Wong Kim Hoh meets... Lim Chap Huat

Developer builds on hard work

That - and destiny - helped Soilbuild founder scale the heights

As a toddler, Lim Chap Huat would tuck a pencil behind one ear and potter around his home, holding a ruler against the wall.

When his mother asked what he was doing, he would reply in Hokkien: "Wah kee chu." The phrase literally translates into: "I build house."

"Maybe it's destiny, maybe I'm fated to do this," says Mr Lim, now 59, with a shrug and a smile from an armchair in the lobby of the Shangri-La Hotel.

By "this", he means founding and running Soilbuild, a builder and developer of residential and industrial properties.

He has never done anything else. Immediately after completing national service in 1976, the polytechnic graduate put in $5,000 to start the company with three partners.

Today he is the controlling shareholder, and Soilbuild has grown from a humble contractor to a property developer which made a net profit of more than $400 million in 2011.

Its upscale residential developments include Leonie Parcview in Leonie Hill and the Meier Suites in Meyer Road; its commercial developments include Solaris at one- north and Eightrium at Changi Business Park.

Self-effacing and shy, the silver- haired corporate honcho says there is no secret to his success.

"If you work hard, you will be rewarded," he says.

He has certainly worked hard.

He is the eldest son and the third of seven children of a trishaw rider and a washerwoman. He spent the first four years of his life in a wooden shack in the compound of an old colonial bungalow in Jalan Besar before the family moved to a one-room rental flat near the old Kallang Airport

"The kitchen was just a slab of cement," recalls Mr Lim.

Theirs was a spartan lifestyle.

"I never stepped into a cinema until I was in my teens. I remember there was a school excursion to watch The Sound Of Music when I was in Primary 6 but I didn't go because I didn't have the money," says the former pupil of Guillemard Integrated Primary School.

His late father's income was erratic, not helped by the fact that he liked the occasional roadside wager.

"He spoke a bit of English, so on good days when he got tips taking angmoh tourists to the red-light district and other tourist areas, we would get bao for supper," Mr Lim recalls with a laugh.

Fortunately, his mother and grandmother supplemented the family income by washing and ironing clothes for families in the area.

From a young age, he had to help them deliver and collect laundry. Other children would often laugh at him, calling him a fugitive because he was often seen lugging a big bundle of clothes.

He worked during school holidays, from selling tickets at the National Stadium to clearing debris for $6 a day on a construction site.

The determination to get out of poverty kicked in early for Mr Lim, who completed his secondary education at Victoria School.

One catalyst was relatives who looked down on his family.

"I wanted to prove to them that even the son of a trishaw rider can make good. I also told myself that I must earn enough to take care of my mother," says Mr Lim, who gave tuition for seven years, from Secondary 1 until he finished his diploma in civil engineering at the Singapore Polytechnic, and assiduously saved all that he earned.

"Work and work and work and earn money - that was what I did during my growing-up years," he says.

The idea of becoming a contractor took root when he interned for a consultant engineer during his first-year school break at the polytechnic.

The company was a specialist in water treatment, and was involved in building works at Lower Peirce Reservoir.

"I noticed this very young contractor who wore nice clothes and drove a Volvo. He was making good money although when I started talking to him, he didn't seem to know much," he recalls with a laugh.

He felt that being a good contractor would probably afford him a better living than being a technician or senior technical officer, which was what many poly graduates ended up becoming in those days.

"I told myself if I didn't succeed after two or three years, I would go to England, get myself a degree and be happy becoming an engineer," says Mr Lim.

But fate seemed intent on marshalling him into a building career.

While he was still at the polytechnic, a clerk-of-works he knew would often pay him to work out quantities for tenders.

"I would calculate how much marble or concrete or tiles were needed for projects. I taught myself how to do it by reading up books in the National Library," he says with a grin.

He became a clerk-of-works himself while serving his national service. He suffered from anaemia, which saw him downgraded and seconded as a clerk-of-works overseeing construction projects in the army's land estate department.

"I wore civilian clothes, was a technical officer and the pay was almost like an officer's," he says.

While working on the building of a block of camps in Guillemard Road, he met contractor Fong Ying Wah, who was to become one of his partners.

The two struck up a good friendship.

"He would give me lifts in his car and I told him about my plans of becoming a contractor," he says.

After NS, he took $5,000 from his savings and teamed up with Mr Fong and two others - a subcontractor and an engineer - to set up Soilbuild. Only 22 then, he was the youngest but he ran the show.

"We started with just a table in someone else's office in a shophouse in MacPherson," he recalls.

The first year was rough.

Although they were promised clients and help with suppliers by Mr Fong's old boss, none came.

A client who got them to build a workshop ran into problems halfway through the project and could not pay them.

They survived by taking on small jobs.

"I went for a whole year without salary. I even dug into my savings to help out," says Mr Lim. "But we never thought of giving up because we knew there was money to be made."

True enough, the dark clouds cleared.

Between 1977 and 1979, they worked on a lot of factories in Jurong.

"Basically we were honest, we didn't cheat on materials, we advised clients how to save and we got a lot of referrals from architects," says Mr Lim, who was soon doing well enough to buy out the engineer's share of the business when the latter dropped out.

The company hit paydirt in the construction boom of 1980 and it was then that Mr Lim made his first million dollars.

"There were so many jobs. At one stage, I was juggling eight projects."

There were, however, snags along the way. One involved a former luxury car dealer who got the firm to build a three-storey office in Sungei Kadut.

"Midway through, he added one more floor. He couldn't get a loan and when we finished, he owed us more than $1 million," he says.

"I was lucky his secretary pitied me. Every time he sold a car, the secretary would tell me so that I could go to his office and ask for my money. He even sold me his country club membership," he says, adding that the dealer eventually fled the country and disappeared.

Such bad debts set Mr Lim thinking. "It occurred to me, why should I build for other people and let people owe me? Why don't I go into property development myself?"

His first project was building two semi-detached houses on a plot of land he bought in Phillips Avenue in Serangoon. The returns after he sold them convinced him he was onto a good thing.

"I bought the land for $522,000. I sold one house to a banker for $850,000. His brother bought the other one."

He has no qualms admitting that he bumbled along as he grew his business.

"I didn't know that I could borrow from banks. I didn't know how to hire project managers, and handled many projects myself. I didn't know better, because I've never worked for other construction companies," he says.

However, he was a fast learner, and was not afraid to take calculated risks.

"My grandmother was not educated but she was wise. She used to tell me: 'Ooh yew kua yew, bo yew ka ki siu'."

The Hokkien phrase means to follow good examples and create one's own opportunities if there are none to follow.

That was what he did during the 1987 financial crisis. He seized the opportunity to buy several plots of land - at between $40 and $50 per square ft - which came up for sale in Jalan Haji Alias, off Sixth Avenue.

"One guy I bought from recommended me to other people who wanted to sell. I was in the area almost every night with my cheque book," recalls Mr Lim, who made a handsome profit developing and selling at least 50 houses in the area.

He graduated from houses to small developments before moving on to condos and later, industrial, commercial as well as business space properties. One of his company's most famous projects is Solaris, a 15-storey, state-of-the-art green building at Fusionopolis.

An IPO attempt in 2000 did not succeed because of unfavourable market conditions but Soilbuild was publicly listed five years later.

He is not afraid of making big decisions.

"If you are transparent, have no intention to cheat and treat people fairly, things will fall into place," says the entrepreneur who has never retrenched any staff or cut salaries over 40 years in business.

Soilbuild's executive director Ho Toon Bah, 49, says: "I don't think he's ever been threatened or felt fearful. It has to do with his attitude in life. He jumped into becoming his own boss, and he's learnt to figure out everything by himself."

In 2005, Soilbuild delisted itself from the Singapore Stock Exchange for a couple of reasons, one of which was its share price, which was undervalued. As a property developer, the management also felt there was no need to raise more money.

The company, however, is planning two public listings - one for its construction arm, the other a Reit for its business space properties.

Mr Lim - whose wife Jee Lin heads Soilbuild's marketing and leasing division - is not resting on his laurels. The company is expanding its presence overseas and is managing a couple of construction projects in Myanmar.

"I think I have no hobby. In my 40 years of business, I always have to find new challenges," says the father of three. His sons are aged between 21 and 27.

Those who know him will tell you differently. He has been an active grassroots leader in Chong Pang for the last 15 years.

His pet causes are the poor and the needy, especially students.

He is also one of Victoria School's most generous patrons; among other things, he started the school's tuition scheme.

Fellow alumnus Quak Hiang Whai, 50, a media adviser, says Mr Lim turns up for many of the school's events.

"More important, he is very instrumental in student and welfare development, giving generously in terms of efforts and money. When we held our 130th anniversary dinner to raise funds for the welfare of the students, he underwrote the entire 130 dinner tables."

Mr Lim explains his affection for his alma mater very simply.

"I owe a lot to the school, it helped to shape my thinking," he says. And he spouts its Latin motto: "Nil sine labore."

"It means, 'Nothing without hard work'."