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As the business world becomes increasingly complex,
small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Singapore face numerous challenges, from slowing global demand to the impact of US-China trade tensions.
Today’s realities dictate that local firms must constantly seek growth – or be left behind. That is where enterprise development agency Enterprise Singapore comes in, by helping local SMEs be more productive, innovative and global in their approach and remain nimble in a fast-moving worldwhere business conditions have changed as a result of COVID-19.

With a challenging business environment and a tight labour market, Singapore’s SMEs must strive to improve productivity to stay competitive. Those that leverage technology and digitalise their business processes are able to better scale their operations and speed up their transformation in a time of change. To overcome the operating challenges introduced by the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses are collaborating with like-minded partners to eliminate labour-intensive processes through automation and capitalise on new growth opportunities as a team. Faced with new modes of operation, businesses have also redoubled efforts in sending their staff for training and upskilling courses to ensure that they can support these transformation.

FoodXervices (FX): Staying nimble with productivity tools

This wholesale trade business started over 80 years ago as a provision shop, and later expanded into the food distribution and non-food business segments. During the 1997 financial crisis, the company went bankrupt, with only the food distribution business surviving, yet it managed to recalibrate and rebuild. But many inefficiencies remained, along with high logistical costs and a business culture that needed to be more corporatised.

To modernise the business, the third-generation owners bought it over in 2007 and re-branded the company as FX. They overhauled the old remuneration system, transformed the brand identity to have a stronger presence, and segmented the company into different businesses – F&B consulting, logistics, retail and wholesale. Within ten years, it had tripled its turnover. Today, FX is a market leader in the food services industry, providing food distribution and concierge services to close to 5,000 F&B establishments and distributing more than 5,000 products.

The company continues to keep pace with the times. To cut down on paperwork and human error, it implemented an enterprise resource planning and customer relationship management system, freeing up staff to do more value-added activities such as business development. To maximise its resources and improve its delivery schedule, FX also set up a fleet management system. It has upskilled its workers and improved operational efficiency using shared human resources services.

This foresight has also paid off in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Already accustomed to constant upskilling and embracing new products, projects and services, FX staff were able to step up as the company pivoted towards newer business models, such as when they expanded their services for the hawker and home delivery segments. The company’s past experience of dealing with SARS had shown why it was vital to diversify its client list — a boon when business from hotels and airlines dried up.

Thanks to investments in digitalisation and business transformation over the last few years, FX has been able to react and learn quickly even in these uncertain times. With online tools already in place, its team could work from home immediately. An e-commerce site, first built in 2008, made it easy for the home delivery segment to be ramped up. And moving to a new building with collaboration and co-kitchen spaces in December 2019 kept the company one more step ahead by capitalising on the current food delivery and off-site kitchen trends.

Moving ahead, FX intends to raise awareness of sustainability and eating local. It wants to support farms here by encouraging F&B outlets to use locally-grown produce and fish.This strategy keeps step with the growing awareness among Singaporeans of the need for local produce due to food shortage concerns raised during the COVID-19 period. It also diversifies FX’s range of products and services supplied to F&B businesses.

Chye Thiam Maintenance: Becoming more efficient to stay relevant

From its start as a grass-cutting and cleaning company in 1979, Chye Thiam has become a leading environmental services business, with clients such as Jewel Changi Airport and Resorts World Sentosa under its belt. It is also notable for its use of cutting-edge technology, from autonomous scrubbers to cleaning robots. In 2015, Chye Thiam faced business challenges in growth as well as stiff competition. Manpower constraints in the form of recruitment and retention also triggered the need to do things differently.

The company took action to stay relevant. A business needs diagnosis was conducted, which identified business and productivity gaps, prioritised key actions and developed a growth plan. In early 2019, the firm followed through on these recommendations in areas such as employee value proposition, talent management and succession planning. In a remarkable effort to adapt and evolve, Chye Thiam has since diversified its business offerings and generated new business in waste management, material recovery facilities and recycling.

In light of the COVID-19 outbreak, the company started a complementary business stream in pandemic disinfection cleaning and continues to invest in new technology and equipment to remain competitive. For instance, it has sourced for more effective pandemic misting disinfection equipment from the US, and brought in anti-microbial chemicals and UVC robots from local suppliers.

Other complementary business streams such as its materials recovery facility in Sungei Kadut are faring better now than before COVID-19. Because this facility is semi-automatic and can run with a leaner crew, the company was able to operate throughout the circuit breaker. Other waste competitors even diverted their recycling waste to Chye Thiam because they did not have enough manpower to support their own waste and recycling operations.

The pandemic also helped accelerate some of the company’s digitalisation plans, particularly in the operations at its headquarters. The adoption of new tech tools has enabled many of Chye Thiam’s staff to work safely from home without disruption to operations. Meanwhile, its regional expansion plans have not been derailed, only delayed, and the company intends to catch up on lost ground in the coming year. It also intends to hire more locals as its business expands.

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High-growth companies sharpen their competitive edge when they innovate and commercialise technology. They thrive when they adopt tech solutions to meet real-world problems, expand their networks and develop new technologies to address industry gaps. Learning trips to research facilities, consultancy services, training courses and other types of assistance allow enterprises to bring their new ideas to life and take these to market sooner. Companies that successfully innovate or even reinvent themselves are better able to stay ahead of the curve not just locally, but in the global marketplace. This cannot be more true in the current climate where competition will only become stiffer.

LionsBot International: Targeting a traditional industry’s pain points

Only two years old, this robotics company has already made waves for its autonomous cleaning robots, which it rents out to cleaning contractors here and overseas. In Singapore, these robots are deployed at Changi Airport, FairPrice Xtra at VivoCity, National Gallery Singapore and Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay. LionsBot was founded on the back of innovation. Its co-founder Dylan Ng owns the cleaning equipment and chemicals business Supersteam, and understood the industry’s pain points of an ageing workforce and an over-reliance on labour. So he looked at new opportunities and co-founded LionsBot in 2018 with his partner Mohan Rajesh Elara from the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

With Enterprise Singapore’s support, the company has used small-volume production to design and manufacture the LeoBot Scrub, enabling LionsBot to seize economies of scale. The same support also helped them successfully deploy an integrated intellectual property management system that guards the ownership of all novel mechanical designs, intelligent autonomy algorithms and robot control strategies. It also allowed LionsBot to operate and scale up in foreign markets with confidence.

The COVID-19 pandemic hassince elevatedthe need for cleaning robots like LionsBot’s. Demand for such machines has skyrocketed worldwide, especially in developed countries where the cleaning workforce is scarce. They also took advantage of the downtime during the circuit breaker period to focus on robot design improvements and deep tech R&D. The company has since developed an autonomous disinfection robot called LeoRay that reportedly eliminates bacteria on a 28sqm surface area in less than three minutes, paving the way for new opportunities in the healthcare segment. Disruptions in the global supply chain also spurred the company to strengthen its own supply chain management to prevent component shortages and minimise impact to manufacturing lines.

Senses International: Harnessing innovation to set itself apart

Over the last decade, fragrance manufacturer Senses International has carved a niche market in an industry dominated by European multinationals. The secret of its success? Being a keen investor in innovation. Almost 25 per cent of its past financial year’s revenue was spent on R&D, including new facilities, such as state-of-the-art gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy equipment to conduct detailed analyses on every aspect of fragrance composition. This strengthens its ability to develop products based on consumer needs and shorten the time-to-market for new products.

To further drive innovation, Senses' staffwent on learning visits to the Model Factories of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), and the company is now in talks with the agency on developing a new category of fragrance products for laundry care. The visits have helped the company better understand cutting-edge local engineering capabilities and how adopting concepts like the automated retrieval of ingredients can yield productivity gains.

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Internationalisation is the logical next step for local enterprises that want to scale up and grow, as this provides access to a larger market. This remains so even in the face of challenges such as travel restrictions. If local enterprises do not move beyond our shores, they will experience a limited amount of growth, which could shrink their business if they stagnate as the competition widens. Yet going global is fraught with challenges, especially for SMEs, who may lack competitive advantage, business resources and market entry know-how. But some Singapore-based businesses have taken the initiative to seek help in expanding overseas. By understanding the pitfalls that may arise from overseas expansion and seeking out partners and networks in the market, these enterprises have put themselves on a path to greater growth.

Ipse Ipsa Ipsum: Scaling up overseas to thrive

Since its start in 2009, handcrafted furniture retailer Ipse Ipsa Ipsum has understood that internationalisation is essential to its survival. It now exports to more than 55 countries, from Kenya to Uruguay, under private labels as well as its own brand.

Yet Ipse Ipsa Ipsum recognises that to thrive in a global economy, it has to keep growing, and that means scaling up export sales even further. Without e-commerce capabilities, the firm would also not be able to sell online to international customers. Ipse Ipsa Ipsum started working on developing its website and augmented reality app features so it can better reach customers from around the world.The company also saw potential in India – a huge domestic market, widely-available raw materials and highly-skilled craftsmen – and invested in a manufacturing plant there. Enterprise Singapore introduced the company to India’s national investment promotion and facilitation agency Invest India, which provided market research, offered clarity on policy and regulations, and connected it to government stakeholders and trade associations. These have become invaluable for Ipse Ipsa Ipsum to build stronger sales channels and an omni-retail presence in India.

Rigel Technology: Overcoming the odds to go global

With nearly 30 years of experience, Rigel Technology is one of Asia’s leading manufacturers and suppliers of eco-friendly restroom and bathroom supplies. In a bid to scale up, it began to enter new markets, such as Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and China, where it now has an established track record. This includes leveraging the competitive advantages of its factories in China – Luzhou and Ningbo – to support development opportunities in other international markets, such as the Middle East and Latin America. The company hopes to build Rigel into a made-in-Singapore brand for the global market and a globally renowned sanitaryware brand powered by smart technology.

The quest overseas has not come easy, but the company has pushed ahead as it knows the importance of internationalisation. What propels Rigel forward is its deep ambition to grow to bring more value to customers. It has not stopped expanding its footprint overseas, despite facing challenges such as regulatory issues, stiff competition and finding good partners. To overcome these issues, Rigel tapped on Enterprise Singapore’s market networks to source for distributors and project leads, and partners who could help them navigate regulatory hurdles. The company also identified its priority markets – China, Indonesia and Vietnam – to allow for better growth and meet revenue targets.

As these building blocks of productivity, innovation and internationalisation are mutually reinforcing, companies that take steps to progress on these three fronts can expect to see transformational and positive changes in the way they conduct business. These factors remain critical even as the going gets tough. Enterprises will need to persevere through uncertain times and adopt a long-term view to growing their business.

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