Vision, flair and gumption help family business go regional
(2003-06-29)

Vision, flair and gumption help family business go regional

JOB prospects are bleak. Pay cuts are common. Suddenly, the idea of trying to make it on your own in business becomes more appealing.

You may start off with a humble business. It is not ordained to remain small forever, though - not if you bring attributes such as enterprise and ambition to the table.


International success can be achieved by humble businesses too, as shown by Mr Tay, who lives with wife Dawn, son Ryan, 19, and daughter Sue Jean, 15, in a 10,000-sq-ft bungalow. Elder daughter Sue Anne, 23, is overseas. -- TAN HOWE YANG

Think, for example, of a shop selling car tyres - hardly something you could imagine growing to be a global player.

But in the case of go-getter Richard Tay, this is exactly what has transpired.

He is the managing director of tyre-maker and distributor YHI International, which has just launched its initial public offer.

Fifty-two-year-old Mr Tay's story of determination, vision and flair is an inspiration to any would-be entrepreneur.

It starts in a Geylang tyre shophouse. That was where Mr Tay began working after finishing his A-Level studies at Chung Cheng High.

The shophouse business belonged to his father, an immigrant from China.

Fresh out of school, Mr Tay showed he had an eye for opportunities. Recognising a rising demand for automotive batteries as Singapore industrialised in the 1970s, he began importing Hitachi batteries.

Then, he had the gumption to propose to Hitachi that his company be its sole agent here.

Aged just 21, he flew to Japan to make his case, even cutting his shoulder-length hair and swapping his bell-bottom pants for trousers to make a good impression.

'I wore a suit and tie for the first time in my life,' he remembers.

At the airport, a far older Hitachi representative was waiting. They exchanged glances from afar but it wasn't until almost all the passengers from Mr Tay's flight had checked out of the airport that the Japanese approached Mr Tay.

'Are you Tay-san?' he asked incredulously.

Mr Tay knew why: 'He just couldn't believe this kid was his buyer.'

And you know what? The 'kid' clinched the Hitachi distributorship.

In another business dealing, Mr Tay's youth attracted a snide response. A Singapore importer of forklift tyres, whom he had approached for a bulk discount, uttered: 'Hey kid, you should be happy to get supplies from me. How dare you ask for a discount?'

Mr Tay, a racing enthusiast with his Mini Cooper S car in the heyday of Sembawang Circuit and Batu Tiga, felt challenged to do something about it.

'I was so fed up. That night I couldn't sleep. Then I thought: Why don't I import tyres myself?'

The next day, he visited a Japanese trade body in Singapore and asked for the contact details of tyre manufacturers. He wrote to several of them.

'Yokohama replied with an offer. I was surprised - my goodness, the profit margin was so good.'

He rapidly expanded his Yokohama business by selling to other tyre shops aside from vehicle owners, and was rewarded with the exclusive distributorship of Yokohama tyres in 1974 - just a year after the Hitachi deal.

A year later, at 24 now, he clinched his third distributorship - for another Japanese product, Enkei alloy wheels.

Over the next 25 or so years, he nurtured his relationship with these Japanese principals and his business expanded to Asean, China, Australia and New Zealand.

In 1996, his company, YHI International, became the first Singaporean company to manufacture alloy wheels, marking a step forward from being just a distributor.

Its plants in Taiwan and Shanghai spin out between 60,000 and 80,000 wheels a month for Asia, Europe and the United States.

Because of its success, its investment holding company, YHI Holdings, was counted among the Enterprise 50 companies for five successive years from 1995.

Its best showing was in 1998 when it was ranked No. 2 among the 50 best privately held companies in Singapore.

YHI International chalked up a net profit of $11.4 million on sales of $177 million last year.

Its success has to do with, among other things, Mr Tay's leadership, says a friend and competitor, Mr Wee Kok Wah, 57, president of Stamford Tyres.

'He has many siblings in the business, and he is the leader although he is not the eldest. And he has kept the balance among the siblings who came from his father's two families,' adds Mr Wee.

Mr Tay, the sixth among 10 siblings, also presides over YHI Holdings, the investment holding company of all the Tay siblings, as its chairman.

Amazingly for someone heading a family business, about 10 years ago, he stuck his neck out to ask many of his siblings to relinquish certain powers and report to professionals, who would be hired.

His brother, Tiang Guan, 51, now executive director of YHI International, gives a hint of their reaction: 'It was painful in the beginning and there were disagreements.'

Eventually, the family members realised that professionals were needed to help YHI grow further.

Mr Tay, who lives in a three-storey, 10,000-sq-ft bungalow with a swimming pool in Faber Park, has shown that you can make a seemingly humble line of business go places.

YHI is not the only example. Look at Qian Hu, which rears ornamental fish; BreadTalk, which makes buns; and Osim, which sells massage chairs.

  
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The Straits Times

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