ANYONE who thinks it is a comfortable ride to take over the reins of the family business should talk to Mr Raymond See, 43, chief executive of LHL International.
It was a baptism of fire when he joined in the early 1990s. He was scolded by clients, rebuked by senior staff and lay awake at night worrying about work. Mr See had not been groomed for the role by his father, Mr See Kok Eng, 69, now the company chairman. He had been working at his own graphic design firm. But his father urged him to join the firm, as the eldest child of four, more than 20 years ago. And despite his successful career, he “felt a heavy sense of responsibility” and agreed to join. LHL specialises in aluminium and glass facades, and architectural metal works for the construction industry.His father founded the company in 1968, producing iron gates and doors. In 1974, it moved into aluminium windows and doors.
When Mr See joined the firm, its annual revenue was only $15 million. He recalls: “When I came into the company, I didn’t know which direction to go. I decided the basic requirement was to go into project management.” His plan was to face clients headlong, “to let people scold me”. He never knew what was coming his way as each job had different challenges. In his last project before moving to sales, he was fretting over the design of joints used in the process of construction. “I asked a designer to help me on a Sunday, without the design manager’s permission. He scolded me the next day. ‘Why did you do this without my permission?’ “Even as the boss’ son, I said, ‘Sorry, I should have told you, there were issues with the basic design concept, I really needed some help’. I’ll never forget this moment.” Besides getting a tough lesson in workplace hierarchy that day, Mr See was inspired to learn fast and learn from his seniors, knowing that one day, he would be directing LHL and its designs.
In sales, Mr See also copped some criticism from customers. “I gave myself a lot of pressure, I couldn’t sleep well, waking up at 3am sometimes. I was always asking how and why, especially when we worked so hard? Why weren’t people confident about our company? I was unhappy with myself.” When he started out, he received only a $1,000 monthly salary and drove around in a second-hand car.
Mr See succeeded in handling the steep learning curve and officially took over LHL about 15 years ago. One of his first steps was to restructure the firm to meet the demand of high-end projects. He hired a consultant through Spring Singapore to look at total business planning, to ensure the firm was professionally managed. He sought talented professionals to join him. In 2005, he took the bold step of rebranding the company, renaming it LHL International from Lam Hong Leong Aluminium, along with a revamped logo.
Under his leadership, LHL secured its first major project, The Central at Clarke Quay in 2005, worth $30 million, which would lead to a string of others. “I told the consultants, ‘I’m a young second-generation owner. Please give me a chance to show you I can perform’.”
Other large projects that followed included the d’Leedon condo in Farrer Road designed by award-winning British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, Reflections at Keppel Bay; Nanyang Technological University’s School of Art, Design and Media and the Kallang-Paya Lebar Expressway, South-east Asia’s longest underground road tunnel.
LHL employs 700 staff, in Singapore and Malaysia. With annual revenue of $130 million, it is one of the largest aluminium fabricators in Singapore. The firm won in the platinum category at the Promising SME 500 2012 Awards and was ranked 104 at this year’s Singapore 1000 and Singapore SME 1000 awards.
Mr See has a flexible approach to accepting projects of various sizes, not wanting to compromise on quality. He is also open to constructive criticism from subordinates, having been influenced by his love of books and articles on entrepreneurship and success.
“I believe in being open to feedback and criticism. I tell them, ‘Don’t worry, the boss is here to let you criticise. If I don’t hear from you, I don’t know what you’re thinking. My door is open’.”
Mr See helps underperforming staff find a role they can excel in. He prefers to retain them rather than fire them, as he regards people as the firm’s greatest asset. He says fervently: “I always tell my managers, ‘You set the pace, not me, but I’ll give you some direction. If you set a fast pace and your team follows, the company will grow.
“‘If the company succeeds, it’s all your credit, not mine because you’ve thought of the company. I only help you to manage’.”
The nature lover wants to instil that mindset in his employees, and likens it to cultivating good soil for a strong foundation, so that the garden can grow. Innovative ways of working include holding monthly meetings at different venues, and having dinner with the core management team after the meetings.
“I’ve always liked change and don’t like things to be stagnant, and I like open discussion. They are not pressurised to come in and just report, I’d rather follow up and hear about what they think about the company.”
He also encourages employees to bond with their colleagues, to plan activities, under a set budget, every three months. Even with things working like clockwork, Mr See reviews his business plan every two years. A lot of support has come from his family, says Mr See. “My father strongly felt I could rejuvenate it. As the eldest son, I needed to rise to the challenge so his effort would not be wasted, and to keep up with the times.” He is also grateful to his wife, Audrey, who manages a stainless steel subsidiary. He says that she has taken care of the family well, allowing him to focus on the business without worrying. Today, one of his sons, Brian, 18, is a national discus and shotput athlete, while another, Brandon, 16, competes at the inter-school level. It could be in the genes, for Mr See is an avid badminton player. Like the maverick that he is, he is not insisting for LHL to be solely family-run.
Mr See, who still wakes up in the middle of the night thinking about work, says: “When a company reaches a certain stage, you have to engage professionals to run it in the long term, so that the company can grow. “I’m grateful that the current core team is in place and they are highly committed in bringing the company forward, together with me. “I’ve only thought of building the company, a company which people are confident about, let them know we are No. 1 in Singapore, to become what we are today.”
ALWAYS OPEN TO CRITICISM
I believe in being open to feedback and criticism. I tell them, ‘Don’t worry, the boss is here to let you criticise. If I don’t hear from you, I don’t know what you’re thinking. My door is open.
– Mr Raymond See, chief executive of LHL International, on how he is open to constructive criticism from subordinates
SOURCE : www.towkayzone.com.sg