Overseas-based Singaporean entrepreneurs back here brewing new business ideas to battle Covid-19

Ms Reene Ho-Phang and her husband Peter Phang with their adopted black poodle Charcoal at home on Aug 19, 2020.
Ms Reene Ho-Phang and her husband Peter Phang with their adopted black poodle Charcoal at home on Aug 19, 2020.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

SINGAPORE - For the first 12 years after starting her company, Ms Reene Ho-Phang did not take leave.

As the co-founder of BrandStory, a strategic travel marketing consultancy, she had eight offices around the region to manage and clients as far away as Azerbaijan and Iceland to service.

The only times she managed to get away were when her clients' offices closed for Christmas and Chinese New Year.

In late January this year, she and her husband, Mr Peter Phang, 50, who runs the company with her, flew back to Singapore from their base in Shanghai for Year of the Rat celebrations with their extended family.

On the seventh day of Chinese New Year - a significant occasion known as Everyone's Birthday - her father suddenly died at age 78. A retired civil servant, he had looked after finance for BrandStory's headquarters here.

"It was..." Ms Ho-Phang trails off and clears her throat, "the lowest point for me."

At the same time, a lockdown was declared on Wuhan, as a mysterious virus gripped the Chinese city she frequented for business.

She watched with dismay as "things started to unravel" as Covid-19 containment measures in China, and then around the world, disrupted her business, which dropped by up to 80 per cent in some markets.

She found herself consoling a colleague in China who was crying over the shortage of masks there, and packing boxes of the item to send over to friends and associates there.

Seven months later, she counts her father's passing as a blessing in disguise.

"My dad probably saved me and kept me safe here," she says pensively. "I'm grateful to him because I could have been locked down in Wuhan."

Ms Reene Ho-Phang (white cap) is pictured with her husband, Mr Peter Phang (left with sunglasses), and delegates from Jerusalem visiting the Forbidden City in Beijing. PHOTO: COURTESY OF REENE HO-PHANG

Petite and elegant with a ready laugh, Ms Ho-Phang is one of the many intrepid Singaporeans who have ventured overseas to set up businesses.

According to Population In Brief 2019, an annual government publication, there were 217,200 overseas Singaporeans. The Singapore Global Network, which supports this community, does not have figures on the number of business owners among them.

While many of these overseas-based entrepreneurs have been hit by the pandemic's aftershock, they are doggedly forging new paths with a never-say-die attitude.

Ask Ms Ho-Phang about her age and the 50-year-old says "forever 33", a nod to the time when she formed her company in 2003.

As corporate director of resort chain Banyan Tree, she had visited Shanghai and Beijing for work, then found herself unable to return home for a couple of weeks because of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak.

During her extended stay in Beijing, she wrote a business plan for an idea of a tourism consultancy, targeted at new markets, which she had long been mulling over. She was inspired by her former bosses at Banyan Tree who convinced her that companies, no matter how small, must be global in outlook.

She says of her decision to base herself in China: "Let's take the biggest challenge first, the biggest market first. Then the rest of the markets will be easy. That was what I told myself at that time."

She convinced her husband to quit his job in healthcare here and join her. While running her fledgling consultancy, she was surprised to find herself pregnant - doctors had asked her to relax because she had problems conceiving.

Juggling a growing business and an expanding belly, she soldiered on. Her parents lived with the couple in Shanghai for about six years to care for daughter Nathanielle. The slog was worth it as the industry grew exponentially and her firm with it. "It was non-stop. We were very grateful because we rode the boom of China," she says.

BrandStory's success did not go unnoticed. It was ranked No. 34 on a list of 85 firms celebrated as Singapore's fastest-growing companies last year by The Straits Times and Germany-based global research firm Statista, based on revenue growth from 2014 to 2017.

During that period, her firm grew 246 per cent with a revenue of $2.35 million in 2017. It was also the only advertising and public relations company among the top 50 awardees. It counts among its clients tourism authorities from Europe, the Middle East and Australia, as well as key destinations in the United States such as Las Vegas and Hawaii.

BrandStory grew to 50 staff at its peak, with offices in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Hong Kong, Taipei, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

It bagged numerous travel industry accolades along the way but what kept her going was the challenge of introducing new destinations like Qatar to Asian travellers. "We bridge the cultures of different lands," she says.

The "non-stop" nature of her job also meant she had to find creative ways to fit in time with her family. She recalls doing "crazy trips" like flying for 24 hours from Hawaii to Seattle and then to Singapore, just to attend a cousin's wedding.

All that ground to a halt with the circuit breaker in April and May.

"Wow," she says, sighing deeply and then chuckling when asked about what she did.

"For someone quite active, it was quite a refreshing change. Finally, you had no excuse but to clean your storeroom," she says, gesturing to the wall of cupboards in her semi-detached house in the east that displays her travel souvenirs, like a bear from London and a ukulele from Hawaii.

She bonded over durians with her mother, tried gardening with her husband and caught up with friends here and overseas.

Most importantly, she had more time with Nathanielle, now 16, whom she had left in the care of her parents here since primary school. She had made the "heart-wrenching" decision so her daughter could have a "very good bilingual education", as she was not satisfied with the quality of schools in China in the early years.

Long-distance parenting meant that routine tasks like spelling drills were conducted via WeChat.

During the circuit breaker, mother and daughter bonded in the kitchen as Nathanielle loves cooking.

Ms Ho-Phang also made good on her "overdue" promise to get her a dog, buying a miniature toy poodle named Charcoal.

She is touched that Nathanielle trusts her enough to share "small little details" about her life, like what her friends are saying. "It's much more than anything I could have achieved," she says, her voice heavy with emotion.

Even as she settled into a home-based routine, Ms Ho-Phang hatched plans to save her team and redeploy its talent.

She has brewed two start-ups during the circuit breaker - one is a "digital lifestyle experience" that brings "treasures of the world" such as hand-woven carpets from Azerbaijan and amber from Lithuania to Generation Z and millennial consumers; while the other curates "daily lifestyle tools" like speciality soaps for the "'new normal' way of life", she says. Both are targeted to launch by the end of next month.

Social Stories, a digital social media agency she started about three years ago, is also branching out to service clients in other industries, such as Oribe, a hair and beauty care brand.

While she is encouraging her team of 25 to develop new skills, she reports that business has picked up over the past two weeks. The firm is starting on new bids and recovery plans for its travel destination clients. Attractions are reopening in China, which is a good sign.

"Travel has become a very important part of the economy in many countries, so it's about how to reopen in a very safe manner. We have difficult challenges to communicate a travel experience that is quite different from the past," she says.

She is adamant that she is "not done yet" professionally, even though Covid-19 may have eroded much of her financial gains from building a business in China over the last 17 years. Detractors have told her she could have passively made the same gains from investing in Shanghai property all those years ago, but she begs to differ.

"It would not have been a great journey. What we have gained in sum is worth much more."

Like the rainbow emojis that pepper her WhatsApp messages, Ms Ho-Phang's outlook is decidedly positive despite the gloomy economic weather forecast.

"This experience must teach us something. We must get the most out of it and not waste it."

Steering in uncharted waters

Mr Nicholas Koh dons goggles, gloves and an N95 mask for his photo shoot. He grips a gun-like device in his hands and poses gamely for the photographer on the rooftop of the building where his office is located.

The view of Singapore's progress below is scenic, yet rain clouds threaten overhead. It is an apt metaphor for the pandemic-induced recession.

"The storm is coming," he says.

Mr Nicholas Koh is chief executive of Victory Knights Management and Consultancy Services. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

The device he wields turns out to be Tomi SteraMist, a "gold standard" decontamination solution from the United States that his company is now marketing. Friends had introduced him to it in February, just as Covid-19 started its run around the world, and he secured its distribution rights to several countries.

During the circuit breaker, the affable 60-year-old found himself conducting product demonstrations to corporations and institutions to secure sales. To feel safer, as he was "very worried" about being exposed to the coronavirus, he wore a gadget that emits negative ions.

This year has been "truly uncharted waters" for the former senior naval officer-turned-entrepreneur. Since 2005, he has been shuttling between Singapore and Oman while running Victory Knights Management and Consultancy Services. The firm provides business development and master planning services for firms that want to do business in the Gulf state. It works with a variety of partners, including the Royal Navy of Oman and German conglomerate Siemens.

Mr Koh was drawn to Oman because of its wealth of natural resources and blue sky potential. It reminded him of Singapore in the 1970s and 1980s, when he was still serving in the Republic of Singapore Navy. The navy scholar opted for early retirement in 2002, when he was lieutenant colonel and deputy head of naval logistics (ship systems), to try out corporate life.

"Some of us who have the benefit of scholarships should go out there and bring the external economy back to Singapore," he says of his decision to venture abroad.

Victory Knights has a team of about 10, but is somewhat of a family business too. His wife, Angel, 55, handles finance, while daughter Denise, 29, and son Edgar, 27, take charge of different projects.

He declines to share its revenue figures, except to say that "there were times when it was really bad - you hit the bottom - and times when you ride high".

The pandemic has brought his Oman projects to a standstill, but the survivor in him still has plenty of fighting spirit left.

The fifth of six children of a lampshade-maker who was so poor at times that the family ate only rice with spicy dried shrimps - a story he recounts in his self-published book, My Bowl Of Hei Bee Hiang Rice - Mr Koh believes there must be "that hunger in your stomach... because no one owes anyone a living".

To that end, he has also become a distributing partner for BioAcumen Global, a home-grown company whose life-science diagnostic products help make Covid-19 testing more affordable. Using his extensive network, he aims to push its kits out to various countries.

Both his new ventures make a "fraction" of his previous revenue, he says, but he finds them "very meaningful" as they help in the fight against Covid-19.

Calling the coronavirus "the worst of all enemies", he says that the crisis has brought into focus how fragile and unpredictable life is.

"Today, the reality of life is that we are staring into something invisible, that can kill you any time," he expounds. That is why he intends to publish a second book which will recount his entrepreneurial journey.

Early retirement is not an option for the spritely sexagenarian, who says he does not believe in wasting time.

"Failure is the next motivation for success. If we give up, we would have failed our forefathers, our pioneers in Singapore."