Monday, 21 April 2014

Sim Eng Tong: 'The salted fish that came back to life'

School dropout battles poverty and bankruptcy to rise to the top of the heap
By Wong Kim Hoh, The Sunday Times, 20 Apr 2014

There is a piquant Cantonese euphemism to describe those who miraculously bounce back from a major catastrophe or big failure.

Ham yu fan sang. Literally translated, it means "a salted fish coming back to life".

That is an apt description for Mr Sim Eng Tong, who refused to keel over and die even after hitting rock bottom, personally and professionally, on more than one occasion.

Things got so dire he was made a bankrupt in 1989. But today, he is the chief executive of Biomax, a company which has developed a breakthrough technology that converts organic waste into premium grade fertiliser within 24 hours.

The company's annual revenue vaulted from $350,000 in 2010 to $9.5 million last year.

This year, Mr Sim - who has exported his technology to more than 15 countries - predicts a turnover of $25 million.

Unabashedly, the 56-year-old confesses it makes him proud. And understandably so.

"You've heard of school dropouts making it big in property and construction. But have you heard of a Primary 5 dropout, someone who can barely speak English, steering a company in research and development?" he asks in Cantonese, beaming.

Comfortably ensconced in an armchair in the coffee lounge of Shangri-La Hotel, the trim chief executive has the tangy "nothing- can-faze-me" manner of a trouper.

He is the second youngest of five children. His father sold pineapples in a wet market; his mother worked as a maid for the family of a British army officer.

Life as he was growing up, he says, was hard.

"Meat was a luxury. My father was famous for buying the occasional pig's head for my mother to braise or stew because we couldn't afford other cuts of meat," recalls Mr Sim, who spent his early years in a wooden hut in a Paya Lebar kampung, and attended the now defunct Hua Long Primary School.

"I was really scared of going to school because the teacher would be asking for school fees and I had nothing to give."

The race riots which rocked Singapore in 1964 saw the family moving into a small room in a shophouse in the Sungei Road area.

He was moved to another Chinese primary school in Middle Road, but dropped out two years later when he was in Primary 5.

"My mother said the family really could not afford to keep me in school and needed me to start working. She got me a job as an apprentice in a car workshop," he says. "I felt sad but there was nothing I could do."

Verbal abuse by older mechanics was a regular occurrence.

"They'd curse, throw spanners and chase the apprentices with hammers," he recalls. He earned $1.20 a day and worked six days a week.

After he threw in the towel a year later, his mother got him a job at a plastic factory in Owen Road. It was mind-numbing production work.

"I was the only male. All my colleagues were young girls or aunties," he says.

Reckoning that the job held no prospects, he left one year later and, on his own, found a job as an apprentice welder at an iron factory.

He learnt the ropes quickly, and was almost a master welder when he decided to strike out on his own at the age of 17.

"I borrowed $1,000 from my godma and set up a small workshop to do window grilles and gates with an older guy. He went out to get orders. I did the welding with two apprentices," he says.

Two years later, he sold his share, got back his $1,000, and started national service.

There were at least two unsuccessful attempts to be the boss of his own welding company after he came out of the army.

"I guess I was too young and too inexperienced. I fell flat on my face," he says.

A bleak period ensued in 1978 when he was 25.

His second sole proprietorship failed, he was a few thousand dollars in debt and his father died.

"When my father died, he only had $6 to his name. All his children got a $1 note as our inheritance," he says.

His was kept in his wallet.

But one day, jobless and hungry, he took out that note and spent it on a plate of char siew rice.

"I felt terrible doing it but I had no choice. I told myself that I would spend the $1, quell the hunger pangs and then think of what to do next. But it still haunts me. I'd never be able to get that same $1 note again."

Of everything that happened to him, he says, that was the episode that changed his life.

"Money was one thing but I told myself I needed to chalk up some form of achievement."

Mr Sim has spent the rest of his life chasing that.

Through a friend, he landed a job selling drugs for poultry and animals. "It was like starting all over again. I was dressed like a labourer in my previous jobs but now I had to wear an office shirt and proper trousers every day."

The job allowed him to hone his gift of the gab.

"Practice makes perfect. After a while, I could spin all sorts of yarns to help me achieve my monthly sales targets," he says.

But competition and the Government's decision to phase out pig farming in Singapore soon made the job less attractive.

With the savings accumulated from his commissions, he started a business importing bed linen and pillow cases from Taiwan.

"I would then sell to small shops in Kereta Ayer and other parts of Singapore," he recalls.

The early days saw him going around 15 hours a day in a van crammed with his merchandise. But the business grew, and he soon had a few employees and an office in Hong Leong Gardens.

Disaster struck, however, when one of his clients absconded with a very large order.

One thing led to another. His cash flow dried up, he started borrowing heavily, debtors pounded on his door and flooded his office with lawyers' letters.

"It was a case of me looking after the front of the house not knowing my backyard was on fire," says Mr Sim, who ended up with a debt of more than $1 million.

The inevitable happened; he was declared a bankrupt two years later, in 1989.

The trauma would have felled many a man but not Mr Sim.

"I didn't give up on myself. Perhaps it's because I'd failed before, although this was a lot worse than my failures in the past."

A friend then told him to try his luck in China.

"I went to a friend and asked to borrow $500 and money for a plane ticket. He made me wait six hours in his office," he says, shaking his head.

He arrived in Beijing in October 1989, four months after Tiananmen Square was rocked by violent clashes between students and the Chinese military. "There were still bullet holes in buildings," recalls Mr Sim, who stayed with the Chinese friend of a friend.

Those were tough times.

"In those days, every foreigner was thought to be rich in China. People refused to believe I was poor, they thought I was either very stingy or freeloading."

He had no clue what he wanted to do but spent his days making friends and getting to know Beijing.

To survive, he took on whatever came his way: giving advice to businessmen wanting to do business in Singapore, telling Singaporean visitors where they could get good exchange rates. No job was too small for him.

He also started visiting trade shows and exhibitions.

"That was when I realised there were many products in China and they were very cheap," he says.

A brainwave came: he would become a middleman and help traders in the West source Chinese products. Roping in friends who knew English, he got them to write letters offering his services to trading firms in Europe and the United States.

In 1995, he helped a Singaporean investor set up a trading firm dealing in foodstuff, clothes and other products.

There was an understanding: he would run the business; the investor would help him pay off his debts and get discharged from his bankruptcy. In 2000, he was discharged.

Two years later, he returned to Singapore.

"I was physically exhausted. It was time to come home. China was also changing, the renminbi was so high and the whole world was there because everybody thought it was a goldmine. When I first went, you'd be hard pressed to spot a Singaporean on the streets."

After a short hiatus, he set up another trading company, this time sourcing products from Thailand and Vietnam for companies in the West. "It wasn't a big business but I had regular clients. We traded in rice, frozen poultry, tinned food and many other products."

There was also a two-year stint with a German food firm, which he left in 2008. Earlier this year, the firm took him to court alleging that Mr Sim carried out unauthorised transactions during his time there.

The entrepreneur, however, countered that the transactions were made with the knowledge of shareholders, and were for "legitimate business interests".

Mr Sim says he cannot discuss the case as it has not been settled.

In the mid 2000s, he met Dr Puah Chum Mok, a former polytechnic lecturer and researcher.

Struck by the sheer wastage in the food industry, Mr Sim challenged Dr Puah to come up with a technology to convert organic matter into something useful.

"I challenged him to turn organic matter into something with no smell, and no pathogens and other virus in 24 hours. He said, 'Twenty-four hours? Are you crazy?" And I said, 'Look, in 1950, you would have said I was crazy if I told you that man could go to outer space. Now look what has happened.' "

Within five years, the researcher had come up with what is now Biomax's secret weapon: an enzymatic catalyst which can transform organic waste - everything from manure to dead poultry - into top- grade fertiliser within 24 hours.

Another challenge cropped up. They needed a machine capable of generating very high heat to carry out that metamorphosis.

"We started out by testing the enzymes in rice cookers, but I later came up with the idea for a machine" says Mr Sim.

He went to China and Taiwan and spent a couple of hundred thousand dollars to get prototypes made. They did not work.

After much improvising, a South Korean factory delivered the "digestor" Mr Sim wanted.

He founded Biomax in 2009 with Dr Puah and his food business partner Fion Chua. It had a paid-up capital of $50,000.

The first 18 months were a hard slog.

Clients were sceptical about Biomax's technology.

"We had to borrow money to keep the company afloat," he says.

But he refused to give up. Ms Chua helped him write letters to farms and waste companies in several countries - from Australia to Malaysia and those in Africa.

One year later, they got their first order from a municipal waste treatment agency from Dubai.

"They sent two high-ranking officials here. Within two weeks, they bought the machine," Mr Sim says.

Since then, the orders have not stopped coming in from clients as diverse as poultry farms, fertiliser manufacturers and abattoirs.

One recycling plant in China forked out US$3 million for Biomax's machines and technology.

He shakes his head and thumps his chest with his right hand when asked if he ever feels inadequate heading a company staffed by employees with degrees and post-graduate qualifications.

"No. I feel good. It's not just about education. It's about ideas and leadership and experience and I have those. I am willing to learn and I have the energy and the confidence. So no, I don't feel inadequate," says Mr Sim, who has three grown-up children.

Getting listed is next on the cards and he hopes to do it soon.

"Are we there yet? No, we still have a long way to go. I want to make this really international; I want the world to know that this is an original breakthrough and it came from Singapore," he says.

If at first you don't succeed

"I've failed but I'm not useless. Failure only comes to those who take risks and grab opportunities. If I were useless, I wouldn't have failed because I wouldn't have done anything."

MR SIM ENG TONG on how he felt after he became a bankrupt

Survival instinct

"People asked me why I succeeded in China when others failed. I succeeded because I was different. Rich people went there hoping to make it even richer, but I went with nothing. That's why I had to make it. I had to survive."

MR SIM, on his experiences in China

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