Albert Oon: Self-made Singapore rags-to-riches entrepreneur

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Albert Onn riding to work!
 

Suresh Nair

ALBERT Oon believes there’s no shortcut for hard work that leads to effectiveness. “You must stay disciplined because most of the work is behind the scenes,” says the 47-year-old Managing Director of Shun Zhou Hardware.

He has gone through the proverbial “blood, sweat and tears” and his rags-to-riches personal tale is probably one of the best examples of a Made-in-Singapore entrepreneurship.

Today, his success story banks on his trademark formula: To sincerely do “business with a heart”.

“The human touch must be there, the respect for every customer and reverence for every staff and this is the branding I look for,” says Albert as he leads his company to be one of the biggest stockists in the ship and rig building industry. Shun Zhou Group is one of the top 50 local enterprises in the Enterprise50 award, at 46th position.

You could probably do a movie script out of his rocky teenagerhood years, where he was branded a “schoolboy dropout” from Dunman Secondary School and, rather academically-hopeless, he joined his Chinese-educated father at 16 years, in a three-man outfit, holed up in a 20-foot container.

Very choppy times.  Brawn worked the better compared to brain but he persevered, knowing that he had to dig it in order to survive. He recounts: “I did delivery of long pipes on my shoulder in a rickety bicycle. I carried some 60kg of goods while balancing a 6m-long pipe with one hand and steering the bicycle with the other before upgrading to a second-hand lorry.

“When I was still in primary school, I set up makeshift stalls at my HDB block to sell calendars and corporate gifts that I got for free by picking up items discarded by other people.”

Indeed, the school of hard knocks proved to be the greatest education as he slogged it out and started at the bottom, at Shun Zhou, from sweeping the floor to packing goods such as nuts and bolts for customers in the electronic and shipbuilding industries.

NO PRIVILEGES

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 (the late) Oon Soon Ann, who had high expectations of the elder of his two sons.

But, more importantly, Albert realised the value of every dollar he made as growing up was a toil counting every cent, for the extra pocket money, as he went around with a neighbour to sell otah-otah, a Malay fish snack, earning 10 cents for every 10 sticks sold.

“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. But these experiences taught me the real life 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.”

The endearing lessons he learnt in the “school of hard knocks” made him realise that “one one owes you a living” and that he had to seriously burn the proverbial midnight oil in order to succeed in life.

SELF DISCIPLINE

“Self discipline is my personal trademark,” he says. “And after my 30-month National Service stint as a SAF commando at Hendon Camp, I came out really tougher to the real business world, very street-smart.”

He clocked 18-hour shifts, starting at dawn and working until late in the night, under the tutelage of his disciplinarian father (the late) Mr Oon Soon Ann. And in 2002, he took over the reins of Shun Zhou from his father. 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.

Like a true-blue commando, he dared to be different. He 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,” he recounts.

The anti-piracy equipment unit contributed about 13 per cent of the company’s revenue, up from five per cent the previous year. These daring business moves paid dividends as the company’s staff strength grew from three during its inception in 1988, to around 50 now.

Hard work paid off and revenue also went up, from some $3 million in its first year of operation to about $35 million last year. Today, he stands tall and holds his head high as the company 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.

BIGGER BUSINESS PLANS

Bigger business plans are on the horizon and with an overseas office in Perth, Western Australia, 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.

That ability to meet a niche demand and spot new business opportunities enabled him to be one of nine winners of the recent Established Entrepreneur award, given by the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises (ASME) 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, Albert 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.

CHARITY AT HEART

Charity and community service are at the core of Albert’s big heart 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.

He has a particular 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, aged 18 and 16, he says he is open to keeping the business within the family or letting an outsider take over, though he has this down-to-earth 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.”