Home after 15 years to lead Philips to new frontiers

New chief to head foray into e-commerce, healthcare and technology in the region

Mr Fabian Wong, chief executive of Philips Asean and Pacific, is Philips' first Singaporean chief executive after 17 years.
Mr Fabian Wong, chief executive of Philips Asean and Pacific, is Philips' first Singaporean chief executive after 17 years. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Mr Fabian Wong's background is hardly typical of a multinational chief executive. He does not have a university degree, let alone an MBA, having started as a lowly retail sector buyer and worked his way up.

This raises eyebrows occasionally. An external consultancy firm recently made the rather pointed observation: "Fabian has performed admirably well despite not having a university degree."

Still, in his 22 years working with Dutch electronics giant Philips, the 55-year-old Singaporean who is married with a son, never felt that there was a glass ceiling.

"It was always about selecting the best person for the best job," said Mr Wong, who was appointed chief executive of Philips Asean and Pacific in July.

"To perform well, there's no short cut, and no easy way out. And I'm always on a look-out for development opportunities; I'm always doing more than called for."

So, when he started out as a sales executive at Philips more than 27 years ago, he became curious about marketing, and would spend a lot of time learning about it.

As his role expanded, he started getting very interested in finance and people management.

"I'm not fixated about whether will I get more when I do more? Development and performance, these are things people can't take away from you, it's yours," he said.

One of his key traits is a disarming willingness to admit when he does not know something.

"Some people think that I should be a Mr Know-It-All since I'm the CEO, but I'm always ready to say 'I don't know'. I remain hungry to learn and to find out about what I don't know. I encourage my team to have this mindset, too."

And in this age of digital disruption, it is even more crucial to constantly explore new ways that might overturn the old.

He recalls getting his digital director to give him quarterly briefings on the latest happenings in the digital space when he was heading up the consumer lifestyle business in the Greater China region.

Today, he gets daily and weekly reports from his digital team in Singapore on the latest chatter in cyberspace.

"It's critical in today's world where there is a lot of data. We need to know what to do with it, in order to convert data into information and information into action."

Above all, Mr Wong said he is simply passionate about doing business, setting high targets and taking his team along to achieve them.

He first started as a buyer at department chain Metro, after his A levels. He learnt the art of selling in the formative years of his life.

Feeling the need to expand his horizon beyond the world of retail, given the small Singapore market, he joined Philips to sell consumer electronics both locally and for export markets.

He left Philips for a seven-year stint with another electronics multinational before rejoining in 2000.

"Because I understood Philips and had experience outside of Philips, I was selected to go to Taiwan to help turn around the business there," he recalled.

After four years, he was again called upon - this time to turn around business units in consumer electronics in China. In his 11 years there, he went beyond turnarounds and delivered high double-digit growth year-on-year for the consumer lifestyle business over the past seven years.

After 15 years abroad, Mr Wong feels it is time to come home to help make a difference in Singapore as Philips' first Singaporean chief executive in 17 years. The last was Mr Victor Loh. He also wants to unlock the immense potential in the growing Asean market.

Philips is also undergoing a structural change to split itself into two separate companies - one dealing in healthcare and technology and the other in lighting.

After the official split next February, he will take charge of the health-tech company comprising the healthcare and consumer lifestyle businesses.

"I also spend a lot of time on digital. The next frontier for many businesses is digital, in terms of e-commerce, e-marketing and digitally-connected products."

His ambition for his next five years is to grow Philips' one billion euro (S$1.6 billion) annual revenue in the Asean and Pacific region by 50 per cent as the company moves into a new business area where consumers and healthcare professionals are brought together in one interface through technology.

"For example, if we have an overweight patient who is on the verge of having problems, the patient can use our connected products to measure the blood pressure and weight, hook onto our digital platform to track the readings and get coaching and advice on how to manage his lifestyle," he said.

"As we move into solutions consultancy, it's not just a case of selling boxes, we're selling solutions. But with our strong background in consumer products, we'll not forget about consumers' needs."

Next year, Philips will also operate out of a new building in Toa Payoh where the 1,000 staff will be housed under one roof.

Its staff are engaged in innovation and design, as well as research and development. "The office will be an open concept, to encourage innovation. We want to create a new environment where people want to go to work.

"This is a major step as we move from being a manufacturing-based company to a knowledge-based one," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 05, 2015, with the headline Fabian Wong is Philips' first Singaporean chief executive . Subscribe