Armed with an entrepreneurial spirit and dedication to quality service, Steven Ng started his own firm Inter Equip Supplies Pte Ltd (IES) in 1981. Despite being in a niche area – the provision of industrial hoists and platforms - the firm managed to grow from strength to strength.
However, the firm more commonly known as IES, needed to tackle a perennial problem - retaining good talent.
“In the 80s, back in my time, it was all about the bread and butter,” states Ng. “You need a job? You can do the work? You got the job. People just came to work, did their job and took home their pay.
“But things are different today,” observes Ng who decided in 2014 that instead of investing in new and better hardware, he would invest in heartware by building up on its Human Resources.
The pay-offs are starting to show. But Ng’s son Nicholas, who led the HR system change, believes that the investment will bear even more fruit in the months ahead as the small firm will be ready for take-off when Singapore’s economy peaks, having built up the company’s core - its staff.
Gone. But Happy To Be Back
Kevin Siew joined IES in 2015. But he is no newbie to the firm. He first entered IES in 2009 as a member of the sales team, but left the firm in 2010. IES was viewed as a family business. He believed then, that there was little opportunity for him to build a career.
“Human Resource wasn’t fantastic then” says Siew, summing up IES from an employee’s point of view.
Some five years after he left IES, Siew returned as a project manager and to a new environment.
“The whole environment in the company has become more vibrant and positive. Attitudes, mindsets, have changed."
Change of Heart
Things changed in IES when Ng decided to invest in Human Resources. It adopted better HR processes with help from Spring Singapore and its Capability Development Grant (CDG).
Apart from skills training, the company tackled what most small firms sometimes consider as ‘small issues’ that in fact make a big difference to both employees and employers. Issues such as clearly defined job descriptions, better leave entitlements and new salary scales. Making clear what is expected of a company, and its employees, works to everyone’s benefit.
“The young people coming into the company, they want to have a different feel. They are asking for different kinds of benefits rather than just keep working, without a career path,” notes Ng.
IES made a ground-up effort to improve itself and its HR. It conducted Employee Satisfaction Surveys to get feedback, as well as revamped its reward structure to incentivize performance.
The effort was a massive change that cost the company quite a bit of time and money to implement. But Ng deemed the new HR system a “necessary” change.
"Honestly, I not only feel a lot happier now, I can feel that everyone is energetic and pushing forward ” reveals project manager Siew.
“My mentor helped me chart my career path and understand more about the company, what it is about... He gave me advice on how I should deal with my projects, how to make things more cost effective, how to plan everything before the project starts. It helps a lot in my work.”
The improvements by IES to its HR system have paid off for the company too. It has helped overcome its problem of attracting and retaining staff.
The company has become less reliant on foreign talent who don’t often stay.
As Ng observes, “they come and work for you two, three years and they just go back”.
“After we implemented our HR policies, we filled the positions with local people, local engineers. Local people, they work here, they already understand the local culture. They can grow with the company, they stay with the company. They know they have a future with the company,” Ng points out.
Old vs New
Ng’s son and company director Nicholas was tasked with leading the HR overhaul. While pushing for a better HR system he discovered that even a change for the better wouldn’t necessarily be well received. He met staff resistance over improvements, such as performance-based bonus payouts.
“The older employees were very resistant. They were worried they would get involved in too much paper work. The younger ones were skeptical and wondering if the company was really going to make this effort to build a new HR system.
“There was a perception of a ‘glass ceiling’ - as this is a family business - where one cannot get far if he is not a family member. But once we broke that barrier, they were more willing to participate, because now they have the sense of ownership” reveals the younger Ng.
“Previously, apart from the 13th month bonus, we used to pay additional bonuses” explains Nicholas who adds that the performance bonuses were in the past, decided by individual managers.
“When I took over in management, I realised that it was subjective. The consideration was not about performance, it was about how many hours was put in.
“We had to change this, to push for higher productivity with better results, and not how many hours worked,” says the younger Ng bluntly.
The company put in place Key Performance Indicators (KPI). “The assessments are fairer and these guys feel it is more transparent,” Ng says, while adding that he has observed a very big change in the attitude of his staff.
After better HR processes were put in place, the gap between staff and management has been bridged.
“You can see from their body language. It is no longer like “Just pay me and I do my work!” he notes.
“These days, they take a lot of initiative, and are a lot more involved. Nowadays, they sometimes even tell me what we should be doing!” says Ng who points out that the investment in a strong HR framework has helped build that strong bond between the staff and the company that “money cannot buy”.
HR initiatives like the annual company retreat that started in 2014, have given staff the opportunity to become more cohesive. Nicholas also lists the clear career progressions in IES that have given staff a better idea of their future with the company, and motivates them to advance their careers by doing their jobs well.
The HR system in IES is just under two years old, but the younger Ng believes that the improved processes will pay off, especially when Singapore’s economy picks up. In fact, he points out that lean times give his employees the chance to grow into their roles, as well as appreciate the company’s efforts to retain them.
“When things pick up, they can hit the ground running,” says Ng with a quiet air of confidence and pride.
“We will be in a better position to take advantage of the better economic situation, because our improved HR system helped us retain talent, and develop talent with proper career development.”
- Produced in partnership with Spring Singapore -