Sunday, September 9th, 2000
Life section

The inspiring Keppel Men

Life's Lessons

With their tales of humble beginnings, hard work, and bold risk-taking, the tough men of Keppel Shipyard inspire equal diligence and dedication

RECENTLY, I was asked to nominate a colleague to give a talk on journalism to a workshop comprising junior college students.

Ordinarily, I would nominate someone who could do it without too much fuss, and forget about it.

But this time round, I nominated myself, since I thought I was of an age when I should be taking on more civic duties such as this one, and not push them to my younger colleagues.

But when the organisers of the workshop finalised the date and told me that my slot was an 8 am one, I almost wished I hadn't nominated myself.

It meant my having to get up before 7 am, since the venue was more than half an hour's drive from my home, and goodness, when was the last time I had to get up at even 8 o'clock? It must have been more than 10 years ago, when I had to attend a friend's breakfast wedding ceremony.

I did it anyway -- I hope I acquitted myself well -- and only because I reminded myself of the story the widow of Mr Chua Chor Teck recounted to me back in 1993, when I interviewed her for a commissioned book to mark Keppel Corporation's 25th anniversary.

Mr Chua was Keppel Shipyard's first Singaporean managing director. He got his start as a trainee ship- repair manager in the yard, after his return from the University of Newscastle-Upon- Tyne with a first class honours degree in naval architecture. He came from a humble background, and would not have had the chance of a university education if not for a Port of Singapore Authority scholarship.

At the time, Keppel Shipyard was managed by the Swan Hunter Group, one of the biggest shiprepair companies in Britain, if not the world.

The late Mr Hon Sui Sen, who was both chairman of the Economic Development Board and the newly-independent shipyard then, spotted the earnest, young man. Over the protest of the Swan Hunter managers, he made Mr Chua take charge of a smaller Keppel subsidiary on Tanjong Rhu, where the Keppel Land project, Pebble Bay, now stands.

Mr Hon had given Swan Hunter a four-year contract to run the shipyard. So determined was Mr Chua Chor Teck and a small group of Singaporean officers to take over from the British managers by the time the contract ran out, they devoted their lunch hours and evenings to mapping out a detailed blueprint to do so.

This group of men could have been sacked for hatching the ""plot''. But impressed by their plan and their obvious mission to ""Singaporeanise'' the shipyard, Mr Hon had the local boys take over the management of the yard in 1972, when the contract expired. Talk about risk taking -- Mr Hon was taking a great leap of faith.

Briton C. N. Watson was retained as interim MD, and when he was sent over to head Sembawang Shipyard in 1974, Mr Chua was made Keppel's MD.

Together with new chairman George Bogaars and executive director Loh Wing Siew, Mr Chua launched a programme of expansion and diversification. By the time Keppel went public in 1980, its pre-tax profit was a record high of $104.3 million, compared to 1972's $75 million turnover.

Sadly, Mr Chua died in 1986, a victim of liver cancer.

At her home in Dalvey Court, Mrs Chua told me how her husband would often get up at 4 am to attend to his unpaid work for the then Industrial Training Board. It was work which he saw as duty, to the society which had provided him an overseas university education and the opportunities which led to his being where he was. He never took his good fortune for granted, his widow told me.

The image of this dedicated man poring over his papers in the small hours of the morning, with a hot cup of tea prepared for him by his devoted wife, has remained with me since.

IF MR CHUA'S story is an inspiration, so are those of Mr Loh, who became the MD in 1986 and retired in June last year, and of Mr Sim Kee Boon, who was chairman of the group from 1984 till the end of last year, when he too retired.

Mr Loh started out changing light bulbs for a living, as an assistant electrical foreman in the Harbour Board, before it became PSA. Like Mr Chua, he subsequently won a PSA scholarship to study in Britain. He was a gold medal student, and upon his return, rose swiftly through the ranks in Keppel. He was also one of the Singaporean ""plotters'' who got the British managers out.

Incidentally, Swan Hunter went the way of the British Empire. Its fortunes declined with the withdrawal of the empire, and I'm not sure if it still exists today.

In my second interview with Mr Loh, I remember how stumped he was when I asked him for his thoughts on how far he had come, from the days when he was just changing light bulbs.

This was a man driven by his work, who looked ahead but didn't take time out to look back. It was obvious that during all those years that he was slogging away, he had never actually look back on his own life, until I asked him to.

This was a man who had lived in the same house for decades, while others were caught in a never-ending upgrading frenzy. Now a director on the Keppel board, he probably still lives in the same house.

Like Mr Hon and Mr Chua, Mr Loh was also a bold risk-taker. He camped out in Moscow once for a six-week stretch during winter, to pitch for two turnkey projects. It was really a cold call, because at the time, Keppel had never done a turnkey job. Yet there he was, jostling with the bigger boys out in the cold. He clinched the two projects -- and delivered the results.

When Mr Sim was appointed executive chairman Keppel in 1984, he was 55, and had already put in 30 years of illustrious service in the public sector. Keppel had fallen into a hole then, as he described it, its cash purchase of Straits Steamship in 1983 saddling it with a debt of nearly $845 million. His job was ""to get it out of the hole''.

As if that wasn't bad enough, the shipbuilding and ship-repair business during that period was pronounced a sunset industry by the pundits, and in 1985, after its study of the two shipyards, the American management consulting firm McKinsey & Co proposed that Keppel and Sembawang be merged.

The study, commissioned by the two yards, was believed to have cost $1 million. But Mr Sim didn't think a merger was necessary. He rejected the ""expert'' proposal, which led to the Wall Street Journal and The Economist anticipating blood on the floor.

Yet by the end of 1986, he had turned Keppel around coolly. And he never had to look back -- over the next decade, he grew it into a Singapore flagship company. During all that time, he was also the man behind Changi airport, as chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority.

I took away from my one interview with Mr Sim this invaluable lesson in management:

He said: ""I give my managers far more direction and power than a lot of other people. I don't see them for days, even weeks. I don't keep them on a leash...

""My philosophy is this: This is your job, you do it. If you can't do it, I'll take it back. If you can, I'll give you more. If you have any major problem, let me know.''

I thought about these tough men when I visited the showflats for the new Keppel showcase which is coming up in the place of the old shipyard. An era has passed.



Archive 1

03/12/00 Nice work if you can get it

19/11/00 Simple emotions stalls paperless future

04/11/00 A club of pretencious class

21/10/00 Canby's passion for cinema

16/09/00 Clint still a draw at 70

09/09/00 The inspiring Keppel Men

09/07/00 Time and love wait for no man

25/06/00 Seizing opportunity in old-economy biz

11/06/00 Bad news to have more papers?

14/05/00 When my hostesses didn't show up...

30/04/00 Bellow's betrayal -- or act of friendship?

16/04/00 Alone, you don't get to grow up

02/04/00 New Economy

19/03/00 The Good Life

06/03/00 Time for creative destruction

20/02/00 Meet the new superhuman

30/01/00 OK, I don't have to be rich

16/01/00 An intimation of timelessness

02/01/00 Let's not forget to meet F2F