Mr. Danny Lien, Managing Director of Amos International, shares with us many of his inspiring experiences on starting his business. He holds dear many fundamental values and sincerely believes that his colleagues and family are the keys to the success of the company. One of the top winners of ASME's Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2009 and a strong advocate of continuous learning, he is currently pursuing his Masters from the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business.
Amos International is a relatively young company. Its youth merely a facade, the Company has already garnered several prestigious awards in its short span of business. Amos's reputation and brand name has made it a respectable leader within its own industry.
Almost every entrepreneur has his humble beginnings and so too had Mr. Danny Lien. However, despite the many trials and tribulations he faced, Mr. Lien held on to his beliefs and managed to conquer the challenges he encountered with resourcefulness and astute business strategies.
1. What is the nature of your business?
Amos International provides marine & offshore procurement and logistics management solutions to ships calling at major Asian ports. We also offer storage options as well as a range of in-house products to cater to the needs of our clients.
2. When and why did you decide to become an entrepreneur / take over your family business? NOTE: If it is not a family business, ask: Do your parents have their own businesses too? Have they inspired you in one way or another? (Select appropriate question according to the entrepreneur being interviewed.)
It was by default that I came into this business/industry. After my national service in the mid 80s, I was helping out in my dad's business. The business was facing tough challenges and I promised to help him turn it around. After the completion of my university degree in 1989, I carried on working with my dad and it was not until 1991, when I started my own business, having spotted the potential within the industry.
3. What are your reasons for choosing to do business in this particular industry?
My dad has been (and still owns a business) in the marine industry for almost his entire working life. While working for him, I was able to develop the required domain knowledge and experience. I also understood nature of the business and knew that I could capitalize on this knowledge. Secondly, I also enjoyed meeting and knowing people. This business often allows me to do just that- meeting new people and customers.
4. How did you put together all the resources needed to start your business? For example: getting the start-up capital, hiring staff, doing sales and marketing, advertising, etc.
Having worked for only 2 years after my graduation, I naturally did not have much savings when I started my first business in 1991. I took on the banks' overdraft facilities and somehow managed to raise 20k of paid-up capital for my business.
5. What are some interesting stories you have about your first few customers/first few years in business?
Before I started my own business, there were many people and customers who said that they would lend a helping hand and support my business. After I had started, I went back to these people and sought their support. Unfortunately several of them went back on their promises and were reluctant to give me a helping hand. Thankfully, there were still a handful of good and sincere people who stuck to their promise to support my newly established enterprise.
6. What are some of the challenges you faced when you first went into business?
I started my first business in 1991 when I was 28 years old. As you can imagine, it was not an easy task and I faced several challenges. The first was in terms of financing. The banks were reluctant to extend credit facilities due to my lack of credit history. Secondly, my suppliers lacked confidence because of my short entrepreneurial track record and often demanded cash for all my purchases. Customers were also looking for a track record and it was quite tough because as a new start-up I simply did not have one except to offer in its place a sincerity of performing. We needed the customers' support in order to build one. I had to also learn to constantly recalibrate my own expectations and to continuously keep myself motivated and remain positive in difficult times.
7. How did you overcome these challenges? Please share some specific examples of the action you took to overcome the challenges.
It was through perseverance and the personal belief that I would succeed against all the odds to sustain the business. Displaying self-confidence and building confidence with business partners are also crucial factors in overcoming these obstacles. The company always maintained its promise to deliver. But underpinning my success is undoubtedly due to the unflagging support of my family. They were the people who were there for me through thick and thin.
An important ability often found lacking in entrepreneurs is an openness to discuss problems. Entrepreneurs are generally keen to succeed in the shortest possible time that they often tend to avoid facing up to reality. For instance, there was one time when I was unable to pay a supplier due to my customer not settling his invoice on time. Instead of avoiding my supplier, I personally called him and explained the situation. I promised to pay him back as soon as I could. He accepted my explanation and of course I made good my promise.
8. Can you remember your worst day in business or a time when you felt like giving up? What happened that made you feel that way and how did you triumph over it?
2 factors critically important to a business are its people and finances. These two factors are fundamental to the success of a business. People are important especially in a service industry. When you are a young company, it is always very difficult to attract good people to work for you. New small start-ups are often viewed as "no prospects". So as an entrepreneur, I really had no social or family life because of the challenges I faced in recruitment. Most of my time was spent working, often alone into the wee hours of the
morning; Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays included.
Managing the cash flow of the business was another big challenge, especially when payroll was due. Along with payroll, payments to suppliers are also normally due. As a small business owner, it is always a recurring challenge to maintain sufficient funds to meet all financial obligations. There were countless occasions when I had to swallow my pride to plead with suppliers to give me time to settle their invoices.
Perseverance and building relationship with business partners were important to stay on course. These, coupled with a good reputation and integrity put me on track to scale greater heights. However, as I said earlier, all this would not have been possible if I didn't have the strong support from my parents, my wife and children.
9. Can you share some of the lessons you learnt from overcoming your own business challenges that you think will help other businesses?
Building a good reputation and trust is critical to ensure that customers gain a high regard of the company. Customers' confidence will grow with consistent good quality of work or service. It is my firm belief that businesses should avoid taking the easy way out by short-changing customers. This strategy will not be sustainable in the long run as unethical business practices will inevitably come to light. Finally, I've learned to think, plan and follow through using the best practices available.
10. When was the moment you realised the business would work and support you?
It was only around 6-7 months, although it felt like 6-7 years, into my entrepreneurial journey before I saw some light at the end of the tunnel. Once customers actually started sending enquiries and following up with purchase orders, it was a sign that the business was turning around and gaining momentum. It also meant that the business was beginning to show improvements and we had the right value proposition in place.
11. What are some of your proudest business achievements to date? And why are they so important and meaningful to you?
Amos International is a relatively young 6 year-old company. But we have already acquired 10,000 square meter office space in Chin Bee Crescent in just 5 years as well as earning several accolades: the Singapore Quality Class Certification, the prestigious Minister for Defence Award and Fastest Growing 50 Companies 2009 Award. We are also inducted into the prestigious MiDAs (Minister for Defence Awards) League and Amos International has received the Singapore SME 500 award for several consecutive years. Amos International is also first in the industry to have attained ISO 9001, ISO 14001 and OHSAS 18001 certifications.
12. How do you differentiate your business from your competitors? Please provide specific examples.
I believe the key differentiating factor is our people. A company may have the best practices but at the end of the day, people still play a critical and vital role in providing a positive customer experience. For Amos International, we do our best to take care of our people. They are the company's ambassadors. It is essential for our people to be highly motivated and positive. I am a firm believer that in order to provide a positive customer experience, our own people have to be first positive and enthusiastic in performing their roles. Products, systems and business processes will then complement the people factor to create the value chain.
13. What are some business ideas you have implemented that created great results in your business?
People and environment generate innovative ideas that can help a business grow. At Amos, many ideas generated to improve business performance focus primarily on our people. We recognize that the quality of our people, the attitude of our people, the enthusiasm of our people and the commitment of our people all contribute towards providing our customers a positive experience. Therefore instead of only focusing on how we can make our customers happy, we first focus on making our people happy. Once they possess the right mix of positive attributes, a happy customer is a foregone conclusion. Amos places heavy emphasis on continuous learning and upgrading, staff welfare and maintaining a balanced and healthy work and family lifestyle.
14. Where or who do you get your business ideas from?
Ideas generally come from brainstorming sessions and discussions. As for me, I like to take the occasional time off, take a step back to take stock, analyze and look at the situation from a different perspective. By complementing my personal thought consolidation process through regular engagement with my customers and colleagues, I can consistently come up with ways to stay ahead of competition.
15. What do you see for your business in the next 5 years, and does it include any plans for expansion?
We are currently working on developing our Asian footprint, in particular North Asia. We already have a representative office in Shanghai since 2008 and we working at converting it to a wholly foreign owned enterprise. Amos International Hong Kong is also operational and it is a small replica of our Singapore operations. We are building up a Company in Malaysia's Port Klang and we aim to commence operations by end of 2010. Our short to midterm plans include having a representative office in India and Vietnam by 2011. We are also working towards an IPO within the next two years.
16. What does entrepreneurship mean to you?
Entrepreneurship means possessing the ability to challenge the norms and step out of one's comfort zone. An entrepreneur should also be able to shoulder the additional responsibilities and pressures. Entrepreneurship is also about the ability to make a positive difference in the lives of people who work with you. It also means building character to ride the storms of adversity.
17. What are some entrepreneurship qualities that you have which has helped you come this far?
Integrity, perseverance, hard work and sacrifice.
18. In your opinion, what other qualities does a person need in order to be successful in business?
I always refer them as the 4Rs- Relationship, Reputation, Resilience, Realistic.
19. What is your management style like? Any particular school of thought?
I follow an open management style where I allow responsible staff to take on and handle important tasks. I prefer a consultative style where my colleagues can share their ideas with me so that we can adopt the best practices for the company. I embrace empowerment and that this responsibility comes with authority. One lesson which I have learned from the army is making use of subject matter experts. In this way, I will be able to tap my staff's expertise and put them together as a business strategy.
20. Who or what motivates and inspires you?
The stories of the forefathers of Singapore definitely inspire me. They came with nothing and managed to build empires. Just take a look at the success story of Wee Cho Yaw who came to Singapore penniless and have managed to create a vast empire here in Singapore.
21. What are some of your business values and what would you like to pass down to others, particularly the younger generation?
Hard work and perseverance are definitely not options, they are necessities. One must also maintain integrity. Dishonesty will one day come back to haunt such practitioners and bring about their downfall.
22. Can you share some of the more significant events / incidents that affected or shaped your business philosophy and the way you conduct your business? i.e. SARS, new competition or shifts in market behaviour and trends, etc.
We have been through several crises; the 1987 crisis, Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, SARs and the recent financial crisis. Fortunately we were able to preempt the severity of the 2008 financial crisis and took measures to protect our earnings by changing our business model and taking steps to improve the quality of our earnings and protect our margins. We decided to brand our own products, working closely together with our vendors to be a product leader, emphasizing on consistency in quality. After realigning some of our business strategies, we actually did better on our EBITDA and continue to see improved earnings for this financial year. I am proud to say that we came out of the 2008 financial crisis without having to retrench any of our staff.
23. With the changes in the market today, do you think it has become harder or easier to succeed in business?
There is no easy recipe to start or succeed in a business. There are a myriad of factors that can affect a business and the entrepreneur has to be mindful about them. An entrepreneur has to have intimate knowledge of the market and the business environment like competition, government regulations, political climate and so on. Thorough preparation will help the entrepreneur mitigate business risks and reduce the time and effort in in achieving success.
24. What advice would you give young people who want to start their own business?
Build a strong relationship with the people around you. Work at winning the trust and confidence of the people that work for and with you. It is also necessary to build and protect one's reputation in business. Do not give up easily in the face of adversity but rather persevere. Tap on the relationships you have built with people and draw upon their support. Take stock of where you are on a regular basis and do reality checks
on the business to ensure the strategies are still tenable in a rapidly changing business environment. Be willing to adapt and adjust as necessary, painful though it may be.
Minister Mentor Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, then Prime Minister of Singapore, in his 1972 National Day Speech said,
'A faint hearted people would have given up long ago. We never gave in, never mind giving up. For that alone, we deserve to succeed. If we press on, in twenty years we shall build a great metropolis, worthy of a hardy, resilient and stout-hearted people.'