Spirit of Enterprise 2004

Harold Lee Chee Meng of XDel Singapore Pte Ltd


Interviewer
Name Lim Beng Seong
Email bris61@yahoo.com.sg
Interviewee
Name Harold Lee Chee Meng
Company Address 37 Hong Kong Street
Email harold.lee@xdel.com
Date of Interview 2004-02-25

Interview With Harold Lee Chee Meng

What is the nature of your business? (Business Profile)

Our business is, in short, a courier company. However, there are a few segments to our business. We provide warehousing, redemption services, mailrooms services, on top of our courier business where we provide delivery and dispatch services.

What made you embark on this venture choice?

I started this business when I was 22, right out of national service armed with ‘O’ levels qualification. I remembered reading the newspapers on a vacancy for store man with ‘O‘ levels qualification. That shocked me. I felt as business evolves, outsourcing of non-core services was inevitable. It allows businesses to liberate resources and better focus on their core. It was by chance when I saw people delivering flowers and hampers, especially during the festive seasons. I suppose, the most gung-ho thing I did was I went into this business when I did not know how to drive, this fact remains till today. I went in and figured my way out! It was stabbing and kicking in the dark! I am fortunate, heaven has been kind. I remembered when I first started out, I went to the bank to open an account and at the counter, I was asked if I wanted a current or savings account. Not knowing what a current account was, I told her I wanted to open a corporate account which allows me to issue payments. I asked her again if I will have a cheque book and she said I will need to open a current account.

How does your business work?

We‘re the last part of the supply chain process, fulfillment. Goods need to get delivered and that‘s when we come into the picture. However, it is not as simple as it seem as there are other complexities such as timeliness, monitoring of payment collections, and other operational procedures, some which are catered very much to individual customer‘s requirements. We offer reports and statistics to our customer on their transactions, giving vital information such as critical analysis on delivery status, failures, payments, etc. With these reports, our customers will be better able to take corrective actions on persistent failures and re-engineer the delivery flow. There‘s a lot of value-added in part we play. Often, we are expected to be proactive. We are an extended arm of our customers’ operations. It was a different company name back then. We operate under the current brand name, XDel Singapore Pte Ltd. I started with flowers and hampers deliveries. As I progressed, I went into more serious work.

Did you have the capital to start the business or did you have to borrow from someone to get started?

Someone entrusted me with a loan of $15k. With that, I bought my first van and I employed a driver. Yes, that was my start up, a single van and a driver.

Do your parents have their own businesses too? Have they inspired you in one way or another?

No, both my parents were not in business. I saw many opportunities which lay ahead in this line. I was convinced the choice was correct.

What was your childhood dream? When did you decide that you would strike out on your own instead of working for someone else?

As a kid, I never thought that one day I would go into business, it was something I felt very strongly against. I wanted a regular job, you know, work hard, support a family; very normal things. I started working even at the tender age of 13, giving tuition and worked through all my school holidays. I supposed that changed in my adult life, in those formative years, I realized one may not be duly rewarded by the masters they serve for some strange reasons, while in other sad cases, short changed. I said to myself, this is not going to be my fate, and this is not to be. I went into business. I was in the Army at about 20. While serving the country, I had 2 years to think about what I wanted to do eventually. I came to my decision then.

Why does someone decide to be on their own rather than join an existing company?

It all sums up-you not being able to control your destiny, when you work for people, you may not be appreciated like how you should be appreciated. And some things happened - don‘t know why, it may not be there at all. When you work for yourself, you are in a better position to control your own destiny. At the same time, you could make a difference to a lot of things. Say one of your staff, if he was really good, can we do something about it? Things that we are not in a position to do if we are not the final decision maker. I think in this case, it makes sense-it just makes a lot of sense if you can do more for people.

Are there at any point in your life that you experienced a significant event (WW2, racial riots of the 1960s, the Economic Crisis of the 80s or 90s, SARS, new competition or shifts in market behaviour and trends) which affected or influenced you and your business that made you change the way you think and do your business?

Two factors influenced me into going into business. Yes. Like I said earlier, the way some things were done or handled. I‘ve seen people who are very hard-working but for some strange reason, they do not get what they deserve. I‘ve seen people who are not hard-working at all, but again for some strange reasons they are getting a lot of perks. I told myself this is wrong- I had to go into business. When I‘m in business, I am the boss and I call the shots and I‘ll be a much better person-that influenced me as one of the reasons. And as to what other things that influenced me when after I got into business, more like my perspective after that. After 12 years in business, many things have happened. Many things I seen which changed a lot of ways that I do business. From the very beginning, business to me was never about the money. It was about which star I could grab because if I‘m going to go into business, the sky is the limit. Then I have to see which star I could grab. If I was going into business and I just want to make ends meet, then I could have just worked for somebody else. But we have to make the best out of every situation and I‘ve seen many things which have changed the way I do business. Yes, this process of 12 years has led me to where I am today, I have been taught much. No, let me explain. In every situation, some may suffer losses others gain. At the end of the day, we have to be very sharp about what is going on around us; we have to see it coming and adjust ourselves accordingly. In every situation, there is always an opportunity.

What are some of the challenges in starting a business from scratch? (Modify question to what are some of the challenges in maintaining a family business if applicable.)

It was very much against all odds. To begin with I had very limited capital. The $15K loan was barely enough to purchase a van. I had not even figure out the next installment and the money for petrol! I took it one step at a time and handled it when I got there. After going into business, there were other problems as well! While bigger companies did not want to deal with a one-man outfit like mine, the medium-sized companies, despite my competitive rates, had reservations on the seriousness of a 22 year-old young chap. You need a lot of convincing and negotiating skills to make them believe in you, you need to strike confidence with sincerity. Yes, age was definitely an issue amongst my other disadvantages. I did not know how to operate a PC; let me see what else I did not know. I did not know how to issue cheques; I did not know how to put up a quotation, to put it accurately, I did not know what a quotation was!

Who/What motivates you?

There have been many people. They know who they are. The very reason why I am here today or that I am still here- these people know who they are. Yes, I am very self-motivated. If the Wright brothers did not persist in their beliefs, or if they had given up trying, aviation would have taken a different course. When Graham Bell gave birth to the idea of telephone, people said he was crazy; people are walking around with mobiles phones today. Now, how crazy was that? No dream is too big, with an idea, sheer hard work, determination and perseverance, anybody can accomplish anything.

Tell me about the first few customers and the first few years of business.

Majority of my first customers were florists who engaged me to send their flowers. The business ain‘t that great and it gets worse if I were to get a speeding summons or a parking summons-then there goes the day. In those early days, I will do anything just to get my hands on those bucks. I don‘t care if I had to work till 2 o‘clock or 3 o‘clock in the morning. As long as it gets me that buck, I‘ll get it done. My first driver then, he told me that I was mad - you are doing this for this kind of price. And I told him that I believed that there was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but from here to the end of the rainbow, I need to pump petrol. Florists and anything I could get my hands on anything. And sometimes, and I very well know, that I have been taken for a ride-you‘re paying someone else maybe 5 bucks when you only get paid 2 bucks, I know but it‘s ok nor do I ask for more-I am just glad I got the buck. I‘ll figure out the rest. I remembered that the biggest project in my first year in business was being engaged by a shoe distributor with about 50 outlets throughout Singapore. I had one van but I managed to convince the manager to give me the work. Twice a month, they had inter-store transfers. 50 outlets among each other-they had 700 cartons to move within 2 weeks.

Please tell me some stories of your best day in business or your proudest achievement to date.

Recently, during the New Year, I wrote a letter to all my staff just to end the year and tell them how‘s everything and I said this-‘People get awards; a cert or a plaque or some tangibles for a job well-done. My award is you - your undying faith and trust that you have given me; the work and the effort that came along each time when I pushed the button‘. That, I would say is my proudest achievement.

Do you recall your worst day in business? Have you ever felt like giving up?

My worst day was, perhaps 7 years ago, when the bailiff from Court came to my office and started pasting stickers all over the place. I was issued with a writ of summons for some bills I could not pay. The money was an issue, customers were not paying on time, business was not that good but nothing beats the emotional trauma that came along with it. No. Giving up was never an option to me and will never be an option.

When was the moment you realised the business would work and support you?

From the start. I was confident it will work; I just needed to persevere through the rough times. I would say this-anything can work and will work. The people who run the show; the mastermind behind that show has to know what he‘s doing. If curry puffs can be sold all the way to China and Africa, you tell me what‘s not possible. You tell me, I don‘t know. Believing in yourself is only but one of the essentials. To be a businessman, that is important. People can strike it big and be where they are today, some by sheer stroke of luck but to stay there, you need steel in you. Times change, situations change. The way of doing things may not be applicable right after you walk out from this office. Businessmen need to be reactive. XDel has never been a conformist, I always believe in this - if I‘m going to come into this traditional business; we make it non-traditional by the ways we run it, the ways we offer the services. We are not about to adopt or compete through the old ways. I want people to come into our terrain and compete with us. People will know at least then, when they come in, it will be in our court. We are not playing away. Yes, in our court. We have rewritten many of the conventional ways of how this business is done, that is our style.

What are some of the things you have had to overcome to succeed?

I am not sure if I have succeeded yet. It is really dependent on one‘s perception of that word. It is an ongoing process. Once you are contented with what you have achieved, you will stop growing and improvement will cease. I will tell you this-many times when a lot of people have given up, friends, comrades, very good and personal friends, a lot of have given up, a lot have even said to me that maybe I should give up. I did not but went on. It‘s the never say ‘die‘ spirit. The passion and that fire which burns within.

What are some qualities that you feel you possess which differentiate you from someone who works for others?

No difference-to each his own. I‘m not saying that one should not work for someone else. No, I‘m not saying that. When you work for someone, you get less stress. You have less stress at home; you have less stress with your girlfriend or wife; you have more time to yourself but when you work for yourself, you are in a continuous learning chain-you never stop learning. The only day you stop learning is the day that you are not going to do business or when you retire. At the end of the day, it is what you feel strongly about. Yes, I‘m one person who believes strongly in a lot of things and most important of all, what people should be rewarded with and how they should be taken care of when they work hard for the company. I believe in that. This will never happen in my company. One day, when my son grows up and let‘s say, I think he‘s not as competent as one of my men here, he‘s not going to come anywhere near the business. The competent one must prevail. In many companies, I‘m quite sure; there are workers who jump the boat when things are not turning out right. I want to make a difference and that difference means a lot to me.

To succeed in business, what qualities are essential? What are some of the secrets in making a successful business?

There are no secrets to success. However, there are a set of formulae. There‘s a certain equation-hard work; perseverance; trustworthiness. Do not issue a statement that you think you cannot carry out; or a statement just to gain votes. This is most important. People will run an extra mile if you gain their trust. Money‘s not everything. Like I said, there are no secrets to success but there‘s a certain equation.

Who or what inspires you?

If the question was ‘Why this business?‘ This is a very old trade, running in a very traditional way and very manual. Someone calls, you pick up the shipment and you deliver. Now, how hard can it be? And it made sense. I suppose at the point of time, it was the only thing I could do but I knew there were better ways to do this. If the question was why I started a business; where did I get my inspiration from; I suppose it is only when you are in business, you are in better control of how your life will turn out. Hypothetically speaking, if you work for someone, you know not actually what‘s going to happen tomorrow. You can be in this department for the last 5 years and the next day, the company says ‘Ok, Beng Seong, you will be transferred to another department‘. You get the shock out of your life. In another instance, you may go to a department which is completely not in your favour for some strange reasons and you still never really control your life. Let‘s not even talk about retrenchment - who‘s going to be the first to go. You cannot even be in control of what you think your pay will be next year. If you are in your own business, whether you are going to make it very well, or you are not going to make it very well, you are still the final decision maker.

Have you ever thought of expanding the business in some way or in multiple locations? How and where?

There are a few kinds of businessmen, some will say why go through so much trouble? The business can survive and I‘m happy with what I have. There are others that will say no, let‘s make it bigger. My position is to ensure that the company remains one step ahead. We‘ll see how it goes. I won‘t strike off that option.

What aspects of expansion would you like to see for your enterprise?

We‘re expanding in our own market aggressively. We have done much and changed the terrain and the landscape of how it has been done in the last 10 years. We are one of the very first few, I think, if there‘s any out there at all that runs a traditional company like ours with almost zero paper work. If you step into another courier company right now, you can take a look for yourself, you‘ll see the piles and piles of papers all over the place. In our company, even staff leaves are applied electronically rather than the traditional way of filling up leave application forms. Relevant departments will be informed and leave approvals will be sent via email and SMS to the applicant. My business is very labour-intensive and labour cost is high. I have to find a substitute and that is to invest very strongly into applications. We have the advantage of our own IT department which allows us to react quickly to changes. When the market moves, I move with it. That alone, if I‘m going to tell you that I‘m not planning for expansion, then I have to have my head checked. After doing all this and I‘m not intending to expand, then I‘m a nutcase! We have to re-engineer ourselves constantly to stay competitive. I‘m currently doing about 8000 to 10,000 transactions a month. If I need 5 office staff based on my current business volume, hypothetically I‘ll need 10 staff if my business were to increase by one-fold. However, with our present technology and streamlining processes in place, our manpower requirements need not correspond with the growth in business volume. Lower operational cost will in turn be passed on to our customers in the form of better rates, better service, better accountability and more transparency. My customers right now view the status of their deliveries online without having to call us. Yes. And we‘re the only company that has that service in Singapore. When a driver calls to update on a certain delivery failure, the system will trigger off an email or SMS alert to my customers and their relevant departments without having the need to call them. When they send their replies to the messages, it will go directly into my system and trigger off a tracer. With that, I managed to cut out a lot of processes as well as introduce accountability. When I can position myself and XDel in that form, if I tell you again that I am not planning for expansion, I‘ve got to get my head checked.

In your opinion, how would you define entrepreneurship?

I remember in the earlier part of this interview I mentioned that there are different kinds of businessmen and saying that people do it for different reasons. I would suspect that most of them go into business to make it big. How would I define entrepreneurship-I really don‘t know. If you ask me to redefine the question or restructure the question to what I would feel or how I would describe different grades of entrepreneurs, let me tell you something. The old man who walks along Hong Kong Street and starts picking up cardboard boxes to sell to the rag and bone man, he is by his own status an entrepreneur. I‘m quite sure that in Webster or Oxford, there‘s a definition. But if you were to ask a businessman, I‘m quite sure each will have their different definitions.

To what extent does one‘s educational level help or hinder entrepreneurial-ship?

I‘ll tell you this. If I were better educated, I don‘t think I‘ll be in this business as there are too many storms to weather. But because I was not well-educated or rather I did not have that sort of qualification, I was handicapped in many ways. Well, that handicap cannot be removed by just reading up the right books. A person armed with good paper qualification has something to fall back on when situation does not look bright. Let‘s say you graduate today with excellent grades (and I wish that you do) and decide to embark on a business venture. One year from now, after facing all the hard knocks, you‘ll tell yourself “I‘m highly qualified and highly learned, if I exit right now, I could get a pay of at least $3000 or perhaps $2800 a month. And even if I don‘t get $2800 right now and get only $1800, 5 years down the line, I work hard and I would have $7000 a month”. Now, it‘s when those thoughts go into your head that you start to think otherwise. It softens the character. If I were to have a better education, the scenario would be different. If an option is available, some people may have a slim chance of survival if they were to jump the cliff. You may be caught by some branch or plunge into water or god knows what. In my case, I don‘t see a cliff, I see a wall! There was really no turning back. When I decide to embark on something, I finish it off. I don‘t leave it halfway there. That‘s not my style, that‘s not the way I do things.

As we try to select the final 41 entrepreneurs, what qualities would you think a person should have to inspire others?

These 39? The public and whoever votes for the 150 entrepreneurs have to be inspired by our stories and our vision. To qualify for the 39-I don‘t know. I think that to be in the 150, each of us is a winner.

What are some of your own values in doing business and what do you like to pass down to others, particularly the younger generation?

People should give young entrepreneurs a chance. Likewise someone gave me the chance and it‘s the very reason why you are talking to me. Budding entrepreneurs have to first instill confidence in the people they are dealing with. A common saying is that if you want to go into business, you must have the capital. Without capital, you cannot go into business. When I first started then, people asked me "You‘ve got no capital, Harold, why go into business?" My reply was "No, I have it. My capital was youth, sheer hard work and honesty". Of course having capital is essential but that is not what makes it successful. We‘ve seen very big companies with huge bank balances and we‘ve seen what happened. That could break you and not mend you.

What advice would you give young people who want to start their own business?

Stay focused. Only embark into this venture or business if you know and not when you think that you can do it. If you think that you can do it, you have already lost half the battle. If there are things which you do not know, you can pick them up along the way-no big issues. No mature, learned and definitely, sound-minded people will follow you into the field if you are anything lesser than a general, you better know you can do it. But you must be prepared to weather a lot of storms and if you are not prepared to, my advice is-get a job. Entrepreneurs are a different breed of people. Some people, young or old, they think that-"Hey, this is a good deal!" Think again because things can happen, you know? You must be prepared. Yes. And most importantly, my last advice which I will offer is do not go into business only for the money as there are other goals which are equally important. Tangible rewards come along the way, but if you fail one day and if you were after tangible rewards, that one day, you will feel defeated because you did not achieve the tangibles you were after. You must able to reflect on the other achievements you have gained along the way, the processes and reforms you have underwent and tell yourself that you have learned a lot or at least tell yourself that you had fun. That mentality must be right!

Please assist me in coming up with 2 lines synopsis. These 2 lines will highlight the interview for viewer who be reading this synopsis before the entire interview.

Mr. Harold Lee, Managing Director of XDel Singapore Pte Ltd is nothing short of inspirational-his fortitude for hard work and perseverance coupled by being trustworthy and honest has enabled him to propel not only himself but the company to a level that very few are able to achieve. His genuine and sincere concern for not only his staff but also for people in general and the environment is testament to the fact that he is selfless and generous whilst still balancing being focused and goal-driven. Despite being faced with multitudinous obstacles, Mr. Harold Lee has been able to not only survive but to actually overcome them and rise above it all through to his foresight and persistence and bring XDel Singapore Pte Ltd to the forefront of innovative cutting-edge technology in a traditional industry.