The proverbial phrase that cream rises to the top is well known, but what is implicit in that saying is that cream is a product of immense heat and pressure.

Similarly, the winners of the annual Enterprise 50 (E50) Awards, announced yesterday, stood out from the competition by displaying that they managed to perform remarkably well despite undergoing a tougher business environment than before.

By leveraging on productivity gains and incorporating value creation in their business models, these top 50 companies maintained a competitive advantage in a tough labour market while grappling with spiralling business costs.

Excavation specialist Soon Li Heng Civil Engineering topped the E50 list, leaping over 14 spots from its 15th position last year.

"Creating value in the business has played a huge role in this jump in the ranking for us. It has always been our principle, so very often we think of new ideas of how to value-add to the company," said 28-year-old Ong Jun Quan, executive director of the company, and one of the youngest recipients of the award this year.

He said that after the company was listed among the winners at the E50 last year, it embarked on a sustainable journey to try to recycle waste material into reusable products. Remarkably, Mr Ong, who is a second-generation entrant into the family-run business, explained that this idea of recycling waste material was borne out of a problem that the company faced - some of the larger blocks of concrete that it excavated could not be dumped or sold.

"We had to find some kind of solution and that is why we recycled the aggregate (concrete) as we broke them into smaller pieces and processed them into something that can be reused," he said. The company successfully turned this problem into an addition to its business model as it allowed it to increase its revenue as well as lower costs by about 10 per cent, Mr Ong added.

In addition, Soon Li Heng also pursued productivity improvements during the year by leveraging on government grants and this helped it stay above the labour crunch problem. For instance, it invested the grants in excavation machinery with enhanced capabilities that allowed it to replace three existing machines with one new one. This also allowed the company to reduce the number of machine operators needed.

Property developer Teambuild Land came in second in this year's E50 ranking, while homegrown pharmaceutical manufacturer Borden Company was third.

Teambuild was another company that leveraged on productivity to improve its performance, helping it to leapfrog 11 spots from 13th last year. It improved on its productivity, efficiency and work processes to overcome manpower challenges, partly through enhancing its in-house design capabilities. This allowed it to streamline work processes and better control the time it spent on each project, saving valuable labour hours.

Jay Gee Enterprises was the only retail player in the top 10 on the list but like the other E50 winners from the manufacturing and construction sectors, it also focused on productivity gains and value creation to overcome the labour crunch and rising business overheads. For instance, in the last few years, it has added three new brands to its portfolio - T.M. Lewin, New Look, and Holland & Barrett - that have helped improved its topline, Jay Gee's managing director R Dhinakaran told The Business Times.

The E50, in its 19th year, is jointly organised by The Business Times and KPMG in Singapore, and sponsored by OCBC Bank. It is also supported by the Singapore Business Federation, the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore, International Enterprise Singapore and Spring Singapore. Organisers felt this year's award winners accurately reflected the theme of Creating Value to Stay Ahead and were fairly recognised for their ability to overcome challenges.

"The key theme this year was creating value to stay ahead, and this year's E50 winners have shown that they can stay resilient and effectively manage their strengths to build new strategic relationships and seek new markets to sustain their business," said Alvin Tay, editor of The Business Times.

Reiterating this point, Owi Kek Hean, deputy managing partner and head of enterprise services at KPMG in Singapore, commended the 50 winners for turning in healthy numbers, which were driven by intentional investments in productivity improvements aligned with a sustainable business model.

The top 10 winners received their E50 awards from Acting Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin at a gala dinner yesterday, while those placed 11th to 50th received their awards from Minister of State for Trade and Industry Teo Ser Luck at a ceremony held earlier yesterday.