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Aztech Group: From sound cards to much, much more

In celebration of Singapore’s 49th National Day, Digital Life looks at the established and the unsung tech heroes of Singapore

Published on Aug 8, 2014 12:42 PM
 
Aztech, with Mr Chia (left) and Mr Jeremy Mun in the management team, has moved beyond IT products into home appliances, marine logistics and supply, LED lighting and food. -- ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

Claim to fame: Known for its home networking products, Aztech is a diversified conglomerate with businesses ranging from LED lighting to marine logistics. Founded in 1986, the company is listed on the Singapore Exchange mainboard and earned $241 million last year.

When Creative Technology came out with the sound card in 1989, Aztech had its big break – it soon produced its own sound cards too.

Recalled Mr Martin Chia: “For the first time ever, the PC had sound. Today, this is taken for granted but in the early days, it was something great.”

Now 53, Mr Chia, an Aztech senior vice-president, joined in 1989 when it was still a small computer company of about 60 employees. Founded by Mr Michael Mun in 1986, Aztech assembled PCs at its factory in Ubi, using components imported from Taiwan. They sold their computers here and also in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Under the direction of Mr Mun as chief executive officer,  it expanded into other areas.

Said Mr Chia: “We started our own research and development and designed our own motherboards and graphics cards.”

In the early 1990s, Aztech focused on selling sound cards to PC makers such as Dell and Packard Bell.

By 1994, Aztech was No. 2 to Creative, with some 25 per cent of the sound card market. Buoyed by the success, Aztech listed on the Singapore Stock Exchange that year.
Creative and Aztech also famously sparred over allegations of copyright infringement in the 1990s. They settled out of court in 1998.

By then, Aztech was moving beyond sound cards.

“After the sound card, we saw the coming of the Internet. So we went into modems and we were quite spot on,” recalled Mr Chia.

In 1998, Aztech was ranked among the top five modem suppliers worldwide, according to market research firm Dataquest.

Next: Networking. Users wanted networking solutions to manage their Internet connections. Aztech capitalised on this with homeplugs, which use a home’s electrical wiring to transfer data.

“It is almost a must-have for many Singaporeans. They often buy this during IT shows to solve Wi-Fi blind-spot issues,” he said.

They are also hugely popular abroad, especially in Europe, said Mr Chia.

He revealed that 95 per cent of these homeplugs are sold outside Singapore but minus the Aztech brand – more typically rebranded for foreign markets.

Robotic vacuum cleaners, juicers and electric kettles are its latest venture. But Aztech’s twist is to put its own brand on appliances made by others. Aztech started selling them only in January, said Mr Chia.

He is optimistic that this business will gain traction because of Aztech’s strong branding and existing relationships with big local retailers.

“The current goal is to increase the range of products. It is not as wide as that of competitors such as Tefal,” he explained.

Electronics still made up the lion’s share (68 per cent) of revenues last year, but Aztech now has a diverse portfolio. It went into marine logistics and supply, LED lighting and food in 2008 to moderate the ups and downs of the IT business.

Spearheading the push into LED lighting is Mr Jeremy Mun, 39, the CEO’s eldest son, who is responsible for product development at LED lighting subsidiary AZ e-lite.

It is something he can relate to. “I had to clean the ceiling lights as a child and it’s so gross when you bring them down with all the bugs inside,” he said.

So when designing LED lights, he made sure that bugs could not get in. They do not need to be changed as often as ceiling lights of the past and can last up to 20 years.

Having secured several contracts to provide LED lights for lift lobbies and corridors in new HDB estates, he is upbeat about the business.

“Succession planning? That has been the topic from the board for the last few years,” said the younger Mr Mun with a laugh, when asked if his father, who turns 64 this year, intends to retire soon.

“He is still very, very active at the moment and has his hands in all the businesses. He’s the one driving these expansion plans,” he said.

By Vincent Chang