Entrepreneurship came naturally to Mr Albert Oon, the managing director of marine and oil rig parts supplier Shun Zhou Hardware.

When he was still in primary school, he set up makeshift stalls at his HDB block to sell calendars and corporate gifts that he obtained for free by picking up items discarded by other people.

He also went around with a neighbour to sell otah-otah, a fish snack, earning 10 cents for every 10 sticks sold.

"We weren't well-to-do, so during the school holidays, it was a good chance to make extra pocket money to buy tidbits," Mr Oon, 42, said with a laugh.

He continued his journey of learning to be a businessman when he joined his father's hardware shop as an apprentice after graduating with an N-level certificate from Dunman Secondary School at the age of 16.

He stopped his formal education as he "wasn't good in studies", but little did he know he was about to enrol in the school of hard knocks.

Starting at the bottom, Mr Oon had to do everything at Shun Zhou, from sweeping the floor to packing goods such as nuts and bolts for customers in the electronic and shipbuilding industries.

Even though he was the son of the boss, he had no special privileges and was in fact often made to work harder, for a lower wage.

He clocked 18-hour shifts, starting at dawn and working till late in the night, under the tutelage of his stern father Oon Soon Ann, who had high expectations of the elder of his two sons.

Too young to take a driver's licence, Mr Albert Oon rode an old rickety bicycle to make deliveries.

He carried some 60kg of goods while balancing a 6m-long pipe with one hand and steering the bicycle with the other.

"Rain or shine, I had to peddle like an acrobat. I fell so many times, with a bruise here and there. I cannot remember how many times I injured myself."

Such experiences taught him invaluable lessons, such as the need to work hard and to provide good service round-the-clock, so customers' trust and loyalty to the company could be built up.

Mr Oon eventually rose up the ranks and took over the reins of Shun Zhou from his father in 2002.

His first order of business was to enlarge the range of goods the firm offered and to expand into the marine, oil and gas industries.

Mr Oon then ventured into new waters, providing security equipment such as night-vision binoculars and razor wire in 2008, when his clients in the shipping industry highlighted the problem of rampant piracy.

"My customers told me their ships were held hostage and their crews were kidnapped, so I tried to think of something to assist them in defending themselves."

The anti-piracy equipment unit contributed about 13 per cent of the company's revenue last year, up from 5 per cent in 2008.

All these moves paid dividends as the company's staff strength grew from three during its inception in 1988, to around 40 now.

Revenue also went up, from some $3 million in its first year of operation to about $30 million last year.

The company now boasts a spacious office building near Lavender MRT station as well as a 60,000 sq ft warehouse-cum-distribution centre in Tuas, a far cry from its humble beginnings in a sparsely-decorated, rented shop.

That ability to meet a niche demand and spot new business opportunities enabled Mr Oon to be one of nine winners of last year's Established Entrepreneur award, given by the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises and the Rotary Club of Singapore.

He is now setting his sights on expanding his South-east Asian customer base, with plans to generate international sales by exploring greener technologies for the oil and gas industry.

For all his achievements, Mr Oon remains grounded, frequently stockpiling over-the-counter medicine to be delivered to his staff, customers or suppliers if he knows they have taken ill, earning him the nickname "Dr Bert".

"I'll deliver the medicine personally or get my courier to take the items to them, so they can recover faster. It forges a good friendship and is not aimed at getting them to give me their business. Now they even call me to ask for medication," he said.

Mr Oon and the company regularly donate to worthy causes, like helping victims of Typhoon Haiyan or dementia patients at Apex Harmony Lodge.

Around $500,000 was set aside for such corporate social responsibility projects last year.

Mr Oon has a soft spot for the elderly because his grandmother doted on him, so he also makes time to visit homes for the aged every now and then, chatting with them and bringing them goodies.

Married with two teenage sons, Mr Oon says he is open to keeping the business within the family or letting an outsider take over, though he has this advice for his boys.

"I tell them that life is full of hurdles. To me, the hardest day was yesterday and if you can survive yesterday, today is not a problem."