Construction boss digs deep to build up strong brand

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 19, 2013

LAYING strong foundations to ensure a company's long-term sustainability is a process that construction firm boss Francis Koh is well acquainted with.

At the tender age of eight, the chief executive of Koh Brothers Group accompanied his father and founder of the company, Mr Koh Tiat Meng, to worksites. Eager to pitch in, the younger Mr Koh recalled fondly that he used a small spade in an attempt to help dig drains.

"It didn't help very much but I just wanted to find something I could do," said Mr Koh, now 51, with a laugh.

Having seen first-hand how buildings are developed from scratch, Mr Koh, a civil engineer by training, set out to establish a sound business model for Koh Brothers, anchored by its core construction business, and only pushed more aggressively into branding it as a diversified group in recent years.

That push led the publicly listed Koh Brothers to garner honours last week in a top local branding competition. Taking part in the Singapore Prestige Brand Award (SPBA) for the first time, the company won in the Heritage Brand category, which recognises brands that have been established for more than 30 years.

Koh Brothers was one of 43 winners at the SPBA, which lauds excellent branding efforts by local small and medium-sized enterprises. The SPBA is jointly organised by the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises and Singapore Press Holdings' Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao.

But its branding campaign has just begun. Mr Koh said there are plans to boost the profile of its subsidiaries such as the building materials unit, G&W, as well as the real estate development arm, KBD. "Branding is still very important for our business to get in touch with our stakeholders and our clients," he said.

Despite the spike in land costs recently, Mr Koh said he will still move ahead to expand KBD's business. "We are still actively looking to tender for land. As long as you have a prudent approach, things should be OK."

Behind the company's success are its 1,000-strong staff, many of whom have witnessed its growth from a small set-up to a publicly listed firm with businesses spanning the region.

Mr Koh said the turnover rate among employees is low, and many have stayed with the company until retirement. It has even had one group of family members spanning three generations working at the company.

A firm believer in staff welfare, Mr Koh said the company strives to be a family-oriented organisation which always leaves its doors open to staff for consultation. "Any problem they have, we try to help them to solve it, because we treasure our workers," said the father of three.

Pictures of staff honoured for various contributions line the walls of the offices. To build camaraderie, Mr Koh insists that staff call him Francis.

While Koh Brothers got its name because it was started by his father and his uncles, it now has a looser meaning. "We've widened the 'brothers' scope and extended it to include our staff," said Mr Koh, whose younger brother Joseph is the head of the hospitality business.

When asked if Koh Brothers will be passed on to the next generation, he said: "I will leave it to my children. They have to take ownership and be responsible for their own decisions."

It is a motto Mr Koh adopts for his subsidiaries too. He empowers the respective units to make day-to-day decisions even as he oversees operations and provides strategic directions.

Earlier this month, Koh Brothers reported an 86 per cent jump in its second-quarter net profit to $4.8 million. The firm has a market capitalisation of $141 million.

An avid sportsman who came up with Parc Olympia, the sports-themed condominium project developed by Koh Brothers, Mr Koh is also vice- president of the Singapore Badminton Association.

The regular badminton and golf player said his life journey is akin to one in the sporting arena. "Life is like sports. People have to go through ups and downs. The most important thing is to pick yourself up after that."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 19, 2013

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