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The Peak Interview: Dr Ng Chin Siau, CEO-Founder of Q&M Dental, On The Power Of Human Relations

With a fast expanding dental group, Dr Ng Chin Siau believes that human relations are the core of his business.

AS far as first impressions go, Dr Ng Chin Siau doesn’t seem too bothered. While one would have expected the dentist-turned-businessman to arrive at the interview in a crisp dress shirt and pressed pants, the 48-year-old shows up this overcast afternoon instead in Dior Homme shoes, dark stonewashed jeans and a casual white shirt – freshly stained with blotches of chilli oil.

“I couldn’t resist a bowl of curry mee,” he says with a chuckle, when we ask how his white shirt became a lunch casualty. The founder and group CEO of mainboard-listed Q&M Dental Group has just concluded a meeting with some root-canal specialists at (a nondescript) Oldtown cafe, he shares, in between sniffles. 

To clear his runny nose, he reaches for the nearest available form of tissue paper – a toilet roll – on the conference table at TP Dental Surgeons, where we meet and which Q&M acquired for $28.6 million in September last year. It does the job for Dr Ng, who has been nursing a cold since returning two days ago from China, where he had been for a fortnight. 

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Dr Ng started Q&M Dental Group after selling his Clementi flat.

Asking his personal assistant to fetch a fresh shirt from his home would not have been unimaginable – except that this Best Mid-Cap CEO of 2015 doesn’t even have a PA. “I don’t need one,” he says, adding that a PA would only put a distance between him and the other person.

(RELATED: The Peak sat down with Fullerton Healthcare chief Michael Tan, who shares the tale of being ousted from his CEO position.)

#1 in Singapore

It quickly becomes apparent how the unassuming Dr Ng and his easy charm have been instrumental in propelling the growth of Singapore’s largest private dental health-care chain. He won the award for listed companies with market capitalisation of $300 million to $1 billion at the Singapore Corporate Awards, which aims to recognise CEOs who have led an organisation to scale new heights in its industry segment, and who have inspired employees to achieve excellence, among other criteria. 

Subsequent multiple pages of congratulatory ads taken up by business associates, colleagues and friends in The Business Times bear testimony to Dr Ng’s congeniality. 

Q&M – which stands for quan min, or “the people” in Chinese – Dental Group has come a long way since it was founded in 1996, when he bought over a small private practice in Bukit Batok after selling his three-room Clementi flat for $180,000. 

By the time it was listed in 2009, Q&M had 80 dentists across 34 locations in Singapore, with a market capitalisation of $75 million.

CHART

Today, its market cap stands at $545 million and the group has over 60 outlets islandwide, 230 dentists, 300 clinic staff and 80 administrative staff members. It also has its own dental supplies and equipment distribution company in Singapore and across the Causeway. Besides eight clinics in Malaysia, it has a presence in China with seven clinics, three dental hospitals, eight dental centres and one training institute.

It was only a matter of time that Forbes would take notice. In June last year, Q&M debuted on the magazine’s Best Under A Billion, which lists 200 leading public companies in the Asia-Pacific that have positive net income and have been publicly traded for at least a year. 

(RELATED: Prov Ivy Ng of Singhealth was named one of our ten Peak Power Listers, 2015.)

Screened from 17,000 companies, candidates are shortlisted based on sales growth and earnings growth in the past 12 months and over three years, and on the strongest five-year return on equity.

Ask him for his secret to success, and the EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2010 in Healthcare Services has only this to say: 舍得. It means having the willingness to give, before expecting any returns. 

“This is how I operate in business and how I manage people, and the returns are manifold,” says the father of three girls and a boy, aged 10 to 20.

Wise words hold eternal truth

It is a Confucian teaching that Dr Ng learnt at River Valley High School. 

“During Secondary 3 and 4, I opted to study Confucian ethics. I would say my beliefs were moulded and shaped then, though I realised it only later. It’s helped me understand Chinese culture and how we should behave,” he lets on. 

“Even though it is very tough to practise this in a cut-throat business world, people respect you when you do it. The logic behind this teaching became more apparent, in my first few encounters in China in 2007,” recalls the Hwa Chong Junior College alumnus. 

“My business associates really impressed me and my team. It dawned on me then that if the recipient is happy, he would not hesitate to return the favour. A good leader will always have many followers. Arrogance can lead to failure, as I’ve witnessed. 

“So we tell our dentists to treat patients like family. When they feel that you are sincere, they refer others to you. We believe in word of mouth. 

“Each month, we have about 6,000 to 7,000 new walk-ins. And that’s not counting the approximately 22,000 to 24,000 repeat patients we have monthly. It’s a marathon, not a 100m sprint.”

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In the early days, as his first private practice in Bukit Batok grew, Dr Ng roped in 17 dentists as shareholders. It was his way of giving to those who believed in and supported him. 

“Dentists are trained professionals so they can walk off and start their own practice. I have witnessed this with the winding down of my seniors’ clinics. It’s how you treat people. If my doctors are happy, they will stay and the patient pool grows. Now that the group has listed, the 17 founding dentists have reaped financial returns.”

Besides, leading by example and engaging in good conduct outside the home contribute to bringing a good name to one’s parents – an extension of filial piety, yet another Confucian ethic that the Malaysian-born, Singapore PR strongly believes in. His parents live in Kuala Lumpur and regularly visit him and his family in Singapore. 

“I wasn’t born into privilege. My parents sacrificed a lot for my siblings and me. When your parents are around, you have to treat them well,” he shares. 

“As Confucius says, nation before community, and society above self. In wishing to establish oneself, one establishes others; in wishing to develop oneself, one develops others,” says the eldest of seven children, proffering another Confucian proverb. 

Others before self

Throughout the course of our two-hour-long interview at TP Dental Surgeons, various dentists come over to the obscure meeting room to say hello to Dr Ng, who introduces us without hesitation and profusely promotes them. 

This is a senior orthodontist who “travels around the world to give lectures”, enthuses Dr Ng. “Here’s my  ‘sifu’ (teacher in Cantonese) who’s a real master,” he says of another. It is easy to see why the dentists, including nearly 40 specialists, have stuck with him. 

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Dr Ng’s principle of “people matter” is what maintains the strength of his growing business.

“I have never treated my senior doctors as subordinates. They may call me boss but I don’t recognise that title. I never instruct. Instead, I always ask for help. You must make doctors feel like they are part of the team,” he says.

Later, orthodontist Hwang Yee Cheau walks in. Until the acquisition, she was one of TP’s five shareholders and the largest, with a 51 per cent stake. 

“He’s the one who made all this happen,” says Dr Hwang, when asked of her impression of Dr Ng. “He’s a man with vision. He has a quiet determination that not many people know of. He is very hardworking and a true people person. 

“He can make people work with and for him. He leads by example and, as a result, people are loyal.”

(RELATED: A different kind of doctor, but the same grief for patients that’ve missed early prevention – veterinarian surgeon Dr Benjamin Landon speaks to The Peak.)

The ability to inspire such camaraderie and command such support has proven to be the key to his success in China, where guanxi (relationships) – or the lack thereof – can make or break deals. (See sidebox)

In July 2014, Q&M acquired a 60 per cent stake in Shenyang–based Aoxin Stomatology Group, which owns three dental hospitals, three dental clinics and a training centre, for 108 million yuan. The following month, it acquired a 51 per cent stake in specialised dental materials manufacturer Qinhuangdao Aidite High Technical Ceramic Co for 80 million yuan (S$17.5 million). Q&M also has seven clinics in Beijing, Nanjing and Shanghai.

Listening is vital when doing business in China, he tells us. “Only one person talks at a time – everyone else listens. This is good training ground for those who like to talk. 

“Whatever you say, you must mean it. As dentists, we always want to listen to patients’ complaints so we can treat them. I used to see 30 to 40 patients a day. That trained me to be a listener.”

Full throttle

After years of pulling 12-hour shifts, Dr Ng is beginning to enjoy the fruit of his labour. His indulgence? Driving his Porsche 911. But it is not all gratuitous. His car is where he recharges. “When you’re driving, you stay focused on the road. That’s also when you can think a lot,” says Dr Ng, whose Audi A6 in China also serves as his think space.

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“When I’m in China, I usually have my senior management with me. We deliberate over strategies. They are trapped with me in the car. A lot of ideas can come to mind.”

Indeed, it was on a long driving trip from Shenyang to Qinhuangdao that he and his team came up with a ratio that has guided their M&A game plan in China since. The 400km route typically takes about four hours. “We decided not to take more than 60 per cent for our overseas ventures. We still want majority and when the other party holds about 40 per cent, it appears that his motivation is just right and his interest is aligned with ours. We’ve tried various permutations but all have failed.”

You might have noticed a trend with his choice of cars – both Porsche and Audi belong to the Volkswagen Group. It is not mere coincidence – Dr Ng wants Q&M to be what the German carmaker is to the automobile industry, with offerings ranging from mass market to luxury. 

“A Porsche is value for money, just like how I view dental practices. There are many users with good comments. The pricing is also acceptable. One may offer high-end services, but the number of people who can afford them is limited. From my observation, the mass market always wins, in terms of business volume, revenue and opportunities. 

“Our first 30 locations were in the heartland. It was only after our IPO that we set up an 12,000 sq ft outlet at City Square Mall – and it’s not even in town. 

“As long as we’re providing the best dental care at reasonable prices, I believe patients will come.”

“Whatever you say, you must mean it. As dentists, we always want to listen to patients’ complaints so we can treat them. I used to see 30 to 40 patients a day. That trained me to be a listener.”

Dr Ng Chin Siau

After 20 years of hard work, Dr Ng says he is “very happy” with the group’s results. He mentions he is contemplating taking three years off to drive around China – something that has been at the top of his bucket list for some time. 

But he quicklycollects his thoughts. “I’m not sure if my team would permit that. I need to look for a successor. I’m trying to be less visible in corporate activities. But, with China deals, if the head doesn’t appear in the last round of discussion, the deal won’t be closed.”  

Three months ago, Q&M announced the receipt of SGX’s approval for the proposed spin-off listing of Qinhuangdao Aidite High Technical Ceramic Co on China’s New Third Board.

And just as he rewarded those who believed in him during the early days in the 1990s, Dr Ng says another group of dentists will receive shares when the listing comes to fruition. “The company is successful and making money, so I’m carving a portion for my dentists who have been with me for some time. If they can benefit, why not?” 

In the meantime, Q&M will continue its aggressive expansion in China where growth outlook is rosy for dental services, Dr Ng says. 

Dental health awareness is below 10 per cent, compared to about 50 per cent in Singapore. There are also more than 130,000 employable dentists in China, compared to 1,600 here. Which is why there has been an influx of funds seeking quality health-care projects. 

He says: “People are buying unlisted entities for 30 to 50 times price-earnings ratio, which is crazy. China has the money and talent. We have the Singapore brand. Our dentistry and skill sets still impress the Chinese very much.” 

Looks like the road trip will have to wait. 


Do business the chinese way

Take a leaf out of Dr Ng’s book to make it in the Middle Kingdom.

 

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Deals are struck at the dinner table. Always go for a round table as it allows everyone to face one another.

The Chinese prefer face-to-face communication, not through e-mail or telephone. Alcohol helps. 

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If you are served baijiu (Chinese fermented spirit made from grains), it means they treat you with utmost respect. Drink up, or learn to drink it. 

 

Once lawyers are involved and cold communication is employed, your relationship will head down the drain. Many deals are lost because of this. Our Singaporean mentality must change, if we want to succeed in China.

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In China, there are no clear guidelines like in Singapore. There, they value these in this order: relationships, reason and, lastly, law – unlike in Singapore, which is the complete opposite.

As long as the bosses are happy, anything can be done. That’s why there was only one emperor in China. 

 

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