From cranes to hypercars, family-run SME changes it up with new generation

From cranes to hypercars, family-run SME changes it up with new generation

The founders of Wong Fong are handing the reins to their children to go forth and disrupt the status quo of its S$70-million-a-year business - and the industry.

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The founders of Wong Fong are handing the reins to their children to go forth and disrupt the status quo of its S$70-million-a-year business - and the industry.

SINGAPORE: It has a top speed of 300kmh and will hit 0-100kmh in under 3 seconds while running on electricity.

If all goes well, the Dendrobium, to be unveiled at the Geneva Motorshow in March 2017, will achieve a first for Singapore – the first electric hypercar that observers say will rival the Bugatti Chiron.

The idea, however, was birthed in an unlikely place: A Singapore family-run engineering company that has been distributing and servicing vehicle-mounted cranes for five decades. A company whose founders started out as chicken manure suppliers to farms in the early 1960s.

Wong Fong Industries was founded by brothers Jimmy Lew and James Liew in 1964. Over the years they grew the business and become the sole supplier of the ubiquitous Austrian-made Palfinger cranes here and around the region.

But the Dendrobium is far beyond what the two brothers would have imagined for their crane and forklift engineering company. That idea was hatched by its offshoot brand Wong Fong Research and Innovation Centre (WFRIC), led by Jimmy’s son, Eric.

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The Dendrobium is a collaboration between Wong Fong Research and Innovation Centre, Vanda Electrics and Williams Advanced Engineering. (Photo: Vanda Electrics)

Eric's siblings and cousins are also working in various marketing, finance and software engineering roles in other parts of the company.

“This is the mindset of the younger generation. We never thought of this, and how they would progress is still yet to be grasped,” said Jimmy, 73, in an interview with the programme Money Mind, when asked about his company’s foray into new technology.

WATCH: His son, the disruptor

Spearheaded by Eric, WFRIC is nestled on the company's premises at 79 Joo Koon Circle just above the soot-stained factory floor that has been the cornerstone of Jimmy’s and James’ crane business.

WFRIC’s research and development lab, known as Reactor 79, helps the 52-year-old engineering company and its clients rethink existing designs to today’s consumer, industrial and military products, while seeding projects in the field of telematics, robotics and electric vehicles.

And WFRIC’s 49 per cent investment in spin-off Vanda Electrics has allowed the company to venture into the world of electric mobility products, such as fast-charging batteries, trucks and bikes.

It recently unveiled other electric vehicles beside the Dendrobium, such as the Ant Truck, a fast-charging goods and utilities vehicle, and the Motochimp, a retro-style electric consumer bike. Both products are awaiting their go-to-market launch dates.

Said Eric, who trained in accountancy and finance: “Either we have to innovate or be disrupted. I’ve been telling them that for the past three or four years.”


Worlds apart as the first and second generations may be, Wong Fong Industries, which went public in July this year, is accomplishing what many small and medium family-run listed companies are finding tough.

Sixty per cent of SGX-listed companies are tagged as family-run and, according to surveys by banking and academic institutes, succession has ended at either the first or second generation, with some companies looking to non-family members to occupy leadership roles.

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The Wong Fong workshop in the 1960s. (Photo: Wong Fong Industries)

Wong Fong, however, has managed to facilitate leadership succession within the family - perhaps because the first generation has been willing to take the risk on the second generation to revamp its operations so as to diversify and innovate.

Said Eric, who found after a few years that being an accountant wasn't his "cup of tea": “My uncle or my dad never sat me down (and said) you must join the family business. I think that generation gave a lot of space for us when we were young to explore our interests.”

He added: “I think there is this sense of duty that you want to come back and help. You look at my dad or uncle, they struggle, it’s not easy to run a business.”

The board and its founders hope that risk-taking projects like the Dendrobium will have spill-over effects for the other business units, as well as disrupt the engineering industry.

Eric is also optimistic this will bolster the company amid the uncertainties facing the construction and manufacturing industry - such as a talent crunch with engineering graduates preferring to carve out careers outside their discipline.

“Our mission is to make engineering sexy, so that I can attract more engineers, more designers, more young people, to join this industry,” said Eric in an interview with CNA Insider.

Jimmy is content that his children and their cousins are trying something new with the company he founded. “This is most ideal for us as an SME. If the children come and help out in the company, that is the best outcome," he said.

“Today’s achievement, I believe the biggest credit goes to the unity of the siblings and the children and their involvement in the progress of the company.”

Money Mind airs on Saturdays, at 10.30pm SG/HK on Channel NewsAsia. Watch the full episode featuring Wong Fong here.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story has been edited to reflect clarifications made by Wong Fong Industries.

Source: CNA/yv