Taiwan quake a moving experience for chief exec Erwin Foo

Then a university student, he saw the power of teamwork

Mr Foo, chief executive of information technology solution firm Enovax and security manpower portal Onestop Security Platform, says his strategy is to invest in complementary businesses.
Mr Foo, chief executive of information technology solution firm Enovax and security manpower portal Onestop Security Platform, says his strategy is to invest in complementary businesses. ST PHOTO: MARCUS TAN

It was Sept 21, 1999, and Mr Erwin Foo woke up in the middle of the night to find his bed shaking.

He was a third-year student at National Taiwan University, staying in one of the dormitories.

"In Taiwan, earthquakes are very normal, so I thought I'd just go back to sleep," recalled Mr Foo, now 39.

But one look at the bedroom door, which was shaking violently from side to side, changed his mind.

"The whole building was swaying. We all ran out," he said. That night, many buildings collapsed.

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  • Q What has been your biggest investing mistake?

    A I put $20,000 into this company from China, Full Apex, which was listed on the Singapore Exchange in 2003. It made packaging materials and plastic bottles for clients that included Coca-Cola.

    Such listings were all the rage back then, and there were promises of handsome returns that did not materialise.

    When I bought the stock in 2003, it was $0.80, but the price is now less than five cents.

    I'm still holding the shares... I didn't sell them when the price kept falling as I was hoping it would go back up. I thought it would be just a paper loss if I didn't sell.

    From this experience, I learnt never to invest in a venture that you have little knowledge of, and never to invest in a business model or industry that you are unfamiliar with.

    I didn't really invest in stocks after that.

    Q And what has been your best investment move?

    A My best investments are my two companies, Enovax and OSP.

    Enovax has come a long way since it started in 2010. I began with just $100 and a $3,000 laptop, and the company has grown from just me to a group of 30 employees.

    We also moved from the study room in my apartment to our current 5,000 sq ft office in Ubi.

    We're proud and honoured to have many big clients such as Golden Village, Safra and Fuji Xerox.

    This year, we plan to grow our annual revenue to more than $3 million.

    I hope we will be a multinational company some day. The bigger the company, the greater the positive impact we can have on society.

    Sheryl Lee

Mr Foo, who was born in Malaysia, had always thought of starting his own business, and he chose to study in Taiwan 20 years ago because of its "unique environment, where the SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) are very strong". He cited Acer and Foxconn as inspirations.

After the earthquake, he witnessed first-hand the collective might of Taiwan's SMEs contributing to humanitarian efforts.

"Many enterprises donated to the Tzuchi Buddhist foundation. And so they were able to do everything from distributing food to rebuilding schools. I realised that if I work as an individual, there's a limit to what I can do. A company with many people working together has more power."

Today, Mr Foo is chief executive of two companies, Enovax and Onestop Security Platform (OSP).

He started Enovax, an information technology solution firm, in early 2010 from the study room in his Yishun apartment. He acquired OSP, a security manpower portal, last October.

He started Enovax only after doing stints at other companies - including accounting firm Deloitte and online payment firm Systems@ Work - to "build experience".

"By the time I started, I'd already been preparing for 10 years, building networks and finding mentors," he said with a smile. "All those years... it was always in my mind."

Q Moneywise, what were your growing-up years like?

A I was raised in a small Malaysian town, Ulu Tiram, with seven (older) siblings. My father was the sole breadwinner. We were so poor that we didn't have beds at home. All 10 of us, including our parents, slept on the hard cement floor at the back of our shophouse.

When my third brother became the first person in our family to get a degree, at National Taiwan University, it inspired me to do the same.

When I went to Taiwan, I had very little money and had to work at a night market every weekend, selling ornamental glassware to put myself through university.

Q How did you get interested in investing?

A My biggest investment, apart from my house and insurance policies, would be in my two businesses, Enovax and OSP.

I got interested in investing in the businesses when I saw them growing and the impact they could make.

I started off as one person in my own apartment and now we've expanded to a 5,000 sq ft office with 30 employees.

I feel proud of what we're doing because it's not just a job to me. We work closely with our clients in different industries to come up with solutions that benefit them.

For example, we worked with Certis Cisco to create the Formula One Grand Prix attendance-tracking system for security officers at the Marina Bay circuit. They were happy with it and later awarded us another contract to develop Cashpoint+, a cash-payment system.

A lot of our business comes from referrals from other clients.

Q What's your investing strategy?

A I believe in investing in myself, my family and my businesses. For my businesses, I started Enovax in 2010 and acquired OSP last year.

My strategy is to invest in complementary businesses. Enovax has experience providing Web, mobile and gantry solutions in areas like online ticketing and autogate access systems.

We hope to make our own products in the future using this knowledge and experience.

OSP is currently a portal that matches security guards to agencies based on factors such as location, which will help with the manpower crunch. Enovax will be the IT solution developer for OSP.

Apart from the security industry, I'm also looking into other industries, such as food and beverage (F&B), that are facing manpower shortages. It's a national issue that can be solved using technology, such as by having a single platform for the matching and hiring process, which will save time, effort and money.

For me, family is also very important. I grew up poor with few luxuries and I value a healthy, happy family. I had little as a child and one of my greatest satisfactions is giving my five-year-old daughter the best I can afford.

Q What's in your portfolio?

A I have a portfolio of insurance policies amounting to about $1 million.

My monthly insurance premiums are about $2,000 and that includes my daughter's education, major illness and life insurance.

Running a business is a high-risk activity, so I invest in insurance for security. I have also put more than $500,000 into my businesses. I acquired OSP for a five-digit sum as the majority shareholder.

For property, I bought my 1,200 sq ft Yishun condominium in 2009 for $550,000 and now it's worth $1 million. The lease is 99 years.

Q What does money mean to you?

A When it comes to money, I'm a spender. If there are problems that can be solved with money, I'm willing to pay.

Last year, my daughter had this "Minions Show" event at school, where everyone had to dress up as Minions (characters from the animation film).

I immediately thought of buying her a Minion costume, but my wife, who is the saver, wanted us to make the costume together.

We saved money, but more importantly, we bonded as a family through the exercise. I found it can sometimes be more fulfilling solving problems without using money.

Q What's the most extravagant thing you have done?

A Spending on wedding preparations - I married in 2009 and spent more than $50,000 on the wedding banquet alone. I then bought my condominium in Yishun as my marital home, and a brand-new Mazda 3 for $55,000.

Q What are your immediate investment plans?

A We're now renting our 5,000 sq ft office space in Ubi, so I'm planning to buy office space in a more central area like Raffles Place and turning this liability into an asset.

Q How are you planning for retirement?

A I don't believe in retiring. I enjoy keeping busy and meeting people. But I hope to have recurring income of at least $10,000 once I'm 50.

Right now, Enovax is still doing projects for our clients to accumulate knowledge and experience.

But we're also looking into coming up with our own products, under our own brand names, for recurring income.

For our own products, we're going to build on our experience in ticketing solutions, as well as in the F&B and security industries.

Q Home is now/I drive...

A I live with my wife and daughter in Lilydale, my condominium in Yishun. I still drive my metallic blue Mazda 3 and I love it.

We call it Xiao Lan, Chinese for Little Blue.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 27, 2016, with the headline Taiwan quake a moving experience for chief exec Erwin Foo. Subscribe