Picking up the pieces after Sichuan quake flattens plant

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 9, 2013

Sichuan's massive earthquake in 2008 struck thousands of kilometres away, but the aftershocks were keenly felt by businessman Ong Hian Eng in Singapore.

A chemical engineer by training, who received his PhD from the University of London, he remembers well the afternoon of May 12, 2008, when an 8.0-magnitude quake levelled buildings and rocked his world.

Sitting in his office back then, Dr Ong was overseeing the operations of Norwest, a mineral resources unit of Singapore-listed Hwa Hong, run by his family.

Set up in 1996 with a total paid-up capital of some $10 million, Norwest had mining rights and facilities in Sichuan's Mianzhu city.

Dr Ong was informed that his financial controller, who was in Mianzhu then, had sent an emergency text message via his mobile phone with the brief message that read "Help. Earthquake."

Attempts to contact the financial controller were unsuccessful as communication networks were disrupted after the quake.

When the dust settled, Dr Ong found that Norwest's phosphate production facility had been decimated.

Worse, Norwest's two phosphate rock mines in Sichuan were badly hit by the quake, leading to the loss of about 80 lives.

In a matter of minutes, Dr Ong had lost 40 per cent of the 200-strong staff in Norwest.

Recounting that dark moment, with his voice quivering and eyes reddening, 66-year-old Dr Ong said: "It was a very unfortunate landslide accident that happened in the mining site. It was very, very painful."

Despite losing his staff, whom he described as his family, Dr Ong had to pick up the pieces, just like the financial controller trapped in the debris who eventually crawled his way to safety.

As a public company listed on the Singapore Exchange (SGX) mainboard since 1979, Hwa Hong, now primarily a property player, was concerned about whether Norwest's operations could return to normal.

Dr Ong and other members of the Norwest management team decided to buy out the unit from Hwa Hong for an undisclosed sum.

"The damage was so severe that nobody would have any confidence in our operations. Everyone thought we were crazy because they thought we were buying scrap. Everything almost disappeared," he said.

In 2009, after Chinese authorities announced a 3 billion yuan (S$627 million) plan to reconstruct roads and other infrastructure near the mines, Dr Ong swung into action.

He commissioned geological experts to search and ascertain that the two mines still had good amounts of high-quality phosphate deposits, after the earth had shifted.

When that was done, Dr Ong went about sourcing for funds, taking potential investors to the mines and the plot where the factory would be rebuilt.

After much difficulty, he was able to garner sufficient money to build a new production plant that maximises recycling and re-usage of by-products. The factory has since risen from the ashes in Sichuan, with the completion of its first phase late last year.

With the new plant, came a new beginning as Dr Ong set up AsiaPhos last year as part of a corporate restructuring exercise of Norwest's assets.

AsiaPhos continues to explore, mine and sell phosphate, having two mining licences. It is also producing and selling phosphorous and phosphate chemicals used in products such as beverages, cereals and fertilisers to multinational corporations including Unilever and Procter & Gamble.

AsiaPhos is also looking to list on the SGX. It lodged a preliminary offer document late last month.

Splitting his time between Singapore and Sichuan, Dr Ong, who is bilingual and married with two children, said the shuttling and hard work is worth it.

More importantly, the chief executive and chairman of AsiaPhos is glad to be able to help rebuild the lives of the people of Mianzhu when others fled in the wake of the quake.

He said: "We could have walked away. But I always remember my late father's lesson - we must always think positive and not give up hope."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 9, 2013To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to