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21 Sep 2021 Updated 20 Oct 2021

Wah & Hua:

Wah & Hua working to modernise waste management industry

With help from Enterprise Singapore, the company is also seeking regional opportunities, riding on the wave of growing industry interest.

First published on The Business Times on 21 September 2021.

Wah & Hua CEO Melissa Tan
"Our waste-to-energy plant will be completed next year. Which means I am able to create my own circular economy. With this branding, I can go to Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam or Cambodia, and do a lot more," says Wah & Hua CEO Melissa Tan.
Photo credit: BT/ Ong Wee Jin

Thinking out of the box seems to come easy to Wah & Hua CEO Melissa Tan. Or perhaps it is a willingness to experiment and push boundaries. All under the watchful eye of her father, of course.

This is, after all, the woman who brought in reverse vending machines which, instead of dispensing drinks, take in empty drink cans and plastic bottles, all the way back in 2013.

"I wanted to challenge myself and find out what is happening in the industry. So I started travelling and 'googling' at night after the children went to sleep. I was young then, I could sleep only four or five hours a night!"

At that point, it had just been two years since Ms Tan joined the waste management operations started by her father. Having picked up the basics, she was keen to start experimenting.

The idea was ahead of its time and the one machine she placed outside a cinema was vandalised after a few months. But it hasn't curtailed her enthusiasm for trying new things.

Take, for instance, the smart garbage trucks which were imported from Germany and can now be seen on the roads in Singapore.

These smart garbage trucks are not only fitted with solar mats on their rooftops to harvest energy, but also dust filters on their bonnets to clean the surrounding air.

Another unique feature about these trucks? They are adorned with large e-ink screens which flash sustainability messages, campaigns, and recycling drives as they make their way through the neighbourhoods.

The concept of messaging on the sides of moving vehicles is not new in itself. But the idea of putting them on the side of garbage trucks is still a unique concept in Singapore.

"How do I make my company different? I need to be unique so that people will continue to use my service and know who I am. That's my style," says Ms Tan.

These trucks, which roam the streets based on calculations put together by dynamic route planning computers, are just one of the ways Wah & Hua is looking to modernise the waste management industry.

They are the result of a joint venture with German Alba Group, one of the leading recycling and environmental companies worldwide.

"As an SME, we have an SME mindset. but the joint venture exposed the team to new ways of thinking," she says.

Learning from best practices in Germany and Europe and thinking through how to modify and localise the technology for Singapore have made her team more motivated, she says.

"It's not so much that this is my day-to-day job and this is what I need to do anymore. Now, the way we propose ideas and position ourselves is different."

The dutiful daughter

Joining her father's karang guni business was never part of Ms Tan's plans growing up.

"I wanted to be a nurse and the dream was to marry a doctor," she says with a big laugh.

When her father refused to let her take up nursing, and insisted she do a business course, "we fought, I registered for a course overseas, packed my bag, and left".

Only after reaching Australia did she start worrying about finances.

"Back then, the company was so small it could collapse at any time," she says.

"But he told me, 'Don't worry, you already listened to me to study accounting, don't worry about the money. I have a few trucks, at the most I'll sell one of the trucks and the business will be a bit smaller'. I remember that to this day."

Her father started the business in 1978 focusing on paper collection. In the early 80s, he pivoted to waste collection with a partner (although that partnership was ultimately dissolved).

But her father found it hard to grow the business as a sole proprietorship. And hence, two years after she graduated, she was summoned home.

"One day, he called me and said, 'Cannot lah, the company needs somebody. If not, we will always be so small and in the end, we may not have a company any more'. I thought about it for just one night and the next day I resigned, sold my car, my house, everything, and I came back to Singapore."

Joining the family business in 2000 was hard - she was unfamiliar with the industry, which was male-dominated and traditional; interest in sustainability was barely in its infancy; and Wah & Hua did not even have a permanent place to call their own.

But, as Ms Tan puts it, "even till today, I will never say no to my parents". And so, she threw herself into learning the ropes of the business.

One of the first things she set out to do was to get a permanent space.

"(Previously) things were so unstable because we had to sublet and we had to move every two to three years. That made it very difficult to grow the business. So the first task was to establish a permanent home so that we could start planning our short-term and longer-term goals," says Ms Tan.

"That's why I think securing the property for the company is my first big achievement. That's how we started to grow."

Waste 2.0

While Wah & Hua has taken very definitive steps away from its perilous existence of the early days, Ms Tan, together with her siblings, continue to think of ways to grow the business.

"When I joined (the family business) I didn't want to be looked down on by others. I want to do something I won't regret in my life. How many 10-year blocks do I have? I've put in two 10-year blocks (into Wah & Hua) already. I may have another 10 years and then I'll be in my 50s," she says.

About six years ago, that niggling question, 'Do I want to be a waste collector for the rest of my life?', came back with a vengeance.

Wah & Hua was at this point run by Ms Tan and her brother; Ms Tan looks after the overall business and is the "face" for the company while her brother looks after operations and sales. Her younger sister subsequently joined Wah & Hua in 2020.

"At this point, I'd been with the company for 15 years. We were more or less secure and had attained a certain footing in Singapore, and we had waste collection and recycling.

"So I asked the family, 'How do you want the business to look in the future? Do you want to stay the way we are, or do we still have room to grow?'

"As an SME we had limited finances but the family agreed it was time to expand. But my father said we could not stray too far from our main focus. Waste collection will always be the fundamental business and we cannot deviate too far."

The company decided to do two things. Firstly, it would get itself qualified as a public waste collector , a prescient move that ultimately set them up for the partnership with Alba. Secondly, the company decided to make its first foray into the energy sector with the construction of a zero waste facility.

After travelling to places in Europe and the region, including Thailand and Malaysia, to talk with incineration plants and equipment suppliers, she met the group CEO of one of the world's biggest Chinese waste-to-energy firms and they signed a joint venture.

The upcoming facility will be fully automated and will have robots programmed to recognise and sort the different recyclable materials.

Recyclables that they are unable to process will be sent via conveyer belt to the incinerator to be burnt for energy. This will be used to power the facility, with leftover sold back to the grid.

Unique facility

What makes this facility unique is that it will be built vertically on a small, one hectare piece of land.

"In this business, recycling and waste-to-energy plants are usually located far away from each other. But because Singapore's land is so expensive I have decided to combine both together and build vertically," she says.

To get this audacious plan off the ground, she decided to approach Enterprise Singapore for help.

"For this, I really had to convince them I could do it. Because when my plant is ready, we will be the first in Singapore and Asia. So of course we had to get buy-in," she says.

Enterprise Singapore ultimately worked with them to chart out their growth plans and provided some guidance on how they can pursue automation.

Construction on the facility has been delayed due to Covid-19 but 2022 is shaping up to be an exciting year for Wah & Hua, with the expectation that the facility will be ready in Q2 next year and energy production to kickstart then.

This puts them in good stead for what will arguably be the company's third push.

"If you look at our business model, we were a general waste collector. Now, we can do general waste collection ... (and we are) a public waste collector. So we're experts in waste collection. We are also pretty big in plastic recycling in Singapore.

"Our waste-to-energy plant will be completed next year. Which means I am able to create my own circular economy. With this branding, I can go to Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam or Cambodia, and do a lot more."

Singapore-based waste management startup Blue Planet Environmental Solutions, which acquired Wah & Hua in March this year, is expected to play a key role in this next internationalisation phase.

"The family felt an acquisition at this point is the right time. To continue to expand in Singapore will either kill my associates or kill myself.

"But to move out of Singapore? I have always been a local business. I have never set out to build a new plant be it in Malaysia or Indonesia. I don't know how to do it and it is scary. So this is where Blue Planet can help us and I say okay, let's do this together and show us how we can manage the overseas business."

Meanwhile, Enterprise Singapore is also facilitating link-ups between their global markets team and Wah & Hua to hunt for regional opportunities, riding on the wave of growing interest in waste management.

"We are looking at the Asia region, so Vietnam, Cambodia ... Whichever (country) is open, we're willing to go in and talk. We've started talking to a few companies but nothing is concluded yet," she says.

"We are taking it slow for now because of Covid but we are hoping to start travelling and be on the ground next year."

Embracing discomfort

Ms Tan, who is the chairperson of the Waste Management and Recycling Association of Singapore (WMRAS), is keenly aware of how difficult it is to transform in this industry.

She is, perhaps unsurprisingly, an advocate for digitalisation and mechanisation, having witnessed first-hand how it has transformed her business; to acquire their first sorting machine, she had to promise to pay for the equipment if the "experiment" failed to convince her father that it was a worthwhile investment. Thankfully for her, productivity went up by 300 per cent and was the breakthrough moment for her father.

"I understand why companies are still not moving forward. It is a huge investment. We can't just push companies to digitalise, it's tough," she says.

According to Ms Tan, a basic waste truck, with 360-degree cameras, GPS, and a weighing system, will cost $200,000 upwards. An electric truck can cost above $600,000.

"Everything we buy is $100,000 to $200,000 minimum. It's very heavy capital expenditure. But we're lucky that we have agencies that come in to provide assistance," she says.

"It is important for the sector. As Singaporeans get more and more educated, they don't want to do the job of waste collection. So we need to introduce technology to turn it from a low-value job to something Singaporeans want to do."

Walking the talk

Ms Tan clearly walks the talk. Having an upgraded fleet of waste trucks, she is now looking at how best to automate sorting at her upcoming facility at Kranji Green.

"Initially, I was looking at robots or IoT to help with maintenance. But with Covid, I decided to shift our focus to design robots that can replace sorters or general workers," she says.

These jobs are typically staffed by foreign workers but with Covid, there has been a severe shortage of manpower even as work has ramped up.

"Right now, productivity levels are very low because there are not enough foreign workers and the demand and supply ratio is not balanced. Hopefully, we will have a few of these sorters on site by year-end. If this works out well it can be rolled out to the rest of the waste companies."

Of course, it is not just technology. Companies also need to look at partnerships.

"For SMEs, our financial resources are limited. We need to put our ego aside, look at the big picture, look at consortiums and joint ventures.

"Why am I willing to share my pie with Alba, for example? I can just go in and tender on my own. I can go overseas on my own, why do I need Blue Planet?

"With more partners I am bigger and stronger. I may be strong in certain things, others might be better at other things. Combined, we are better."

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