Brave New World

MAY 2016

Brave New World

At first glance, tan siong kern, founder of commodities trading firm Wee Tiong, and his son Marcus appear to be studies in contrasts. Marcus, CEO of the company, is quick to supply a sunny sound bite, while Siong Kern pefers to cede the spotlight and has to be coaxed into sharing his entrepreneurship story.

In a nutshell, the 66-year-old says he was a naughty child who preferred basketball games with his friends to time in the classroom, and dropped out of secondary school to start his own business in the 1970s. He began with delivering foodstuffs, owing to his experience in helping out in his father’s provision shop, and later moved into sugar and rice trading with the help of a family friend.

Marcus, on the other hand, was a model student who scored excellent grades at The Chinese High School, Hwa Chong Junior College and later Nanyang Technological University, where he studied engineering. “He never needed tuition, and his math was always very good,” Siong Kern recalls. “I never had curfews because I was never late, and I never skipped classes,” Marcus says.

The two have always had a relatively easygoing relationship, they agree. One of their more significant differences in opinion came about when Siong Kern asked Marcus to try out working in the family business for a year after he graduated from university. “I was a bit surprised,” says Marcus, whose elder brother Wee Tiong is a director at the company. “But he needed more help, so I gave it a try.”

His engineering background enabled him to implement more systematic and streamlined operations, but the 39-year-old says he also learned from his father’s more instinctive approach: “His style is more about selflearning, rather than spoon-feeding us. I observe how he speaks to people and handles business relationships—it’s always been about the chemistry.”

The most significant change Marcus introduced was forming a team of traders to conduct extensive research into worldwide supply and demand of commodities. This information is provided to customers and suppliers to assist them in their decisionmaking. Today, this futures element comprises 80 per cent of Wee Tiong’s business, and annual revenue has increased by about 131 per cent over the past 10 years to about $462.5m under Marcus’ charge.

“The old business model was losing ground because the market was changing, so we needed to change,” he says. “By taking a position, we can play more of a holistic consultancy role, and are able to advise that the market will need a particular brand at this particular time or that the price of a commodity will move this way.”

Accolades that Wee Tiong has earned include being the only traditional rice and sugar SME in the coveted Global Trader Programme run by International Enterprise Singapore, and becoming the only company selected for the prestigious Enterprise 50 Award for 10 consecutive years.

Marcus himself took the EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2011 (Emerging) award. He is currently in the midst of taking Wee Tiong in another new direction. The company has formed a new trading arm in the marine fuels industry and is also discussing a potential collaboration with Malaysian physical supplier Victory Supply. “It’s a good time to enter this market as oil prices are down,” says Marcus. “It can be a turning point for the company and propel us to another level, maybe even to an IPO if it works out.”

This move comes after much groundwork on his part, including a month of persuading his father that it was a step in the right direction. “My dad didn’t understand my point at first, so I had to do a better job of explaining my rationale,” says Marcus. “But he tends to let me have my way even when we disagree, because he trusts that I know what I’m doing.”

Siong Kern says he was hesitant at first because he was already content with how the company was doing. “My father always said, if you think it’s too good to be true, then you must proceed very carefully.”

But his own penchant for diverting from the expected route reveals itself in other ways. The one-time truant still plays basketball regularly with old friends, and never did pick up golf like most of his peers. “People did tell me to play golf as it would help my business, but I just want to do what I like.”