Sunday, September 5, 2010

Interview: Lim Kia Hong 林嘉丰

The Sunday Times carried a story of Lim Kia Hong (Catholic High, Sec 4 1973)  on 5 Sept 2010. Here is the report:

Love has lots to do with Mr Lim Kia Hong's success as the largest distributor of computer systems, software, peripherals and networking products in South-east Asia and Hong Kong.
His love of new shiny gadgets and tech products led him to set up an IT distribution firm 27 years ago.
Because he loves thinking of fresh marketing ideas to introduce new gadgets to people, he would still do the same thing all over again if given another chance as a young man.
'I'm a man with a lot of love and passion. You need to love and be passionate about what you do in life. Otherwise, it's difficult to continue to do a good job,' said Mr Lim, 57, in his office in Leng Kee Road.
Because of this love, he does not mind if his entire waking moments are taken up thinking about tech marketing.
'I've notepads everywhere, next to the TV, in the drawer and shower. When I get ideas, I jot them down. Otherwise, I may forget them,' he said.
Mr Lim's love affair with tech began at the University of Washington, Seattle, which he joined in 1979 after his A levels at Hwa Chong Junior College. He was enrolled in the university's School of Business and Accounting, but he found he did not like accounting, and instead opted for marketing and information systems.
On completion of his course, he returned to Singapore in 1982 to finish the remaining six months of his national service.
'I was a naval project officer but since I'd studied information systems, I was one of a few people familiar with computers in 1982. So I was posted to Mindef (Ministry of Defence) headquarters to be part of the ministry's computerisation project,' said the soft-spoken Mr Lim.
He found there were many things like diskettes, cables and software that he needed but were not available in Singapore. He began buying them from the United States for Mindef.
Soon he was hooked on this process of looking for new things to buy. He decided to start a company. But his first venture with a friend went south in less than a year because while he was interested in microcomputers, his friend was focused on bigger office machines called minicomputers.
He then convinced his brother- in-law, Mr Lim Hwee Hai, to go into business with him to start SiS (Scentek Information Systems) Technologies in 1983.
The company began with a $100,000 investment from Mr Lim's father who was in the commodity and manufacturing business. The money went into paying for the goods they bought from the US. The office was shared with his father's company.
'We shared his office in Boat Quay. He had his table on one side. By the time, I put in our table and two chairs, it was a tight squeeze. HH (Hwee Hai) and I had to climb over the table to get to our chairs.
'My father bought us two Chinese chairs which were a little lower than the normal office chairs which let us squeeze into them,' he said. He still has the two chairs in his office.
The early years were tough. Customer visits turned out to be educational talks because he ended up teaching them about what a computer was, what a CPU (central processing unit, which is the computer's brain) was and what word processing was.
He made sales calls during the day. At night, he cleared paperwork. He logged 18- to 20-hour work days and learnt to make do with four hours of sleep each night.
His father worried about him because he did not see him at night or in the morning. In an attempt to stay at home more often, the young Mr Lim installed the office telex machine in his bedroom. Phone calls to the US were costly at US$30 a minute then. Sending a telex was cheaper. Trouble was, the click-clack of messages as they came in ruined his sleep. A week later, the telex machine was back in the office.
But his bedroom became a storeroom, filled with diskettes and printer ribbons. Since his room was air-conditioned, it prevented the ink from drying up and the diskettes from getting mouldy.
In the first year, Mr Lim rang in $150,000 in revenue. The company was profitable and they had five employees. The initial list of products soon expanded to include software for networking and e-mail, productivity and security programs, wireless equipment and, more recently, smartphones.
'We brought many US companies to Asia such as 3Com, a networking company. We were its longest distributor until it was acquired by Hewlett-Packard last year.
'I brought in all the e-mail software like ccmail and Novell mail. I also introduced Aldus PageMaker and other companies like Symantec and Trend Micro to the Asian market.
'At one time, we had products competing against Microsoft until we became their distributor in 1995. Now we're Microsoft's top distributor and we work very strategically to launch new products,' said Mr Lim.
Even before the Government's encouragement to regionalise, SiS had opened offices in Hong Kong because Singapore was just too small a market. Today, SiS is headquartered in Hong Kong, where it was listed in 1992.
It was also listed on the Stock Exchange of Thailand in 2004. Its group revenue last year was US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion).
SiS has a network of 10,000 retailers throughout South-east Asia and Hong Kong. It represents an A-list of companies including Hewlett-Packard, Adobe, D-Link, Asus, Apple, Canon and HTC.
It has no plans at the moment to go into the two giant growth economies, China and India.
'I can take the risk and just open offices there. But my gut feel is that China and India are not ready for distribution. SiS would need deep pockets to penetrate such big markets,' said Mr Lim.
He attributed his success to his staff, some of whom have been working with him for about 20 years.
'In every country, we've about 10 to 15 people who are key to our business, but they are not in heavyweight positions. For example, in the distribution business, you've to be in delivery and warehouse. So the delivery guy and storekeeper are key to the business. Without them, my goods may not be delivered and my stocks unaccounted for,' he said.
He and these people have struck a close relationship over the years, socialising over dinners. He knows their families 'and we share our experiences of kids growing up'. He is married with four children - two sons and two daughters.
Because of China's rise as an economic power, he is persuading his elder son to consider attending a Chinese university and his elder daughter to take higher-level Chinese in secondary school. He himself is effectively bilingual. His alma mater is Catholic High School.
With nearly three decades of doing business, he believes that entrepreneurs must always 'be prepared and never say die'.
'This is about failure. I learnt from my school basketball coach who said that every time the team played a match, he wouldn't know if it would lose or win. But the team must be prepared. If we lost, then we'd pick ourselves up, learn what went wrong and think about ways of winning the next match.'
The other lesson is to try new ideas. SiS, he said, was the first to do taxi-top advertising when then NTUC Taxi launched this new advertising concept in the mid-1990s.
Breaking new ground in marketing strategies is 'like falling in love with a woman when every waking moment is spent trying to please her', he said.
Another tip for wannabe entrepreneurs, he said, is to learn to love the competition. 'Good competition keeps me on my toes, raises my standards. Lousy competitors, I don't like.'
Ideas come from his dreaming, which he admits is his full-time job, leaving the day-to-day operations to his brother-in-law.
'I dream about my love: the new technologies, how to market them. I dream about new corporate strategies and how to overtake my competition. That's why I don't dream at night. I've a nice job which hasn't changed since day one and which I love.'

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