Omni-Plus System
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Omni-Plus System: Local plastics manufacturer innovates to make the world its market

First published in The Business Times on 2 August 2022.

Homegrown plastics manufacturer Omni-Plus System (OPS) made history by being the first Singapore company to be listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange (TSE) in June last year.

Going global, said OPS founder and chief executive officer Marcus Neo, has been instrumental to the firm’s success. “In our type of business, scalability is crucial,” he told The Business Times. “When we create a new formula, we do not sell to just one company.

“We make the world our market.”

The firm designs and sells raw polymer materials to manufacturers for use in their end products, including appliances, office automation equipment, cars and mobile phones.

It chose to list on the TSE to ease its expansion in Japan, which has many brand-name technology companies and firms that supply components to other countries, said Neo.

The drive to internationalise has spurred tremendous growth. OPS was launched in 2002 as a trading and manufacturing consultancy with just 2 employees, including Neo. Today, it has evolved and transformed into a regional powerhouse with about 200 staff in 8 countries, including Japan, China, Malaysia and Thailand.

Its international footprint has enabled the company to stay resilient and seize opportunities, such as helping multinational corporations to manage their supply chains during the Covid-19 crisis.

Even with the pandemic, it achieved a compound annual growth rate of 26 per cent between the 2016 and 2021 financial years. In the 2021 financial year, its sales increased by 30 per cent to US$249.6 million (S$345.9 million).

Gearing up for globalisation

Venturing into new markets may today seem like second nature, but its first foray – to China in 2002 – was fraught with difficulties, shared Neo, 57.

Just months after the company set up an office in Shanghai to help a client transfer materials and finished products from Malaysia to China, the outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003 led to freight uncertainties and travel restrictions.

“We had to track a massive movement of equipment and tools in the midst of all the chaos, while keeping in mind all the different regulatory requirements. We created a very detailed Excel spreadsheet – our primitive form of digitisation,” Neo recalled.

“That experience really taught us to mind the details and be creative during crises.”

“When you go to a new country, there are many things to take note of, such as tax laws and rules about transferring money,” he said. “When we went to China to set up our office, we transferred our investment fund into an account there.” OPS is headquartered in Singapore.

“Two months later, we were still waiting for the money.” Turns out, they had included the wrong specifications for the transfer.

Over the years, Neo and the rest of the firm’s senior management have learned to lean on experts for advice and tips when entering new markets. These include Enterprise Singapore (EnterpriseSG), a government agency that supports the local and global growth of Singapore businesses. It has an extensive network of satellite offices worldwide.

“If you want to go to a country that you are not familiar with, EnterpriseSG can tell you many things about your target market, including relevant background information and regulations,” said Neo. The agency’s support has enabled the company to skip months of tedious research and in turn, sped up its global expansion, he added.

“For our ongoing expansion into Mexico, the first thing we did was to contact EnterpriseSG and ask it to introduce us to finance advisers, lawyers and other contacts who can guide us. For companies, this is such a great resource.”

EnterpriseSG also provided vital support during OPS’s journey to list on the TSE, said Neo, which was particularly challenging due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The agency helped to expedite communications with the Tokyo bourse, and facilitated the due diligence process.

“Without EnterpriseSG, we would have never gotten the listing done in time,” said Neo.

Innovate for international appeal

To support its effort to capture new markets and extend its international footprint, OPS has also invested heavily in innovation and staff development (see other story).

In 2018, it worked with the Agency for Science, Technology and Research’s (A*Star) Institute of Materials Research and Engineering and EnterpriseSG to establish its engineering centre in Singapore. The centre, which has an in-house materials database of over 500 formulations, enables OPS to develop materials for its clients more efficiently.

As global interest in electric vehicles (EV) grows, the company is also hoping to make in-roads into the market. It has joined forces with an A*Star start-up to produce a special coating material for critical parts in EVs to make them safer and lighter. “We are testing the material with an EV group, and aim to launch it in 2025,” Neo said.

For the next stage of its expansion, it is seeking to break into new industries and acquire firms to beef up its capabilities and expand into other jurisdictions and product segments.

In 2019, it joined EnterpriseSG’s Scale-up SG programme, which aims to help local companies with high growth potential to scale quickly and effectively, become leaders in their fields and lay the groundwork to be global champions.

During the programme, which lasts between 12 and 18 months, the firms’ executives get the opportunity to network with other local business leaders, and work with consultancies to devise and fine-tune their growth strategies.

Through the programme, OPS identified building and construction, 5G communications and EV as its target sectors for new business, because of their rapid growth and need for advanced materials.

The company also came up with its criteria for acquisitions, including technical capabilities in these and other areas, and presence in specific geographic or product markets. It sought help from EnterpriseSG, which then connected OPS with a consultant who put together a list of firms in Vietnam and Thailand.

OPS is currently in talks with one of the firms. “We want to expand our business in the Indochina region,” explained Daryl Neo, 28, who is OPS’ corporate planning and strategy manager, and Marcus Neo’s son.

Following its listing on the TSE, OPS is exploring more partnerships with Japanese automotive equipment and consumer electronics manufacturers, to design and supply materials.

“In the past, we have always been in Southeast Asia and China,” said Marcus Neo. “Now, we are moving out to Mexico and may go into Europe as well,” he said, to better support its customers who operate in these large markets, and attract new ones.

Putting the success in succession

To support its global ambitions and ensure its longevity, Omni-Plus System (OPS) is grooming its second generation of leaders and focusing on training for staff.

During the Scale-up SG programme, organised by Enterprise Singapore, all 11 members of the company’s senior management team had one-on-one sessions with a consultant to identify their strengths and weaknesses, and find ways to work on the latter.

The consultant knew, from previous studies, the traits you need for success in different types of roles, whether you are in charge of sales or operations, so the process was based on each person’s function,” said Daryl Neo, the company’s corporate planning and strategy manager.

“As we went through the process, we also realised that we are at a transitional stage in our development, where the company is no longer very small, but not very big either,” said Neo, who is the son of OPS founder and chief executive officer Marcus Neo.

“If we want to keep growing effectively, my father needs to delegate more of his work to the senior management. As a result, we have started to change some of our reporting structures.”

In 2020, OPS also hired Singapore Polytechnic (SP) to carry out an analysis of training needs for its junior staff, after learning about the school’s offering from a fellow Scale-up SG participant.

“SP interviewed the staff and assessed their skills, what they lacked and what training would help them to improve in their work. We received a chart board of everyone and their training needs,” the younger Neo said.

Armed with the knowledge, the company arranged various training courses for its staff at education centres like the NTUC LearningHub and SP. Depending on their training needs, employees were encouraged to learn new skills, from how to use Zoom and advanced Excel functions to big data analytics.

The company also organises its own training programmes focusing on material science, where employees are kept updated on the latest trends and developments.

To build a talent pipeline, OPS has engaged tertiary institutions such as Nanyang Technological University to raise awareness of the company among their students. “Another avenue is part-time courses on relevant subjects, such as polymer science,” he added.

“I’ve attended some of these courses myself, and it’s a good way to get in contact with students who are interested in joining the industry. We get their contact information, keep in touch and try to recruit them when they are ready,” said Daryl Neo.

Looking back, Marcus Neo noted that OPS’ investments in professional development and internationalisation have paid off, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“When the crisis disrupted travelling and goods transport, we had many enquiries, including some from multinational corporations, due to our reputation in materials and solving supply chain issues,” said the older Neo.

“With offices in different countries, we could step up.” He explained that having offices globally enables OPS to adapt more easily to new business environments and changing customer needs.

“Having boots on the ground helps to drum up more business. If you want to expand your company and make the most of opportunities, globalise it.”