Ask an Expert
Jobseekers looking to get a wide range of experience should look at SMEs
by Sam Yip
Growing up in a kampong gave Mr Chan a can-do attitude to take on challenges that made him what he is today. Besides being the Chief Executive Officer of Goodrich Global, a distribution business that focuses on wallpaper and other diversified products, he is also the President of the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises (ASME) in Singapore.
Mr. Chan Chong Beng
How has the first quarter of the year been treating you?
Work for the first quarter this year has been better than expected. Our regional offices are still performing well, even though our Singapore office is a bit down. Overall, we’re doing okay.
Could you tell us a little a bit of your background? Where did you grow up and what did you study?
I grew up in a kampong in Sembawang. After secondary school, I went on to Pre-University, then to the University of Singapore. However, after about eight months into the course, I decided to drop out and go into business for myself.
How did you get started in distribution and the fabric and flooring business?
It was an opportunity that presented itself when I dropped out of school, and I decided to grab it. The fabric and flooring division was natural diversification from the original wallpaper business.
The wallpaper business in Singapore is small, compared with other industries, and that forced us to look to the region for expansion opportunities in 1986/87. This was before the government even started pushing for regionalisation of Singaporean businesses.
I had the same problems that many businesses faced. Cash flow and network.
I had to approach the banks to get starting capital for my business. That was difficult convincing them that I had the ability to make the business work.
Establishing my network was important, as Singapore is so small. I needed to meet the right people and talk to them to market my products. I was totally new to the business and had many things to learn.
What did you learn from your challenges?
It was good in hindsight that I faced these challenges, as it made me a better person. If my parents gave me the money to start the business, I might not have learnt as much as I could have.
Building my network took many years. It was all by trial and error, meeting more people, attending networking sessions. Getting to know more people and getting them to know you.
How did you separate yourself your business from the competition?
I think you have to be focused in your business. When you are focused, you see a lot of niche opportunities. When you take advantage of those niches, then you can differentiate yourself with products and services.
Building up our credibility over the years is also very important. Without credibility, businesses won’t trust you.
As a boss, empowering my employees is very important. You can’t just say, “I empower you to do this.” A leader has to set a clear path, with goals and objectives, and only then can you give your employees the power to fulfil those goals and objectives.
Without clear direction, your employees will just look at you and say, “What do you empower me to do?”
Working with my employees was something I had to learn. I needed to understand and empathise with what they needed. Everyone has needs and wants - a nice house, an education, a family and children. Empathy is very important.
Trust was also something I needed to build up with my employees. I had to “walk the talk” – show my employees that my actions was linked to my words. That they had to trust what I said, that I was reliable.
I am proud of the fact that I have been able to revive a sunset business and create a premium product. From a small company, now I have an organisation that provides a means of living for my employees. I had nothing and now I’ve built something that means something to other people.
Over the years, I’ve seen my managers grow and do better than me. I see them upgrading themselves and it’s like watching children grow up – they’re now better managers and better people, and I feel that I’ve not failed in my promise to them, to help them improve their lives.
Now that you run your own business, what are some of the qualities you look for in a new hire?
I meet new jobseekers who tell me that they can be committed to a job, that they can do it. But I realise that a lot of them are young, and need the freedom to move around and choose what suits them. Jobs in a SME can encompass many disciplines, and I look for a person who can do different tasks.
From my past experience, you can’t judge a person from one job interview. However, I feel that that jobseeker’s attitude is more important that his aptitude. Aptitude can be refined through experience. With the right attitude, the person can be committed to a job, and he will be committed to learn quickly.
There are many other attributes to measure a jobseeker, from being “hungry” and a “go-getter”, but I still feel that a person’s attitude is by far the most important.
I feel that a lot of jobseekers look at opportunities with MNCs when they first graduate, but I tell them, if you relish a challenge and want to experience how a business operates from the ground up, then look to SMEs.
MNCs may offer security, but most employees may only learn one arm of the business, and job opportunities for growth is smaller, as you’re competing with other colleagues.
A SME will give you exposure to all aspects of a business, and you will learn everything about that trade. The leaner hierarchy will also make it easier for your talents and efforts to be recognised, and progress faster in the company.
Of course, the employee must also look and ask if the SME give them a career path and opportunities to develop themselves. It takes two hands to clap.
I used to play a lot of golf, 20 years of golf, but now I found out that I’m allergic to UVB, so I have to keep away from the sun. So now I focus my energies more on social work. I feel that I need to give something back to society.