Trans-cab towkay Teo Kiang Ang: Ambition, industry and a bit of luck

Mr Teo Kiang Ang (above) has a fleet of Trans-cab taxis, numbering nearly 5,000 today. (Below) In the 1980s, Mr Teo was busy building the cylinder LPG delivery business. He was the top distributor for Caltex Gas in Singapore for many years.The gas ma
Mr Teo Kiang Ang (above) has a fleet of Trans-cab taxis, numbering nearly 5,000 today. (Below) In the 1980s, Mr Teo was busy building the cylinder LPG delivery business. He was the top distributor for Caltex Gas in Singapore for many years.The gas man made headlines as the only businessman who dared venture into the taxi business when it was liberalised in 2003, starting with a fleet of just 50 cabs.PHOTOS: NG SOR LUAN, COURTESY OF TEO KIANG ANG
Mr Teo Kiang Ang (above) has a fleet of Trans-cab taxis, numbering nearly 5,000 today. (Below) In the 1980s, Mr Teo was busy building the cylinder LPG delivery business. He was the top distributor for Caltex Gas in Singapore for many years.The gas ma
Mr Teo Kiang Ang (above) has a fleet of Trans-cab taxis, numbering nearly 5,000 today. (Below) In the 1980s, Mr Teo was busy building the cylinder LPG delivery business. He was the top distributor for Caltex Gas in Singapore for many years.The gas man made headlines as the only businessman who dared venture into the taxi business when it was liberalised in 2003, starting with a fleet of just 50 cabs.PHOTOS: NG SOR LUAN, COURTESY OF TEO KIANG ANG

Gas tycoon and taxi towkay started out earning just $30 a month sweeping floors

Mr Teo Kiang Ang, head honcho of Trans-cab, breaks out into jovial laughter when his deputy chief comes into the conference room and dumps a huge stack of paper in front of him.

They are, she tells him, tender documents to operate bus routes. Earlier this year, the authorities announced plans to massively overhaul the public bus industry with a new contracting system. From 2016, the Government will own all buses and infrastructure while paying transport firms to operate routes.

Asked if he is going to help himself to a slice of the pie, the 64-year-old replies bashfully that he is just exploring possibilities.

If he does, it will add to the list of businesses he has started, one which includes shipbuilding, food and beverage, as well as mattress manufacturing.

Mr Teo, however, is best known as a gas tycoon and taxi towkay.

The secondary school dropout made a living delivering gas cylinders more than 40 years ago but now owns Union Energy Corporation, which controls more than 30 per cent of the bottled gas market and has an annual revenue of $130 million.

In 2003, he went into the then newly liberalised taxi trade and started Trans-cab with just 50 vehicles. It is now the second largest taxi operator here with a fleet of nearly 5,000 taxis; its turnover last year was more than $174 million.

For as long as he can remember, Mr Teo has wanted his own little piece of the sky.

"I may be small, but my spirit is big," he says with a laugh, speaking in Mandarin.

As he was born poor and did not have much of an education, he reckoned the only way he could climb out of poverty was by going into business.

Ambition, fuelled by doggedness, industry and a bit of luck, helped him realise his dream and made him a millionaire many times over.

He arrived penniless in Singapore from Swatow in China when he was 10 years old in 1960, after travelling for seven days on a rickety boat with his mother.

Their prospects looked bleak.

Mr Teo's father - a bus conductor and odd job labourer who had left China several years earlier - was in Tan Tock Seng Hospital with tuberculosis when his family arrived.

"He was in the hospital for six years. Occasionally, the hospital would call, telling us to rush down because he might not make it, and one day he just went," he recalls.

"I was not close to him. I grew up in China without a father and it was strange to have one when we came to Singapore."

To make ends meet, his mother became a washerwoman and later a live-in maid.

"I was left alone and saw her once every two weeks," says Mr Teo, who lived with his maternal grandmother in a village in Hougang.

He spent a year in Guang Ming Primary before transferring to Holy Innocents' where he dropped out after completing Secondary 1. It was not by choice, he says. "Money was too tight."

A trading company in Rochor Road hired him as a general dogsbody. "I swept the floors, cleaned the toilets, ate and slept in the company and was paid $30 a month," says Mr Teo, who stayed with the company for five years. "But I also learnt a lot - how to do business, how to deal with people."

It did not take him long to realise that a much bigger world awaited him.

"I used to keep a diary and I would write in it every night, telling myself I had to build my own business," he says.

But he had to bide his time and wait until he was 21, as was the law in those days, before he could register a business.

He started Yong Huk - which dealt in porcelain as well as plastic household items - in the early 1970s with $3,000 cobbled from his savings and a loan from his mother. It was a one-man show, and the going was tough.

"I was salesman and delivery boy and I had to go all over Singapore. I started early in the morning and ended late at night," he says.

Despite his best efforts, the venture failed and folded two years later because of cash flow problems.

"It was hard to get credit and hard to collect payment. But I don't regret the experience. I met so many people and learnt so much; my skin grew a lot thicker in the process."

The experience bruised but did not break him.

After some soul searching, he decided that supplying bottled gas would be lucrative, as Housing Board flats were being built rapidly during the early 1970s.

"I thought about it carefully. Wood had given way to coal to kerosene to gas. I told myself gas was the next big thing and went in," he says.

A friend lent him $2,000 to start Choon Hin in 1975.

Come rain or shine, he would carry and deliver gas cylinders, some of which weighed twice his 50kg frame, to all corners of the island.

The business grew rapidly.

"In my first couple of months, I earned just over $1,000. But this quickly grew to several thousands and then tens of thousands," says Mr Teo, who landed the distributorship for CalGas in 1985.

His earnings hit a plateau when the company exited the market. His margins became lower because of tight controls by the big boys who wanted to close the supply vacuum.

"I knew we had to bottle our gas," says Mr Teo, who started distributing gas under his own brand Union in 1995.

The big game changer came in 2000 when he bought Summit Gas and its gas bottling plant in Jalan Buloh for just over $1 million.

As most of his money was tied up in assets, he dug into his savings and remortgaged his delivery vehicles to raise the capital.

"I was very excited because I knew if I had my own plant, my business would be very different."

Indeed, his business multiplied many times after that. From just $6 million in 2000, his annual revenue now exceeds $130 million.

Today, Union Energy is the market leader in the liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) trade. Its clients include not just households but also food outlets, government bodies, educational institutions, country clubs and companies. Besides supplying LPG, it also retails products such as stoves and cooker hoods, as well as offer services like installation and maintenance of LPG piping.

Mr Teo also harboured big dreams for compressed natural gas (CNG) and even opened three CNG refilling stations including the world's largest in Old Toh Tuck Road five years ago. But that dream fizzled when the Government imposed a tariff on CNG in 2012 which narrowed the gap between the prices of gas and traditional fuels.

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The setback irked him but he moved on.

"I never regret what I do because I would have always learnt something. There's no point having a negative attitude. We should always look ahead and start again," he says.

The foray into CNG was not the first setback for Mr Teo who also started a shipbuilding company, a restaurant and a mattress firm.

The first failed and cost him "a bungalow"; the second was sold because it required too much attention; the third was moderately profitable and given to one of his staff to run.

In 2003, when the Government liberalised the taxi trade, he decided to invest $3 million to start Trans-cab and become a taxi operator.

"Not many people dared to enter the fray because the rules and regulations were so daunting. But I've always relished challenges in business," he says. He is chairman of Trans-cab, which acquired rival operator Smart Taxis last year.

An avid reader of Chinese classics such as Romance Of The Three Kingdoms, he says being successful in business is all about finding equilibrium.

"Making money shouldn't always be your starting point. Trust is also important. Often you have to put yourself in the shoes of the other party to come up with a winning solution for everyone," he says.

Without affectation, he says he enjoys a good relationship with his taxi drivers. He became friends with many while selling diesel to them.

"They don't need to come and look for me, I would go and look for them. I'm always downstairs," he says, referring to the busy compound outside Trans-cab's headquarters in Defu Lane 1 where his drivers gather.

Asked if they often harangue him with complaints, he laughs: "I'm not afraid of complaints. Complaints are to me a challenge and a good way to improve myself."

Although he has worked very hard, he believes that luck has played a big part in getting him to where he is.

In 2007, he shelled out $25 million to buy a 5,413 sq m site in Kallang which included the Oasis building.

"I had already firmed up plans to build a floating hotel, something Singapore has never seen before, and a floating stage," he says.

But these plans were nixed when the Government, under the Land Acquisition Act, bought him out barely three months later to develop the Sports Hub. However, there was a silver lining to the whole affair as he was paid $42 million for the site.

Mr Teo has seven children aged between 16 and 37, and nine grandchildren, the eldest of whom is 10.

"I don't have a family, I have a tribe," he says, suddenly lapsing into English.

Five of his children are now working for him.

"There comes a time in life when you have to let go and I'm starting to learn how to do that now," he says.

But if a new business opportunity arises, he is still game to take it on.

"Because it's a challenge and I love challenges."

kimhoh@sph.com.sg

This article was first published on Oct 12, 2014