When banks stopped hiring during the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis, Mr Ronald Lee found that demand for his recruitment firm's services was shrinking.
The managing director of Prime-Staff Management Services, which at the time worked mainly with clients in the banking sector, was worried about the effects of the downturn on staff morale.
But rather than wallow in pessimism, Mr Lee, 65, decided to diversify. He offered his firm's services to growing industries like the information technology sector, to ensure his business stayed afloat.
Mr Lee was a regional human resource director until he struck out on his own in 1994.
Last year, his firm, which has more than 30 employees, recorded a turnover of $11 million, a far cry from the four-man outfit that raked in $750,000 in its first year.
His firm specialises in areas such as recruiting professionals for the IT and financial sectors, as well as the education, healthcare and manufacturing sectors. It also helps companies hire staff in Asean markets such as Myanmar and Vietnam.
Yesterday, Mr Lee was one of the winners in the top category of the inaugural Asean Teochew Entrepreneur Award, given out by the Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan clan association.
The award, earlier called the Teochew Entrepreneur Award, was first given out in 2016 to Teochew entrepreneurs in Singapore. It has now been expanded to include those in Asean. It aims to honour the achievements of Teochew businesses, and recognise their contributions to the community.
More than 20 businesses from Singapore and Asean were considered for the award, said Mr Neo Sing Hwee, organising chairman of this year's awards.
Award winners will be inducted into a Teochew entrepreneurs club, which will hold monthly events that allow Teochew businesses in the region to network and share expertise, Mr Neo said.
Besides looking at data such as the company's turnover, award-winning businesses were also chosen based on other criteria, such as their ability to overcome challenges and their contributions to the community.
There were seven winners this year, including Mr Lee in the top Prestige category, and five in the Promising category.
Mr Lee said he believes his firm has grown because of the track record it has built up over the years.
He said: "Integrity is very important, and you have to deliver on your promises. When a major financial institution asked for help to recruit someone to join senior management within two weeks, we were able to meet their deadline."
There were three winners in the Honorary category, with two coming from Malaysia and Indonesia.
President and chief executive of Indonesia's Dima group Irman, 63, said the award provides a platform for him to get to know potential business partners in Singapore.
Mr Irman, who goes by one name, said: "We have not ventured out of Indonesia yet, but I see a lot of potential to forge regional collaborations through the award, such as discovering new overseas brands to bring into Indonesia."
The Dima group distributes food and beverage products, including popular brands such as Pokka and Guinness.
At the gala dinner and awards presentation ceremony held at the Resorts World Convention Centre, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, who was guest of honour, said Asean - with a significant market of about 650 million people and a combined gross domestic product of US$2.6 trillion (S$3.6 trillion) - is an important region of the world.
He said: "Throughout history, it has been a key international node for the exchange of goods, people, ideas and culture.
"Asean will continue to play this role, to bring the world closer, to facilitate nations working together and building bridges and linkages, especially when times are uncertain. To do so, we must remain united, and be open to all countries of the world that share our beliefs."
He added that the Teochews, known for being outgoing and entrepreneurial, have formed a tight network throughout the region.
BreadTalk Group chairman George Quek's company is a household name in Singapore and has also ventured into the Asean region, while other notable entrepreneurs of Teochew descent include Lion Group Malaysia chairman William Cheng, said Mr Ong.
"This award signifies the tight-knit character of the Teochew business community... It is very important that established business leaders within the community continue to provide guidance and mentorship to younger entrepreneurs," Mr Ong added.