Even Bad Times Can Spawn Fresh Business

April 24, 2009
By Chen Huifen

(SINGAPORE) Reflecting the enterprising spirit of small and medium businesses here, panellists at the Enterprise 50 Forum yesterday were all talk about the opportunities they are seeing now instead of dwelling on the state of the global economy.

When pressed by forum moderator Ong Pang Thye, head of enterprise services at KPMG Singapore, to share their challenges, entrepreneurs such as Thai Express CEO Ivan Lee, 77th Street founder Elim Chew and Greenpac CEO Susan Chong had more to say about new doors being opened to them in recent times than difficulties they see.

Mr Lee even remarked that his group of restaurant chains could see higher earnings this year because the macro-economic situation has made it easier to introduce cost-cutting measures and negotiate prices.

'I feel the recession has been pretty good for us,' he said. 'Interestingly, say your business is down 10 per cent, we've managed to cut costs by 30 per cent without much effort. I just call my suppliers and say, 'Hey look, you've got to give me 10 per cent discount. There's a recession, you understand?'

'They say, 'Yah, yah, I understand.' It's quite a powerful thing. Then you add the job credits, what the government is giving, and surprisingly I think we are going to make more money this year than last year.'

Ms Chew said that big malls in China are now inviting her apparel chain to set up shop there. This is in contrast to previous times, when mall operators were less than welcoming during 77th Street's initial forays in the market.

For Ms Chong, business has come down at her packaging solutions firm. But it is now gearing up to provide packaging systems for the F&B sector and ornamental fish export.

'When we look at the packaging (of ornamental fish), they use a lot of styrofoam, which is totally not environmentally friendly,' she said. 'Moving forward, there will be issues for export because Europe has started planning for these materials. So we move along and we'll see what other opportunities we can have.'

Thai Express's Mr Lee also pointed out that market observations seem to be increasingly speculative.

'Everybody is trying to pick the bottom, whether it is the housing market, the stock market or the business market,' he said. 'When you are running a business, even more important is you're not really interested in what's going to happen in 6-12 months, because you are looking at a 10-20-year horizon when you build a business. In 10 or 20 years' time, will there be an upturn? Definitely.'

The panellists were at the E50 Forum held at Four Seasons Hotel. Titled 'Preparing for the Upturn', the forum also served to launch the nominations for this year's Enterprise 50 Awards. The annual awards recognise privately owned local companies across all industry sectors and are widely viewed as a definitive list of the most promising firms here.

Into their 15th year, the E50 Awards are jointly organised by The Business Times and KPMG in Singapore, and sponsored by OCBC Bank. They are supported by the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore, IE Singapore and Spring Singapore.

Participants are evaluated on quantitative indicators such as turnover and profit growth, as well as qualitative criteria including innovation and governance.

The focus this year will be on business resilience in the current economic crisis. The closing date for applications is June 15.

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