Handing over reins of Xpress 'on a high note'

Mr Fong still holds 10 per cent of Xpress Holdings shares directly or indirectly. For a start, he will consider whether to redevelop some of his properties in China.
Mr Fong still holds 10 per cent of Xpress Holdings shares directly or indirectly. For a start, he will consider whether to redevelop some of his properties in China. PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Man who founded business eyeing new venture in China - his 'second big test' as entrepreneur

Entrepreneur Fong Kah Kuen describes stepping down from his senior role at Xpress Holdings, as he sells the business he founded, as "leaving on a high note".

K.K. Fong, as he is best known, handed over the reins of the company to a new management team led by executive chairman Ma Weidong, the new owner, at the end of last month.

"I took four years to transform the business from a traditional printing company to a fully automated digital enterprise," said the 62-year-old founder of the mainboard-listed company. "Now that I've done so, it's time to relax."

Xpress started out in 1986 as a small printing shop in Singapore's Central Business District and grew significantly to boast office and print stations across the region.

Mr Fong, who last held the position of chief operating officer, feels that with a second generation of leaders in place to helm the company, he is not needed any more.

STRIKING BIG

I was worth $1.2 billion in 1999. It's impossible to strike the lottery a second time, so I must be aware of that. I'm now seeking spiritual contentment, more than anything else.

MR FONG KAH KUEN, on the short-lived success he had enjoyed when he listed the company as i-One.Net International.

He succeeded in the business owing to his expertise in marketing and managing printing schedules.

But with new technology, such challenges are no longer hard to overcome.

"I've already reached the peak of the printing business and helped the company with its transformation process. If I don't retire now, then when should I do it?"

Mr Fong pointed out that the company is now stable - totally debt-free except for a few cars.

And his sale of the company to Mr Ma, a businessman from Yunnan, China, is a deliberate renewal process to inject new businesses into the company.

The printing business alone is not going to be enough to sustain Xpress Holdings, said Mr Fong.

"This investor has the cash, and coming from Yunnan, his background is very suitable for the listed company."

Mr Fong said he will continue to stay on for another six months as an adviser to the company.

He has sold all his businesses outside China but still holds more than 10 per cent of Xpress Holdings shares directly or indirectly.

Xpress Holdings reported a loss of $9.05 million for the second quarter ended Jan 31, compared with a profit of $214,000 for the same period a year earlier.

According to Xpress Holdings' filing with the Singapore Exchange, this was mainly due to an initial write-down of $8.35 million on the the loss-making subsidiaries that are due to be sold.

The sale of these subsidiaries in Malaysia, Hong Kong and China will allow the company to streamline its structure, reduce its fixed operating costs and minimise future losses, said Xpress Holdings.

It intends to allocate the resources and capital that are freed up to the Singapore printing business, which has stayed operationally profitable.

The company also plans to invest in the latest technology in printing machinery so as to gain a higher market share of the commercial print market for specialist high-end print products.

It was queried by the Singapore Exchange on March 29 on whether it is able to meet its short-term obligations as and when they are due.

The company said in response that it plans to raise additional capital via private placement of the company's shares to potential investors or by the exercise of share warrants by its chairman.

Looking back on his three decades of running the business, Mr Fong lamented that there was no way he could go back to "those glorious days".

"I was worth $1.2 billion in 1999," he said, referring to the short-lived success he had enjoyed when he listed the company as i-One.Net International that year.

"It's impossible to strike the lottery a second time, so I must be aware of that. I'm now seeking spiritual contentment, more than anything else."

For now, the grandfather says he will spend more time with his one-year-old grandson, and contemplate starting anew in China.

NEW VENTURES IN CHINA

Mr Fong said he is particularly interested in business opportunities in areas related to the basic necessities of life, such as food, clothing, housing and transportation.

He sees immense opportunities in the education and healthcare service sectors, in places where schools and hospitals are in great shortage. For a start, he will consider whether to redevelop some of his properties in China - in Beijing and Changsha, the capital city of Hunan in southern China.

"They were originally some factories and were worth next to nothing," he said.

But there is a chance that he could redevelop them for rental income.

He said the Beijing property is worth around 1.5 billion yuan (S$314 million), and he holds around 20 per cent of it, whereas the Changsha property is an eight-storey building right in the central business district.

Mr Fong also lets on that he has some "personal commitments" and still owes some people money. So he will focus on liquidating his assets to pay off the debts before embarking on his new venture in China.

He will be based in Shenzhen in southern China although he expects his business to be "all over the mainland".

DIFFERENT PHILOSOPHY

Other than switching sectors, Mr Fong also intends to adopt a different strategy in his new venture.

"I've always been three steps ahead of others. So I will try to slow down now."

He will also ditch his longstanding philosophy of going it alone, and start collaborating with others.

"My new venture will be a cartel business I will share it with others and we will find strength in unity.

"I wasn't too willing to share with others in the past, but now, I'm very willing to do so."

Although Mr Fong plans to retire completely in three years when he reaches 65, he is still raring to go.

"I'm not afraid of not having any work to do. I'm just afraid I won't have the physical fitness to carry on," he said.

He views his new venture in China as the "second big test" in his life as an entrepreneur.

"The results that I produce in this new sector can prove whether I'm really capable or whether it was just a stroke of good luck that gave me my success previously."

Mr Fong said the Chinese like to refer to 60 years as one complete cycle. So, this is the right time for him to transform himself, as an entrepreneur.

"I feel l'm finally enlightened" after crossing 60 years.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 03, 2016, with the headline 'Handing over reins of Xpress 'on a high note''. Print Edition | Subscribe