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Fighting spirit spurs Hi-P boss to success

Mr Yao Hsiao Tung's plan to slow down at age 75 was put on hold in 2015 when Hi-P found itself in financial trouble after taking on a contract without doing enough due diligence.
Mr Yao Hsiao Tung's plan to slow down at age 75 was put on hold in 2015 when Hi-P found itself in financial trouble after taking on a contract without doing enough due diligence.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Manufacturer flailing in 2015 is headed for its largest annual gain

In 2015, Mr Yao Hsiao Tung was 75 years old and looking to slow down. He'd begun seeking his successor as chief executive officer of Hi-P International, a contract manufacturer for customers including Apple and Amazon.com.

But an annual loss, and the US$126 million (S$169 million) claim that Hi-P filed because of it, ended that plan.

The self-professed troubleshooter attributes the company's first red ink since listing on Singapore's stock exchange mostly to one big error that he oversaw. Its electronics unit took on a contract to co-design and produce a dual-screen smartphone for Yota Devices without doing enough due diligence.

The Moscow-based firm didn't take delivery of the phones, according to Mr Yao. Yota could not be reached for comment.

Two years - and, according to Hi-P, about $100 million in losses - later, the company is heading for its largest annual profit on record, helped by its work for Apple.

Its shares have more than tripled this year, which is by far the biggest gain on the FTSE Straits Times All Share Index. "We took unnecessary risk," Mr Yao said in an interview in Singapore. "But I believed I could turn the situation around."

Mr Yao says he secured financing from lenders, including Singapore's United Overseas Bank.

PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE

I don't have an intention to leave the company to family. I don't have kids also. But what I want to leave is a legacy.

MR YAO HSIAO TUNG, on resuming his search for someone to replace him as chief executive officer.

Then he changed the company's structure, creating four business units in order to target a more diversified client base and be less reliant on individual customers.

He increased the firm's focus on employee incentives and also developed a system to evaluate and limit exposure to counterparty risk.

Finally, he started arbitration proceedings against Yota to reclaim some of the losses. They were settled this year for US$17 million and an agreement that Hi-P could sell its remaining inventory of the phone that it made for the Russian company, while keeping the proceeds.

Those efforts, coupled with Hi-P's relationship with the thriving Apple, have led to a recovery.

The company posted a $54.5 million profit last year, and is expected to almost double that this year, according to estimates by DBS Group Holdings.

Hi-P makes iPhone components, including the SIM card tray and volume-control buttons, the firm said.

As a rare Singapore-listed company on Apple's official list of its top 200 suppliers, Hi-P has benefited from three new iPhone launches this year. Apple expects to post record revenue of as much as US$87 billion in the quarter ending late this month, driven by the 10-year anniversary iPhone, as well as resurgent iPad and Mac sales, the US technology giant said in November.

"Hi-P is in a sweet spot now," DBS analyst Ling Lee Keng wrote in a report last month. More than half of the firm's earnings are derived from the smartphone, Internet-of-things and smart-home businesses, which are expected to continue to do well in the next two years, she said.

Given the company's strong earnings, Mr Yao says he is considering acquisitions in the automotive and healthcare industries. He declined to identify targets but said he has a "big dream" and a way to achieve it.

Mr Yao, who owns 83 per cent of Hi-P, has seen the value of his shareholding surge to US$887 million. He was born in China but moved to Taiwan when he was five. He arrived in Singapore at the age of 39, when he was transferred here by DuPont, his employer at the time.

He started to learn English "seriously" shortly after that.

The 77-year-old says he has a fighting spirit that was born from poverty in childhood and the relocations of his life. Everywhere you go, kids bully the newcomer, he said. "Although I was small, I became a strong fighter," he said.

Mr Yao left DuPont in 1983 and took over the management of Hi-P. It was founded in 1980 with him as a silent partner. The firm, which started out making insert moulding and metal tools in China and selling them in Singapore, almost went out of business during the worldwide recession of the 1980s. It flourished thereafter, listing on the Singapore Exchange in 2003. Today, it has about 15,000 employees and a market value of more than US$1 billion.

While Hi-P's 243 per cent advance this year is more than 13 times that of the Straits Times Index, it is still cheaper than the average company in the 30-member index. Hi-P trades at 12 times estimated earnings for the next 12 months, against 14 times for the STI.

With the business stabilised, Mr Yao has begun planning for succession again. He appointed Mr Yong Inn Nam as chief operating officer last month. Mr Yong had been responsible for developing business with clients other than Apple.

In a statement to the exchange, Mr Yao said that the company's leadership for the next generation is also being identified.

"I don't have an intention to leave the company to family," he said. "I don't have kids also. But what I want to leave is a legacy."

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 25, 2017, with the headline 'Fighting spirit spurs Hi-P boss to success'. Print Edition | Subscribe