IN 2007, Sim Koon Lam found himself at a crossroads. After 15 years at the Singapore subsidiary of Dutch offshore contractor Vrijhof Ankers Beheer, he felt that the parent company did not share his view on how to continue growing what was then a marketing unit. He could have acceded and put aside his own convictions; he could have walked out and started afresh. Instead, Mr Sim did what frightens even those who have less to lose: He went all in.
When life gives you a chance to guide your own fortunes, take it and never veer from your goal, said Mr Sim, founder and director of Mooreast Asia. Speaking to The Business Times from his Loyang office, Mr Sim shared his vision and plans for the mooring systems fabrication and supply business that he bought less than 10 years ago.
"It is never a smooth journey," Mr Sim said. "We always encounter bad weather, storms. We go through all sorts of hardship . . . learning things . . . but the one important thing is that you must be determined."
Mr Sim was not always selling anchors. When he was younger, he tried working with his father as a building contractor, but soon found himself wanting to strike it out on his own. He landed in the offshore and marine industry, and has stayed there for about three decades.
Before Mooreast, Mr Sim had actually started a business - his first - with a partner, but he left that outfit after a falling out. "I consider it as a learning curve," he reflected. "My judgment was not good enough."
In 1992, he joined Vrijhof's Singapore-based sales and marketing unit. Back then, it was just him and one other colleague, but they doggedly helped to grow the business here. But around 2007, Mr Sim began to feel the limitations of simply being a sales and marketing outfit. He felt then that Mooreast Asia had to move beyond simply sales and marketing and into fabrication if it were to survive. "We think that in the long term, you need to develop your own line of products," he said.
But Vrijhof had just undergone a management change in the Netherlands, and Mr Sim did not feel that he had their support. "They wanted us to only be sales and marketing, so there were no prospects at all," he said. "But we have to look at how we want to grow."
He realised that he had few options. Stick with the status quo, and he risked being caught in a grounded ship. His prospects did not look good either if the current ship sank, or if he decided to jump to another ship. Already around 50 years old then, Mr Sim did not think that it would be easy to find a new job.
If he wanted to take the business in the direction that he believed was the correct one, there was only one thing to do: Mr Sim bought out the company.
The buyout cost S$1.3 million, and happened just as the global financial crisis occurred. With the banks reluctant to lend, Mr Sim turned to friends and family when he needed extra financing.
"That was the time of recession," he said. "It was tough. I had the support of my brothers, and of course my wife and family. And I borrowed from friends. So at least I still had someone who trusted me. We managed to do it, and we managed to pay it all back a few years later."
Trust is something that Mr Sim has spent a lot of time and energy cultivating, especially with customers. It was only by earning the faith of customers that he could grow and sustain the business, especially when Mooreast Asia was moving into fabrication for the first time, he said.
Mr Sim's advice for building trust is simple: Do as you promise. "As an entrepreneur, first of all, even if you have the capability, you must be able to create trust so that people believe in you and give you the opportunity to trust," he said. "If you can deliver, then there are a lot of things that follow. You will get recommendations. That is how you build up your base, your reputation, your goodwill."
The hard work has paid off. From the two-man outfit that Mr Sim started out with more than 20 years ago, Mooreast Asia today employs about 65 people, and the company has been profitable ever since Mr Sim bought over the business. Mr Sim will also be moving the company to bigger premises in Tuas, and has set up an outfit in Europe to pursue more opportunities there.
If there is one sure sign that Mooreast Asia is doing well, Mr Sim complained that it was hard to find enough manpower to take on the projects that are available.
He also noted how the company has grown to the extent that thinking about the future is now a major preoccupation. "My opinion is that Mooreast has reached the second stage of growth - if we want to list," he said. "So it's a different ball game now. Earlier, we were building it up . . . trying to keep ourselves alive. Now, we have to make sure we grow in the proper way . . . make sure we're managed more professionally."
Business has been so good that Mr Sim even received an offer from Vrijhof, his old boss, to buy back the business. Mr Sim turned them down. "At first, they don't want you . . . you become their unwanted child," he explained the rejection. "Now they see, ah, you've now become a pretty girl, I want you . . . Tomorrow, if the market is down or the market is no good and you don't perform as they want, they don't want you again." It was not just a matter of pride. "Also, one of the reasons I didn't want to sell is: If I sell, I don't think it's fair to my staff," Mr Sim said. "What happens if the new owner starts retrenching people or starts restructuring? I still have staff who are working with me - today they're 70 years old. And they've been working with me for so long, I can't just drop them this way."
"We always believe we'll go on our own now," he said. "That's why this year we're establishing our own brand, Mooreast."
Looking back, Mr Sim is certain of one thing: That it pays to not give up. "Never say you will die. You will never die," he said.