Young Upstarts

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Seasoned Entrepreneurs On Opportunities In Tough Times

I just came back from the ACE BlueSky Exchange & Evening event “Challenging Times & Managing Challenges” organized by ACE and Hong Leong Finance, which is part of the Global Entrepreneurship Week series of events. The event featured a panel with Tracy Chua from Hong Leong Finance, Mohamed Abdul Jaleel of MES Group of Companies, Francis Koh of Koh Brothers Group, and Benedict Soh of Kingsmen Creatives, and facilitated by Professor Annie Koh, Dean of Executive & Professional Education from Singapore Management University.

I’m excerpting some key ideas from the conversations by the panelists that apply to new startups and early entrepreneurs (note that this is not verbatim):

(On financing, the current credit crunch and how banks are reining in credit facilities)

Mohamed: You need to work very hard and convince friends to support you when you go to the bank.

Francis: Talk to your bank. They are also worried. Communicate with your banks so that they know what you are doing. They will then be more willing to maintain and/or extend their credit to you.

Benedict: Financial institutions are not my favorite. When you meet bankers, make sure you can prove to them you are able to repay. Surprisingly it was easier and more pleasant experience of getting help from the Government.

Tracy: Lenders are looking for same thing. If you don’t have a track record, you must have a business plan. If you come prepared, you’re better able to convince us so that we can convince the credit committee.

(On the surprise announcement of support from the Government, and their own wish list)

Mohamed: Property and income tax cuts.

Francis: Same as Mohamed. The Government should say how much they will spend to prop up the market. That gives us confidence.

Benedict: We can afford more public spending. I hope for the lowering the cost of doing business – electronic road pricing (ERP), electricity costs etc.

(On the current recession and financial crisis)

Mohamed: This scale of this crisis has frightened us. We have to redesign our lifestyles and get mentally prepared. Get in touch with clients and make sure everything is healthy.

Francis: It will be more severe than the crisis of 1997. What worries me is that Singapore entered recession before even the US. The tsunami has not reached us yet. We have understand to our clients better, to know if their business is ok and gauge the impact. We have to give our suppliers confidence and secure terms of credit. Business partners have different opinions as well so you need to talk with them to come up with a solution. Internal communications with your staff is critical - they like to know what’s going on so communicate is important. Watch your profit and cash flow – many companies during the previous crises were profitable but were not cash-flow healthy and thus went bankrupt.

Benedict: I think Singapore is better prepared this time. We are in a better position. Why? Although we started recession before the US, Singapore was experiencing 6 to 7 per cent growth. The US was growing at around 2 to 3 per cent, but much of that growth was not real. Many local companies are still doing well.

(On retrenchment)

Mohamed: No retrenchment. See if there is a need to revise salaries, but retrenchment is not an option.

Francis: The construction business is still ok at the moment. Streamline operations, increase productivity and control expansion – if anything happens, then you’re better prepared in times of crisis. It’s more important to manage the change. Another strategy is diversification. If done correctly, it manages risk.

Benedict: I agree. Throughout our history we’ve never retrenched, and only frozen recruitment.

(On when a startup should go for financing)

Mohamed: It depends on the business you’re in.

(Opportunities for people to start business in Singapore)

Benedict: Go into a space in which you’re more qualified for a better chance. Any business is a good business

Francis: You must have passion. You’re better able to reach a certain level if you’re passionate. Do something you have the passion in. But passion alone is not enough.

Benedict: The word passion is overused – it’s X-rated in my company. When you talk about entrepreneurship, you make your business plan by looking at the opportunity and the market.

(On identifying the right partners to start a business)

Francis: Get to know them well first. It’s just like marriage. It’s easy to marry, difficult to divorce. Better to first know them as a friend, and know their character. Find out whether you have chemistry, whether you can solve challenges together.

Benedict: Setting the ground rules is most important – who can do what, and who calls the shots. Discuss the prospects, shortcomings and the worst-case scenarios.

Mohamed: I’ve no experience with partners. If you think you can work hard alone, try it out. A partner must be understanding, and able to tolerate what the other partner command or decide.

Francis: When you come into a partnership, always plan an exit strategy. Not that you plan to split up with a business partner, but you need to set up the procedure for separating which is very important to save a relationship after the separation.

(On succession planning)

Francis: In a listed company, there must be a succession plan. It is impossible to keep a company within the family.

Benedict: When we talk about company succession, there must be a separation with ownership and the organization. An organization must be structured and organized to run with or without the founder.

(Wise words for aspiring entrepreneurs)

Tracy: Seek funding from family members first. Also consider government micro loans.

Mohamed: Work very hard, focus is very important. Be sincere in your business. Keep your staff close to you.

Francis: Plan well. Have character – what are your values in life? Be thrifty.

Benedict: There’s good business is everywhere. You just have to make a differentiation. I’m not supportive of those fresh from school to start a business. You need to work for someone else, so you know how to deal with people who work for you in the future. Look after your people well, and they will look after you.

*A big thanks to SPRING Singapore‘s Veron Huang for inviting me.


Daniel Goh is the founder and chief editor of Young | Upstarts, as well as an F&B entrepreneur. Daniel has a background in public relations, and is interested in issues in entrepreneurship, small business, marketing, public relations and the online space. He can be reached at daniel [at] youngupstarts [dot] com.

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