First published in The Business Times on 20 November 2019.
Dinners were probably tense for a few years in the Chua household when brothers Alex and Arthur Chua decided to digitise the large, multi-faceted family business that Goldbell Group had by then become.
It probably did not help that older brother Alex Chua, who is the chief executive officer of Goldbell Financial Services (GBFS), had just joined the family business. The year was 2012 and he had spent seven years at JPMorgan Chase. Upon entering the family business, one of the first things he asked for was data.
He explains: "I used to price very complex structures for trading or investment purposes. When you want to push a trade to your customer or a trader you need to give solid back-testing to explain why this trade makes sense. So to me, if you want to analyse something, you should have the data. But when I came back (to Goldbell) and I asked for data to do basic analysis, I realised that finding that data was tough."
He pauses: "Assuming it exists."
Taming the insurgency
"People talk about big data but to get there, you need to start from how you collect your data," says Mr Chua. "You first need to know why you need the data and then structure the data accordingly. That involves a lot of change management and behaviour.
"Regardless of what people tell you, when you start collecting data, there's actually a lot more work. So your staff must understand why things are being done this way."
Even as staff acquiesced to the demands of their newly-minted boss, they were secretly going to his father with their grievances.
"My brother told me: 'Being new in the company makes it even harder because you're not tried and tested and no one should trust you. The only thing you've got is you're a Chua ... In our business, people must trust you. So the only way for you to prove yourself is by succeeding in anything you set out to do so that the next time, people will trust you when you want to implement something," says Mr Chua.
"That's a bit tough, right, because the first thing I wanted was a big bang!"
Unknown to Mr Chua, his younger brother was hitting a similar wall. Mr Arthur Chua is the CEO of Goldbell Group. Inspired by business guru Verne Harnish, he was keen to implement scoreboards and forward forecasting.
To him, it did not make sense to wait for the quarterly profit and loss numbers given that by the time they were generated and available for analysis, the leadership was not only taking retrospective actions, they were doing it belatedly.
But instituting this was far from straightforward. One of their first moves, to revamp their enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, was met with strong pushback from the "old guard".
"We revamped the whole ERP system when my brother joined the company," says Mr Arthur Chua. "It was a lot of money, a few million dollars. So that was the first pushback from the old guard: 'Why are we spending so much money on IT? Why are we spending so much money on data?'".
And then there was pushback from staff.
"It takes a lot of discipline to foreward forecast all of the key drivers. Now, we do forward forecasting on a weekly basis and you can see the real numbers that measure the health of the company operationally and financially," says Mr Arthur Chua.
But staff, a lot of them older than the brothers and who had been with the company for longer, could not understand why things had to change.
"Culturally, it's a big shift. Previously, you made decisions based on your entrepreneurial gut feel. Now, we wanted to mash gut feel, which is experience, with the entrepreneurial spirit, with data-driven decisions. A lot of people were not used to it."
Despite the "insurgency", the brothers credit their father for standing by their decision and presenting a united front.
"There was a lot of backchanelling. They would say okay to me then go behind my back and tell my dad, 'Oh I can't sell stuff now because it takes too long'. The good thing about my dad is, in front of them he would say no, this is the right way. But during family dinners, he would scold us for introducing all these problems," says Mr Alex Chua with a laugh.
"And driving up cost!" Mr Arthur Chua reminds him.
Putting customers first
While the younger generation is bringing the company into the digital age, it is worth pointing out that innovating and being entrepreneurial is a key cornerstone of the Goldbell ethos.
The company began in 1980 as a forklift distribution business before it expanded into leasing in the 1990s to provide customers with additional options.
As Goldbell's management expanded the number of services it offered, the next logical step was to offer maintenance services.
Already the largest player in the commercial and industrial vehicles leasing space in Singapore, Goldbell then decided to go a step further, and move into financing.
If they were already selling their customers the trucks, why not help them finance the purchase too?
Today, GBFS supports SMEs in a wide range of areas, including floor stocking (a short-term credit facility for the purchase of motor vehicle stock), equipment financing, loans for industrial/commercial property, and other forms of commercial lending.
Mr Alex Chua says that while banks tend to package products for consumers according to their industry type, what sets Goldbell apart is that they are industry-agnostic. Instead of selling customers packages tailored to a specific industry, they tailor financing packages to tackle each customer's unique set of needs.
"And, we're able to do small to large loan sizes. Our smallest ticket is from S$50,000 and our largest ticket size is S$26 million.
"We even finance customers that are losing money because of the nature of their business. Especially now (when the economy is facing uncertain times) a lot of Goldbell customers come to us. For us, if the customer is open to discuss, we will try to help. Even if we have to take a bit more risk, we will try and weather it out with them."
Banking on IP
Since taking over the reins at GBFS, Mr Alex Chua has expanded the range of services offered by the business.
Under Goldbell Evolution Network (GEN), his team has built programmes which allow them to track different parameters when offering loans.
Take for instance a hotel portal that does long-term rentals of underperforming two-star hotels. Assuming the company spruces up the hotels and raises the quality of the hotels to three stars, GEN is able to compute, based on the data provided of existing rent, rate of utilisation, and increase in room rate post-renovation, whether or not it makes sense to offer a loan.
"There's a lot of tech in this business; we build a lot of lending models," says Mr Alex Chua.
Mr Arthur Chua, meanwhile, is the co-founder of Ministry of Movement, an on-demand ride-sharing startup, in which Goldbell is an investor.
"That whole technology of dynamic routing and optimisation is actually in an academic space called the pickup and delivery problem with time windows. You're supposed to pick up and deliver the most number of people or objects with the least number of assets in the shortest time possible," says Mr Arthur Chua. "We currently hold the world record for having the number one efficiency in this space."
In 2018, Singapore's Land Transport Authority (LTA) contracted US-based Via Transportation and Ministry of Movement to carry out on-demand bus service trials here.
While LTA ultimately dropped the on-demand bus plan for Singapore, citing higher costs, the authority noted that they observed mileage savings of 18 per cent.
According to Mr Arthur Chua, Ministry of Transport's pipeline in Singapore is "very strong".
In October, the company partnered NEC Corporation's NEC Asia Pacific to pool their resources and tackle urban mobility issues. They launched "Ally", an app offering AI-based, personalised road planning functions with an on-demand bus booking service and the app was made available at the Intelligent Transport Systems World Congress which took place in Singapore.
It's not just in Singapore that Ministry of Movement is making inroads. It has operations in Australia and Vietnam and is looking to launch operations in Japan, Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia in the first quarter of next year.
Ministry of Movement is also in talks with Guangzhou Public Bus Group, which it met during one of Enterprise Singapore's overseas mission trips.
While the brothers are of the belief that owning the intellectual property that is core to the business is key, they are also wary of straying too far from their core competencies.
For Mr Arthur Chua, the solution needs to address three questions: Is the technology core to the business? Is it within the group's capabilities? Will this fill an existing gap in the market?
"I think a lot of people build technologies without understanding their abilities," says Mr Arthur Chua.
"If you ask me to build an autonomous car, that's beyond my ability. So many people are already doing it and they have bigger wallets."
Mr Alex Chua takes the same approach at GBFS. "As a Singapore private company without billions to spend, you can't go taking down every single vertical you're interested in. You must be laser-focused on your core competence and domain. Our domain at GBFS is debt so all our partnerships and investments are within one degree separation of debt."
Back to basics
As excited as the Chuas are about the new directions they are taking Goldbell in - "You should ask my brother about the weird stuff he is up to!" Mr Alex Chua enthuses during the interview - there is a keen awareness of where their core business lies.
While innovation is the engine of growth, no expense is being spared to ensure their foundation is continuously strengthened.
Earlier this year, the company opened its Goldbell Tuas Service Centre, the largest integrated multi-storey heavy vehicle aftersales centre in Singapore.
This is one of several future mobility initiatives under Goldbell's business plan; the company approached Enterprise Singapore with the concept two years ago.
The multi-storey facility uses the latest automated technologies and houses all of Goldbell's capabilities, except for financial services, under one roof.
"The sector is transforming at a fast pace and Goldbell's plans for the future to stay competitive underpinned Enterprise Singapore's support for its adoption of autonomous parts transporters, parts barcode system and parts carousel system for storage and retrieval of materials," says Law Chung Ming, director of transport & logistics at Enterprise Singapore.
He adds: "Goldbell has since achieved operational efficiency and significant time savings through the adoption of such technologies. For instance, with the autonomous parts transporters, they helped to halve the time it typically takes for spare parts to be sent to the shop floor. Processes that usually take 30 to 45 minutes can now be done in 15 to 30 minutes per consignment. The parts barcode system and parts carousel system also helped to optimise building height utilisation, improve efficiency in parts withdrawal and inventory accuracy."
The integrated hub is, significantly, more than a one-stop shop for sales, service, and spare parts. In addition to strengthening Goldbell's fundamentals, the centre pushes the envelope by incorporating a "dynamic living lab", which will be used to develop new future mobility concepts and innovations.
In August, Goldbell unveiled Move.SG, a mobility accelerator programme that intends to catalyse the growth of future technology champions in the area of mobility, transport, and logistics.
So how do the old guard feel about where the company is going? Is there a nostalgic desire to stick to the core business of leasing and distribution?
"I think they are very proud about what the company is doing," says Mr Arthur Chua.
"I used to think the company was very non-innovative. But as I reflect over the last few years, I think the old guard are there to be pragmatic," he says.
"Over the last 10 years, there were a few ideas I regretted not pursuing because of the board. But there were more ideas where I felt it was lucky I did not pursue them.
"It's good to be challenged. Of course we can override them, but its also good to hear them out."