Construction veteran lays foundation for his new role

20140610-MrHenry-ST copyMr Henry Ng, the new chief executive of See Hup Seng, with the steel and glass canopy of Westgate Mall in the background. A construction veteran, Mr Ng was involved in high-profile projects, like the ones with Resorts World Sentosa and the 2010 Formula One SingTel Singapore Grand Prix, before it was acquired in January by See Hup Seng in a deal worth $42.4 million.

SINGAPORE - See Hup Seng's (SHS) newly appointed chief executive, Mr Henry Ng, is facing the challenge of integrating steel construction firm Hetat with SHS' existing, well-established businesses, which include corrosion prevention and petroleum distribution.

But the 52-year-old construction veteran with close to 30 years of experience in building is looking forward to it.

As a teenager, Mr Ng saw the first of many construction projects he would come to witness - his new home in Yio Chu Kang.

For someone who had up to then lived in housing that did not even have proper flooring, the sight had a profound impact on him. It was at this point that Mr Ng decided: "I'm going to be a builder".

But his ambition did not materialise overnight.

Fresh out of Singapore Polytechnic, Mr Ng did his national service and, thereafter, started working at the Housing Board. He left just a year into the job. His father paid for his overseas studies at the University of Reading in Berkshire, England.

After he came back, Mr Ng set out to repay his father by helping him to set up his farms in Malaysia. This would occupy him for the next four to five years.

"I was a (British) university graduate, but I was also a fish farmer... At some point in time, I said this is enough," Mr Ng said.

So, with his cousins and a group of friends, he went to Shanghai in 1990 to set up a fried chicken business.

"For three months straight, it was fried chicken every day until we perfected the recipe. And we found the nicest shopfront; and on the morning we were going to sign the deal, the landlord said someone else had taken it up," Mr Ng said.

Disheartened by the experience, Mr Ng returned to Singapore to look for a job. It was here that he had his first big break. One of his cousin's friends turned out to be Mr Tan Pin Nam, the chairman of what was then known as Yong Nam Engineering and Construction, and took him in.

Yong Nam would grow to become today's locally listed Yongnam Holdings, with a current market capitalisation of over $300 million - and Mr Ng grew with the company.

He was the blue-eyed boy in the firm and within two years, he was promoted to become a project manager.

"Everything I touched made money, and I took every project I could get my hands on. I treated the company like it was my own company, and a lot of what I apply today, I learnt from seeing Yongnam's ups and downs," he said.

By the time he left Yongnam as a senior manager overseeing the firm's projects, Mr Ng had handled more than 150,000 tonnes of steel in construction works for major structures like power plants, stadiums and skyscrapers.

In 2001, Mr Ng joined German construction giant Mero, at a time when it was involved in the Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay. He was also involved in the company's works at Dhoby Ghaut MRT station, Singapore Land Tower and a building in the Nanyang Technological University campus.

But Mr Ng had always dreamt of setting up his own business, so he left just 21/2 years later.

"I had always told myself if I want to set up my own company, I need to do it before I reach 40," he said - and that was the beginning of the steel construction business, Hetat, that he set up in 2003.

The road to starting Hetat was far from an easy one. To make ends meet, Mr Ng sold his terrace house in Jalan Bahar and downgraded to renting a three-room flat in Jurong West. He also bought a condominium unit on a loan.

"I made a deal with my wife. I told her to give me some time to see if this new business will succeed, and I said if it does, we'll move into the condo, and if not we'll sell the unit."

The first year was tough, Mr Ng recounted. For over a year, Mr Ng was on site overseeing his first project - the Paya Lebar MRT station - himself.

Both time and money were in short supply, so Mr Ng doubled as a site manager and rented accommodation nearby for his staff to save time. He was on the site even in the rain.

"Every day, I would go home for just two to three hours to bathe and rest, and then I would go back to the site. I used to hold meetings for all the project managers at 2 or 3 in the morning".

The success of the first project emboldened Mr Ng to take up several more high-profile ones, including structures at Resorts World Sentosa in 2008 and steel works for the 2010 Formula One SingTel Singapore Grand Prix.

Even then, Mr Ng did not rest on his laurels; for the F1 project, he hired a specialist who had worked on the Monaco Grand Prix, and for Sentosa, he worked 12-hour days and had meetings at midnight.

More recently, Hetat worked on Gardens By The Bay and the Jurong retail mall Westgate, and is currently doing addition and alteration works at Marina Square.

The company was growing rapidly and enjoyed what Mr Ng called "exponential" growth. It was when he decided to list Hetat on the SGX Catalist that SHS approached him.

"The acquisition proposal from SHS seemed a more secure way of taking Hetat to the next level because growing via the IPO (initial public offering) route was wrought with many uncertainties.

"With Hetat's accounts prepared for the IPO, we managed to complete the M&A (merger and acquisition) in a relatively short period of time," he said.

Finally, SHS acquired Hetat in January this year in a deal worth $42.4 million, with the issuance of 42.5 million new shares in SHS and cash consideration of $31.8 million.

Mr Ng was asked to lead the group within a month of the merger and was appointed SHS group chief executive in February.

Mr Ng plans to bring not only his experience, but also management style to SHS.

As a boss, Mr Ng said that he strives to emulate the Singapore Government's style of meritocracy, rewarding workers based on ability and their loyalty to the company. "Even in Hetat, I decided there should be absolutely no family in the business... I see some of the companies here they bring in their uncles, sons... it creates mistrust in the workers.

"More importantly, they won't work hard because they'll think, 'No matter how hard I work, I still won't match up to the family member.'"

Even though he is now in building and construction, the son of a fish farmer has not forgotten his fishing roots.

His only hobby now is deep-sea fishing, which he indulges in now and then in the waters around Rompin and Mersing in Malaysia. Mr Ng's business approach is remarkably similar to his fishing style. "If it can be eaten, grab it! But of course, while you take risks, you must take measured, calculated risks," he said.

But for the time being, Mr Ng's focus will be on the business: "Moving ahead, our focus is on growing the three different but complementary business units, exploring cross-selling opportunities across our regional network. We will also look at growing through mergers and acquisitions."

This article was first published on June 9, 2014.
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