When Mr Frank Chen saw a business opportunity in the collection, processing and recycling of scrap materials in 2009, the concept of environmental sustainability had yet to gain traction in most parts of the world.
But the eco-conscious Mr Chen began collecting scrap materials containing Platinum Group Metals (PGM) - precious metals such as platinum, palladium and rhodium - from discarded catalytic converters of gasoline- and diesel powered vehicles.
"My mission was to make precious metals recycling a mainstream alternative to mining, and BR Metals the go-to company for sustainable recycling and recovery of these finite resources," he says.
Combining this idea with a growing market demand for professionalism and transparency in the business of salvaged scraps, Mr Chen started BR Metals. A decade on, the company is considered a recycling powerhouse with offices in Singapore, Guangzhou in China and Phnom Penh in Cambodia.
Its new processing plant in the Wu Jiang district of Shaoguan, Guangdong will start operation in the first quarter of 2020. Once fully operational, it will have an automated bulk sampling line capable of processing 3,000 tonnes of precious metal annually and an analysis lab. The new facility is the district's first foreign investment. Once in operation, BR Metals will increase its precious metals recycling capacity by more than 200 per cent, and create new job opportunities for the community.
In the last year, the business has grown by 280 per cent. This year, BR Metals is also listed as one of Singapore's fastest-growing companies in a study compiled by The Straits Times and global research firm Statista - the second time the company made it to the list.
But succeeding in the business of waste management and recycling - particularly in the collection of precious metals - is not about simply being at the right place at the right time.
The managing director explains that competition for supplies has been intensifying over the last few years with more collectors like BR Metals entering the market, perhaps spurred by the price of precious metals going "through the roof" over the last two years. With competition comes several new challenges.
"Prices of spent catalytic converters increased by as much as 30 per cent in some markets and refineries are also more selective in the quality of materials recycling companies like us send them," says Mr Chen.
Despite the competition, he stresses that his company does not engage in price wars. Instead, BR Metals sticks to refining the tried-and-tested strategies and values that have long set it apart from the competition.
BR Metals offers three recycling models to meet different business needs.
Besides timely payment, the processes are transparent - customers are informed about the price of their precious metal content based on current market prices and can witness the entire sampling process from unpacking to processing, sampling and analysis.
"Precious metals recycling is a high-volume, low-margin business. In order to turn a healthy profit, we have to collect at least over a hundred tonne of PGM-laden materials every month," says Mr Chen.
But BR Metals' focus on nurturing long-term supplier relationships through transparency has paid off, and the company has developed a strong network of trusted suppliers in South-east Asia, China, India, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Haiti and Iceland.
"Our service differentiation and process innovation has helped us to retain our status as one of the largest PGM processors in Asia in terms of delivered volume," he explains. "To date, we have not lost a single customer to even the most aggressive competitors."
Rising to challenges
Mr Chen also recognises the need to identify new opportunities as well as threats. And a key challenge the company faces in addition to increasing global competition is regulatory changes such as China's new energy vehicle policy that aims to bring alternative fuel vehicles to account for at least 20 per cent of sales in 2025 and India's policy to move to a full electric vehicle (EV) market by early 2030.
"Most of these challenges are part of a cyclical market and the global economy at large," he explains. "As an SME, we can only adapt to survive and thrive. Market disruption is inevitable, but it's how we choose to deal with it that will make or break a business."
For BR Metals, this means exploring new and untapped markets, as well as continuously improving its processes and technology.
Recognising that the precision and accuracy of its analysis results is critical for the profitability of the business, BR Metals has also partnered with Singapore Institute of Technology to develop a quicker and more cost-effective method of PGM analysis that enhances recovery downstream without sacrificing the analytical accuracy and precision.
"The new method will hasten turnaround time and allow us to pay out Models B and C customers faster than the competitors whilst minimising the risks associated with market fluctuations," says Mr Chen.
To prepare for regulatory changes, the company is also working with a consultant and Enterprise Singapore to help stay on the pulse of changing environmental regulations, as well as engage with relevant government department and officers.
Despite these changes, Mr Chen highlights that the burgeoning automotive sector in developing markets in Asia-Pacific and China continues to offer growth opportunities through the coming decade.
BR Metals is also diversifying its recycling solutions and supply source to include other precious metals and base metals, especially those that are required for EV batteries such as lithium and cobalt while ramping up its processing and analysis capabilities to include other types of waste metals.
"When the going gets tough, I do not allow myself to lose sight of why I started the company," says Mr Chen. "I'm more committed than ever to build a lucrative recycling powerhouse that exemplifies sustainability and profitability."
But he also highlights the importance of his team that has been working hard in supporting and sharing in his vision at BR Metals: "This makes it possible for everyone to work together towards a common goal, make effective decisions for the brand and move the company forward."
Visit brmetalsltd.com for more information.