My big break: becoming my own boss at 18

Singapore entrepreneur Chong Kim Whey on how small steps can help you win big business

Company snapshot

  • Name: Peak Top Engineering
  • Location: Singapore
  • Turnover: SGD10 million
  • Employees: More than 100

 

How it all began

I was born into a poor family in Malaysia, but aged just 18 I migrated to Singapore, where I started working for a construction firm. It was going well, I was even on course for a promotion, but within six months I knew I wanted to be my own boss. So I left the firm and hired my first worker. Four years later, eager to run something bigger, I took everything I had learnt from the building sites and set up an electrical engineering company. Today, my business supplies some of the biggest electrical and engineering companies in Singapore.

 

My toughest lesson

The 1997 Asian financial crisis was when I learnt the importance of building trust with staff. It was a tough time for businesses. Our main contractors couldn’t afford to pay us, creating a major cash flow problem, which meant I struggled to pay my employees and suppliers. Many companies around us failed. But I told myself not to give up. My staff trusted and depended on me, and I was determined not to let them down. Despite the financial difficulties, they stood by me. Many of these workers are still at Peak Top Engineering today, and I can honestly say my company wouldn’t be as successful as it is now without their trust and loyalty.

 

My light bulb moment

The first few years at Peak Top Engineering were challenging. As a young company it was hard to bid for work, particularly for larger projects, as we didn’t have a track record. I changed tactics and avoided bidding for bigger jobs, focusing instead on smaller projects to build our reputation. The smaller jobs meant lower potential profits, but it was necessary to get our foot on the ladder. I knew that gaining trust – whether from large or small customers – would help us win bigger projects in future, and fortunately I was right.

 

Finding funding

After a few successful years of profit, we decided to invest in commercial property to supplement our core business in electrical engineering. We secured a mortgage loan from Standard Chartered and, as a result, were able to diversify and grow our business, giving us different streams of income. They understood our aspirations and were there to support us along the way.

 

I owe my success to

My family has supported me through the ups and downs. To me, it’s extremely important to balance work and family life. I try to be a role model for my children, teaching them to be self-reliant, resilient and driven, as I think these are the key attributes to being successful in whatever path you choose.

In fact, we see scope for disappointment. First, we think that US Federal Reserve (Fed) hikes will offset any positive impact from fiscal stimulus. Second, US infrastructure spending will not increase beyond what would have happened anyway, in our view. Third, fiscal stimulus is more likely to be in the form of tax cuts, leading to higher deficits.

The important development this year will be the Fed’s policy, not Trump’s. This is the first time since June 2004 that we expect a protracted hiking cycle. Following the hike in March, we expect another two hikes this year followed by another two in early 2018.

Market acceptance?

So far, markets have taken the Fed’s March hike in their stride. Risky assets have stayed supported and the US dollar has not strengthened further. While this reaction might make the Fed feel encouraged, it is not entirely unusual.

Despite elevated levels of risk, animal spirits are back. The world economy still has room to run over the next few quarters. But strong confidence alone will not be enough to sustain this. The positives we are seeing now are mostly transitory in nature. Fed policy, geopolitics and how threats to global trade play out will be crucial to keeping animal spirits strong and the global economy growing.

At the moment there are no signs of this conundrum repeating itself. Asia’s current account surpluses have narrowed. But longer-term interest rates have been contained nonetheless. Markets are starting to have second thoughts about reflation, and they do not expect this hiking cycle to be a multi-year affair.

Standard Chartered has been providing business banking services to Peak Top Engineering since 2008.

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