TheBusinessOfSport

Behind the barricades: How family-run business S-Lite Event Support helped Sporting Singapore

S-Lite Event Support founder Thomas Ang (left) and his son Vernon. Sporting events account for more than 70 per cent of its business, with the rest being community and cultural showpieces.
S-Lite Event Support founder Thomas Ang (left) and his son Vernon. Sporting events account for more than 70 per cent of its business, with the rest being community and cultural showpieces.ST PHOTO: YEO KAI WEN

Family-run S-Lite Event Support has grown along with the running events in Singapore

Their yellow metal barricades and red-and-white water barriers are as synonymous with running events in Singapore as the queues for goodie bags.

In truth, the growth of S-Lite Event Support from a company that had to rent equipment to one that is a multi-million-dollar player in the local sports logistics scene can be likened to a race itself.

The family-run business got off the blocks in a slow but steady manner. Back in 2005, founder Thomas Ang helped a friend set up the course for a company run in Sentosa. They used barriers rented from the Singapore Sports Council, now known as Sport Singapore.

Then an electrical contractor who also owned a lighting shop, he did the job pro bono with two workers and some part-time help.

However, a priceless opportunity in an as-yet-untapped market emerged. "There was talk of the Sports Hub coming up and more runs, races and other sporting events coming to Singapore," Ang, 56, recalled.

NOT AN EASY TASK

Our job may look easy on paper, just put up barriers and go but there's a lot of planning and problem-solving involved.

VERNON ANG Operations manager on the S-Lite business set-up

"Many people were talking about organising all these events but few had thought about providing logistical support to them."

He purchased about 1,000 metal barricades from China and water barriers from Malaysia, as well as several mini-cranes, to the tune of nearly $300,000.

It was a risky move then, with little certainty that mass runs would explode into the near-weekly offerings that they are today.

"I could have been left with a lot of unused barricades - maybe I could have locked myself away if it hadn't gone well," Ang noted with a laugh.

As the number of running events in Singapore continues to grow - from 60 in 2013 to more than 100 this year - so does S-Lite's reputation, repertoire and revenue.

According to Ang, the company's profit hit "mid seven figures" last year - up from less than a million for its first full year of operations in 2007, when its main involvement was in the Osim Singapore International Triathlon.

Sporting events account for more than 70 per cent of its business, with the rest split among community and cultural showpieces such as the Chingay parade.

Its entire inventory of 15,000 barricades was also used for founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's memorial service in March.

Besides barriers, it also provides banners, printing services and props such as giant inflatable children's playsets to event organisers. For instance, the 11m-tall SEA Games arch in Orchard Road in June was its creation.

S-Lite, which won the Singapore's Outstanding Enterprise award in 2011, and rival TKH Deco form a duopoly in an industry worth some $20 million annually.

They market themselves as one-stop service providers for event organisers.

"It is not easy to for a new player to break into the industry. It's labour intensive, plus 90 per cent of their weekends are burnt," said Jeffrey Foo, director of event firm Infinitus which founded the popular Illumi Run. "S-Lite is the industry leader for their connections on the ground and responsiveness to organisers' needs."

Ang's wife Kelly, 54, and son Vernon, 27, run operations while daughter Joanne, 29, handles marketing. They employ nearly 30 people and own a fleet of vehicles that include five "20-footer" trucks.

The family live in a semi-detached house in Changi but, as a rule, work can be discussed only at the company's Kaki Bukit office.

Said Vernon who holds an engineering diploma: "Our job may look easy on paper, just put up barriers and go but there's a lot of planning and problem-solving involved. We quarrel in the afternoon but it's all forgotten at the dinner table."

There is much to shout about - in a good way.

The demand for metal barricades and water barriers is so high that they are shuttled from one event to another all-year round, with little need for storage.

As most major runs are staggered to avoid a clash on the calendar, S-Lite is confident of meeting demand even as more mass participation events continue to be held.

Vernon said: "We are not a sporting family but there's a sense of accomplishment when we set up an event well and participants can have a good time.

"As long as the Singaporean culture of queuing remains, there will be a need for barriers."

•The Business of Sport is a monthly series looking at the movers and shakers of Singapore's emerging sports business industry.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 11, 2015, with the headline 'Behind the barricades'. Print Edition | Subscribe