MIGRANT workers may seem an unlikely source of lucrative business to most people, but not to Fang Koh Look, the founder of Absolute Kinetics Consultancy (AKC). The company's goodwill was made from this particular segment, which is a significant portion of Singapore's total labour force.
AKC is a small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) whose core competency lies in capitalising on the opportunities present in the segment. More than just a workplace safety training and consultancy provider, it also offers medical services and is engaged in the mobile pre-paid cards distribution business.
Mr Fang came to Singapore in 1984 from Sepang, his hometown in Malaysia, to study at Nanyang Technological University and graduated as a civil engineer. Spending eight years working for good and demanding employers left Mr Fang aspiring to become his own boss.
Then came the 1997 Asian financial crisis which made Mr Fang realise that he needed to upgrade his skills and knowledge to be better equipped for the challenges ahead. He went on to obtain a Master of Science in health, safety and environment technology from the National University of Singapore.
Armed with this postgraduate degree, Mr Fang founded Absolute Kinetics Consultancy on April 18, 2001.
Following a series of workplace accidents in the early 2000s, the Ministry of Manpower introduced new workplace safety regulations which required local and foreign workers to be adequately trained in workplace safety.
As a safety consultant, AKC advised its clients on meeting the new industrial safety requirements but stopped short of large-scale, organised training. This meant clients had to seek a third-party workplace safety and health training solutions provider. The disconnection between its recommendations and the required solutions did not go unnoticed by Mr Fang. In 2006, AKC started to offer workplace safety courses for both local and foreign workers to help firms that rely on such labour to comply with the new regulations.
As Mr Fang puts it: "People need to be chamfered, need to be trained, (and) need to be taught, so that they can be better packaged."
With this mantra, AKC transitioned from a management systems consultancy to a training company. This coincided with the building of the integrated resorts and the boom in the construction sector, which meant a huge influx of workers and an intensified need for workplace safety training.
In 2008, just a few days before the Chinese New Year, a severe bout of dengue left Mr Fang in a life-threatening condition. He was only 39. Mr Fang realised he was not ready to give up just yet and fought to recover. When he got well, he decided to bring AKC to ever-greater heights.
The first step that AKC took was to maximise the revenue contribution from the migrant workers segment. Within one financial year, AKC managed to more than double its revenue.
Observing the workers' needs, Mr Fang found their mandatory medical check-ups and other work-related healthcare requirements provided the opportunity for AKC to move into medical services. AKC Medical Centre was established within the same year. Similarly, noticing that workers purchased pre-paid calling cards to make calls home, Mr Fang ventured into mobile pre-paid card distribution in 2010. AKC has since become one of the largest SingTel pre-paid card distributors.
"Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them," said Mr Fang, borrowing the words of Shakespeare. "As an SME, from day one we were never born great. In fact, we were born in the middle of nowhere. But we had a lot of guts and courage."
Indeed, having the guts to seize any new opportunity within its niche customer segment is how AKC became the 150-man strong one-stop solutions provider that it is today. Thirteen thousand foreign workers and 18,000 corporate accounts pass through AKC's training and medical centres every month, contributing to the firm's estimated S$100 million turnover for FY2014.
Throughout the years, AKC's committed employees have worked tirelessly to contribute to its success. Mr Fang treats his employees like family and considers it his duty to take good care of their welfare. AKC's fair employment practices and its pro-family and work-life balance initiatives have gained the recognition of the Women's Development Secretariat, the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices, and the Ministry of Manpower, among others.
Instead of simply importing external talent, AKC chooses to develop talent core from within. A lot of effort is taken to identify the people who can become capable and trusted members of the AKC team. Mr Fang then ensures that they receive only the best guidance, mentoring as well as training courses and work experiences.
Giving employees a sense of ownership in the firm through schemes such as profit sharing is a key factor in talent retention. Mr Fang believes that the business should be professionally managed with minimal participation from the family. In fact, his succession plan has been set out so that AKC will be left in the hands of the professionals he has groomed over the years. It is his belief that this will ensure that AKC remains forward-looking while keeping employees committed to the firm.
With the recent measures to reduce Singapore's dependence on migrant workers, AKC aims to further diversify its business operations to cope with the potential slowdown. For one thing, the firm has plans to tie up with an external partner to provide mobile remittance services to the workers.
While there are restrictions in Singapore on the influx of foreign workers, the demand for migrant labour is growing in other regional economies. To Mr Fang, adding value to the workers through safety training is the best way to showcase both AKC's strengths and Singapore's brand of excellence in safety standards. He believes that doing so will generate demand for AKC's services from these regional markets.