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Collective Souls: Interviews with the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year winners

From nearly 40 nominees - Forrest Li, Dr Michael Tan, Neo Kah Kiat and Mark Lee have been handpicked as the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year Winners. As the latter three teel us, the best things in life are also the simplest things that far outweight material goods when it comes to enriching the human spirit.

Health-care Entrepreneur Of The Year

Dr. Michael Tan
Group CEO and Co-Founder, Fullerton Healthcare Group

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In a short five years, Dr Michael Tan has grown Fullerton Healthcare Group into a $165-million business that owns 180 clinics with more than 1,700 staff and 400 doctors across Singapore, Australia, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Malaysia. It counts Marina Bay Sands, Standard Chartered Bank and Singapore Airlines among its 25,000 corporate clients and, in May, acquired diagnostics services provider Radlink for $111 million.

He has seen many advancement opportunities in his career and, while some people may splash out on indulgences to celebrate their successes, Dr Tan prefers to relish the quieter things in life.

The 42-year-old says: “The gifts I treasure aren’t those I’ve bought for myself, but are given by people. They can be the simplest things. The cards that my son writes are not expensive but they are very meaningful and touch my heart. My business partner gave me a soccer trophy two years ago. The inscription on the plaque reads, ‘Wishing you great success in your healthcare group. May the next 40 years bring u greater success.’ These are given by people who love you unconditionally.”

They also serve as a reminder to Dr Tan to stay focused in work and life. “They’ve certainly kept me grounded. As people become more successful, there is the risk of losing one’s identity. People may start to identify themselves by what they have. When we started, we thought we’d be quite happy if we did well in Singapore. We were pleasantly surprised when some clients pushed us to go regional. Today, we are in five territories. We hope we are playing an important role in providing accessible health care and rising standards.”

One such example of rising standards is the introduction of digitised X-ray, with results saved in a CD-rom. This has reduced costs by at least 15 per cent for patients. Fullerton will also be the first in the Asia-Pacific to feature the latest MRI and CT scan machines – the GE Signa Explorer and GE Revolution CT – which will produce clearer images and more accurate diagnoses. Fullerton is reportedly planning a US$300 million (S$425 million) IPO.

This drive for excellence and innovation doesn’t just come from within, Dr Tan stresses. It is his Christian faith that has kept him going. “If you ask what drives me, I think it comes from an ego-centric position. If you try to do it on your own strength, you may suffer from burnout. You may not have the resources and may destroy the firm in the process. I’m enjoying where we are now. He’s the one who’s made the difference.”

Food and Beverage Entrepreneur Of The Year

Neo Kah Kiat
Founder, Chairman and CEO, Neo Group

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If you ask Neo Kah Kiat what his favourite gift to himself is, chances are, he won’t bring up his upscale terraced house in Sentosa Cove where he berths his 13m -long yacht. Nor will he mention his collection of cars including a Bentley and a Mercedes-Benz S series.

His favourite gift doesn’t involve the act of purchasing. Rather, it is the ability to give that delights Neo most. The 45-year-old head honcho of Catalist-listed food catering company Neo Group says: “My mantra is, giving is the expressway to growing one’s business. I started donating to charities 15 years ago. Then, my company was still very small and we didn’t have direction. As I began to understand more about giving, different people just came along and gave me advice, including managing a business.”

He adds with a chortle: “If I had started giving earlier, I might already be a billionaire.”

Perhaps this drive to give back to society stems from his impoverished family background. His father’s business failed and his mother had to take on two jobs to make ends meet. Neo, who is the second youngest of four children, showed his entrepreneurial streak early, first by selling discarded cable ties and otak when he was barely in his teens. He later went into various businesses such as selling second-hand electrical appliances and opening a food stall, before setting up his catering business, Neo Garden, with just eight staff in 1992.

Neo Group listed on Catalist in 2012 and now has 700 employees. Other than food catering, the group has expanded into the food retail business which includes Japanese sushi chain Umisushi, Issho Izakaya and Choz.

The businessman believes in leading by example and encourages his staff to contribute any amount they wish into the company’s Seed Fund, which he would then personally match dollar-for-dollar. Organisations that have benefited from this company-wide fundraiser include Amitofo Charity Association in aid of orphans in Africa, the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore, the Singapore Red Cross Society and the Down Syndrome Association.

Neo, who sits on Ren Ci Hospital’s board, hopes to set up a fund for the needy. He says: “What I enjoy most is spurring my staff to improve, which includes being more charitable. The day I am able to donate $10 million – that is when I would say I am successful.”

Manufacturing Entrepreneur Of The Year

Mark Lee
CEO, SL Global

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Children say the darnedest things. But when it comes to learning, parents can pick up a thing or two from their brood – and apply it in business.

Asked about the best gift he’s given himself, Mark Lee says without missing a beat: “My son. He’s taught me that material things don’t matter. He can walk into a toy store and come out with a $5 ball, and be very happy. This childlike contentment is what I need to keep in mind. I try not to force my way in anything, including managing the company.”

He had to learn this the hard way. When he joined SL Global – which was founded by his grandfather in 1951 and known as Sing Lun – in 1999, Lee says that he was driven by numbers and forgot about the most important capital: human. He recalls: “I wanted to grow at any cost, in the quickest time.”

When the 2008 financial crisis struck, the group lost a client which contributed 40 per cent to its bottom line. It also meant Lee had to shut a manufacturing facility and retrench hundreds of staff . And, even in such trying times, the rest stuck with him. The 42-year old says: “Managing from a profit and loss perspective does not add value to anyone. If you invest in people, they will really go all out for you. True enough, our results have never been better. One can be very successful and make a lot of money, but what would others say about you at the end of the day?”

Lee, who is the president of Singapore’s Textile and Fashion Federation, has been credited with transforming an original equipment apparel manufacturer into a full-service supply chain provider of apparel, incorporating design and development services with manufacturing and supply chain management for a full range of products covering knits, woven garments and sweaters.

SL Global produces more than 40 million knitted garments annually, and has a customer base that includes international retailers and brands such as The North Face, Puma, Under Armour and Macy’s. It employs over 8,000 staff and operates 13 manufacturing companies in seven countries, in order to supply products to three continents.

Still, he keeps himself in check and adopts a childlike yearning to continue to learn.

“I would be very fearful of being at the highest point because all I could see then is down. There are many mountains to scale. If we can’t find benchmarks within our industry, we can find benchmarks in other industries that we can learn.”

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