From O-level failure to millionaire at 29, on a policy of honesty first
He’s known for his campaigns to tackle the world's sanitation problems. But Jack Sim also used to work on a construction site, and founded lucrative businesses to make a fortune.
SINGAPORE: He is “Mr Toilet Man” to many, and well known for being the founder of the World Toilet Organisation.
But few know that Singaporean toilet activist Jack Sim is a shrewd businessman, retired property developer and self-made millionaire who came from a poor family, failed his O levels and went on to own 15 properties.
He was even a construction site supervisor once, but not a particularly good one. “I supervised construction workers, but I didn’t know how to do this job, so my work was really shabby,” recalled the 62-year-old.
“The foreman of the construction site told my boss to take me out of the site because I was totally unprofessional, and that was true.”
He eventually quit that job, and went on to sell building materials and develop properties — and the programme Money Mind finds out how he succeeded in business before switching roles to become a campaigner for cleaner toilets. (Watch the two episodes here and here.)
TALKATIVE STUDENT, TOP SALESMAN
Born in 1957, he remembers growing up in “poverty-stricken Singapore”, where his family did not always have enough to buy clothes and usually had to depend on donated ones.
His mother was a housewife, and his father, a provision shop assistant who earned “very little money”.
“Life was in an attap house and … the toilet was outside. The water was (from) a shared standpipe,” Sim said. “Sometimes there was water rationing. There were a lot of cholera (outbreaks), and typhoid fever.”
At school, he was not a good student and was too talkative. “The teacher always asked me to stand outside the classroom, so that was why I always failed. I didn’t understand what was going on,” he said.
Having to wait for free textbooks did not help, as he would receive them only in April. “So we had to look over the shoulder of other kids, and sometimes they’d pull their book away," he added.
So studying wasn’t one of my specialities.
In 1975, two years after he failed his O levels, he graduated from vocational school with a hotel management certificate. But he did not go into the hotel industry; instead, he joined the construction industry upon his brother’s advice.
After a year in the job, he realised he did not want to be on site and switched to sales. He became so good at it that he was the top salesman in his department.
His salesmanship caught the eye of an investor, who convinced him to set up his own company selling construction materials. Thus, in 1984, Besco Building Supplies was born.
But starting from scratch had its challenges; the first thing was to find suppliers. Also, while Sim was good at selling his products, he was not good at keeping track of his cash flow.
“I didn’t know how to read accounts. We only knew that we ran out of money when the bank called us to say our cheque bounced. And then we stopped doing sales and started (collecting money),” he said.
Then he faced one of the biggest mistakes of his life, which he still vividly recalls: He had under-priced a tender awarded by Raffles City by S$1.1 million, to the glee of his competitor.
“I was very happy (about the contract). Then my competitor told me that I’d priced (it) wrongly and, in fact, told me which page the miscalculation was on,” said Sim. “He hoped that I’d withdraw and he’d win (the contract).
“I was very worried for about one whole week. How do I handle such a thing —just started business and immediately going bankrupt?”
He figured that honesty was the best policy. He went back to the owners of Raffles City and explained his mistake. He also confessed that he would be unable to fulfil the tender.
But his clients agreed to give him the contract at S$1.1 million more, provided that he worked with a German manufacturer for the project.
“It was a lot of blissful ignorance, so I didn’t really know such a thing called failure,” said Sim, who then formed a consortium of investors in 1986 to buy a brick factory across the Causeway at S$30 million.
“I just thought that the construction industry was growing so fast … everyone was enjoying good business,” he added. “In those days, we didn’t have prefabrication, so everybody needed bricks. So we just plunged into it.”
It was around this time when he dabbled in the property market, starting with 14 terrace houses in Rosyth Terrace. Although he was unfamiliar with real estate development, “it was the boom period, so (the project) sold out very quickly”.
He turned to building a 28-unit apartment block in Meyer Road, and that venture sold well too. At 29, he was already a millionaire.
WATCH: How Jack Sim made his millions before 30 (3:21)
In 1990, he was offered a business opportunity of a lifetime by his French roof tile supplier: To start a roof tile factory in Malaysia with the supplier.
After the factory was up and running, Sim managed to convince many developers in Singapore that the orange-coloured clay roof tiles would give their houses a Mediterranean look.
“I told the developers, ‘Your house will sell (for) a higher price if it looks like that’, versus the … concrete roof tiles,” he said.
“Although the clay roof tile was three times more expensive, it was actually only 2 per cent more expensive for the entire house.”
In three years, his company became a dominant player in the market.
UPS AND DOWNS
But it all came crashing down with the 1997-98 Asian Financial crisis, and he was forced to retrench staff. “It was very traumatic emotionally,” admitted Sim. “A businessman is very attached to his business, and you start to question yourself.”
At that time, he also owned 15 properties, whose values dropped by half. “I didn’t sell; I hung on,” he said. “It was a stressful time.”
During this period, something changed in him — triggered by a speech by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who said a society’s graciousness could be measured by the cleanliness of its toilets.
That inspired Sim to create the Restroom Association of Singapore, which “a lot of” his staff and peers thought was a “crazy” idea.
Watch: Jack Sim's toilet agenda (1.33)
“I told them that … if I do social work, at least I feel useful. When I come to the office, I don’t feel useful. I feel like a failure,” he said.
I was nourished by the spiritual reward that I had in social work.
He also told his wife that after the recession, he would quit his businesses to focus on social work “because it’s so much more fulfilling”.
In 2001, he created the World Toilet Organisation, which soon gained worldwide recognition. And in 2004, he stepped down as chief executive officer of his first company, Besco.
Currently, his most ambitious social enterprise is the Base of the Pyramid (BoP) Hub, which he established in 2011 with a mission to design business to “solve the poverty problem in the world”.
His idea is to provide professional services for social entrepreneurs catering for the base of the market pyramid — those who live in poverty round the world.
“Charity can’t get people out of poverty. We have to unlock their spirit of enterprise and their good work ethic, in the same way Singapore got out of poverty,” he said.
“We can export these best practices, public policies (and) technology, and integrate everybody.”
For him, it has been a journey of ups and downs that help to define who he is today. Looking back, he believes that his successes boil down to luck and timing.
“Keep a good reputation, stick to some principles. If you make a mistake, say so. If you’re honest, people tend to trust you,” he added. “These are the types of simple rules I think you have to know.”