain to build that business and this needs to be respected even as we are looking to convince them on new ideas.
What convinced you to digitalize or implement tech solutions in your business?
This was a natural progression for me, also because it is quite difficult to define ‘digitalization’. Implementing solutions like Customer Relationship Management (CRM), being active on social media, and internet marketing came naturally and gradually. Of course, this process has potential to be improved but this is always a work in progress.
What drove you to start the Research and Innovation arm of your business?
We SMEs are often stuck in a reactive stance. Often we are waiting for government organizations to take the lead in stimulating the market by awarding more contracts or grants; much like waiting for durians to fall from the tree. So with Research & Innovation, we are looking to formulate a preemptive stance, and take a more aggressive approach to growing our business. Looking at how fast technology, the economy and the business environment are changing, I think we needed to be less reactive and more proactive.
How have these implementations raised the profile of your company?
We took a rather audacious step but the true motivation was to inspire people. Firstly for our own company to have the confidence to make these leaps in innovation, but also to inspire other Singaporeans to do the same.
It is difficult to measure it in terms of dollars and cents as the value is intrinsic. Besides being known as a brand that can-do and will-do, the knowledge from the research and development work put in can be extended and applied to other areas and products as well. These will eventually bear fruits in time to come.
What would you like to see more of in the tech and digital space, in relation to SME business transformation and digitalization?
I believe strongly in the cross pollination of ideas. Things like design thinking and futuristic mindsets can be applied to traditional businesses. I think there is more room for cross disciplinary collaboration. Many industries are already overlapping, and initiatives that bring different forms of expertise together in collaborative efforts will be successful. At this rate of change, it is not business as usual anymore, SMEs have to consult the right experts and make the necessary changes.
What advice do you have for SME owners who are looking to digitalize?
It is good to digitalize, so as to keep up, but SMEs must be careful not to invest too aggressively or take too large a risk in trying to implement new solutions without first understanding how these impact overall business and process flows. For example: don’t implement in silos, but take in the big picture instead. There must be a right balance.
Darren Lim, a homegrown manufacturer of drapery, soft furnishing and shading systems. He is also the second generation slated to take over this business that was started by his parents in 1989. Over the 28 years, Estil is known for the quality of their products particularly in the commercial property sector.
In the 2 short years he joined his parents’ company, Darren made simple changes using essential technology solutions, and made significant improvements to the business revenue, processes and operations. He shares with us some insights into the journey.
What were some motivations for joining the family business?
I initially wanted to experience the corporate world, but as I was looking, I realized I already had relevant work skills to help out in the family business as I had run my own business while in Ngee Ann Polytechnic. Hence I understood the struggles, ins and outs of business.
At the time, Estil Furnishing was not doing too well, there were very little sales and enquiries, so I decided to put whatever skillsets I had into helping my parents first. Seeing them stressed about their business and livelihood motivated me to want to help alleviate the pressure and grow the business.
What difficulties did you face in trying to convince the older generation to digitalise?
I think that everyone that wants to change will face an initial resistance. My parents did not understand why they should change, or why they should spend a sum of money on something they didn’t believe in.
I soon understood that this was because of cash flow problems. If you could not afford to support the monthly salary of your staff, how would you be able to spend on digitalizing? A lot of SMEs in Singapore adopt a reactive, fire-fighting stance towards business. When times are good, the business owners enjoy the success, but few have contingencies for rainy days.
So how did you overcome this resistance?
You overcome the resistance by giving the older generation a taste of what’s out there. I started by introducing my parents to Google Drive. The idea of using Google Drive or Dropbox didn’t come as naturally to them as they did for me and my peers, but when my parents saw the convenience of using Google Drive, it helped our productivity.
Initially when clients made enquiries, we would need to scan images one by one from a physical catalog, before emailing it to the client. I then helped them redesign their product catalog into a digital format, making it consistent, and then uploaded it onto Google Drive, which gave them instant access to all their product information. This greatly simplified the work process. So giving the older generation a taste of what tech can achieve, will help them open up more to the idea.
What convinced you to digitalize/ implement tech solutions in your business?
I see myself as an effective worker, I do not like to waste time. So I’m attracted to any process that allows for unnecessary work to be cut out. In my family business there were too many workflow inefficiencies that relied heavily on pen and paper, which was what drove me to implement some form of tech solutions.
What were some of the tech solutions that you implemented? And how did they raise the profile of your business?
I think the most basic thing was to update our website and social media presence. Though this was a no brainer for me, it was something completely new for my parents. Furthermore, it’s not only about building a website, but also using Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) to make sure that we were visible online.
Another challenge was that my parents were not willing to trust a hired salesperson with the business contacts and tricks of the trade, given that Singapore is so small. So I managed to convince them to engage a ‘digital salesman’, which was our website. I worked out the sums, and the amount they would need to create and maintain the website – and do digital marketing – was cheaper than hiring a full-time worker. After SEO and SEM, there was a large, noticeable improvement in the number of enquiries and clients that we got, so I think employing this strategy was a simple first step that paid off.
Should SMEs digitalize? Why?
I don’t think it’s a question of should SMEs digitalize anymore. Simply put, SMEs MUST digitalize. Ten years ago, the answer to this question might have been different. Mobile technology and the internet was still relatively unproven, and traditional processes still worked. But the rate at which technology is changing and disrupting business is too fast for SMEs to ignore. SMEs must start implementing tech solutions, at least at the basic level with a website or social media presence. “Everyone is impatient now, and if you are unwilling to change, the world simply will not wait for you.”
By Felix Tan, Managing Director of The FinLab
The FinLab started our acceleration programme for FinTech start-ups in 2016, when the number of accelerators in Singapore could be counted on one hand. Then, Dr. Alex Lin had already anticipated the evolution of such programmes and forecasted the coming of a Generation 5 accelerator.
In 2017, we started making plans for what this can look like. The underlying premise is to provide Singapore businesses that want and need a more strategic approach to evaluate business growth opportunities and help them capitalise on these through the adoption of technology.
Today, we announced this Generation 5 acceleration programme – the first such programme for Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs). Once successful, the intention is then to bring this to SMEs across the ASEAN region.
The Business of Doing Business
Since starting two business in the 1990s, I have learnt one fundamental business principle – that in order to make money, my business has to consistently deliver value to my target market. Through the years, this fundamental principle has remained unchanged, but how this value is delivered has undergone tremendous change, fuelled primarily by the advancement and adoption of new technology.
According to the Department of Statistics in Singapore, the SMEs in Singapore today make up 99% of all local enterprises and employ two-thirds of the workforce. Yet they don’t seem to have kept pace with the digital revolution. To be fair, many have heeded the call to improve productivity through technology adoption, but the impact has been limited.
The common challenges we hear preventing greater adoption are:
These point to a need to help SMEs better assess the suitability of the many technology solutions out there, before committing considerable resources to deploying them. SMEs that approach technology with a “supermarket purchase” approach stand a higher chance of ending up with greater scepticism after several failed attempts.
I strongly believe that these challenges can be overcome. With that, many more open-minded and forward-thinking SME owners will become the next generation of “SME Champions” as their businesses capitalise on a digital economy that is set to grow by USD1 trillion in GDP by 2025 here in ASEAN alone.
Collaborative Effort to make Digital Transformation Work
Through our experience and learnings from our past two acceleration cycles, and the way we see the ecosystem evolving, it is only natural that we expand our focus to now help our SMEs overcome the challenges outlined above and become strong consumers and users of digital solutions. We will help match this demand to a curated supply of market-ready, interoperable digital solutions.
For this programme, The FinLab will work closely with selected SMEs to renew their businesses using proven methodologies and tools for innovation and process improvement. These are made relevant and given input by the SME owners themselves. We are currently looking for SME owners with growth ambitions who believe in leveraging digital solutions to achieve this growth.
We look forward to embarking on this journey with the next-generation SME champions to re-think, re-tool and re-engineer their businesses to capture and leverage the regional economies’ business growth potential, both online and offline.
About The FinLab
Since our inception in 2015, The FinLab has supported the growth of some of Singapore’s most exciting FinTech companies. Over the last two acceleration cycles, we’ve worked alongside entrepreneurs from six countries, including Singapore, looking to tap into the ASEAN markets.
And we’ve had resounding success. With the support from our backers in United Overseas Bank (UOB) and SGInnovate (SGI) , we’ve received more than 700 start-up applications across 44 countries to join our corporate accelerator programme. From the 13 selected companies, eight have successfully raised funds since graduation, and six have either won or are nominated for awards at the last two Singapore FinTech Festivals.