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Born to Lead: Peter Koh

Oceanus Group was on the verge of collapse with thousands of retirees facing the loss of their life savings, before CEO Peter Koh came out of retirement to mastermind an epic turnaround of the abalone producer.

When Peter Koh realized early retirement through the sale of his highly successful global branding enterprise Pete’s Creation International, he achieved a lifestyle many can only dream of. However, after four indulgent years of enjoying his hard-earned wealth in countless countries across the world, he had started to get a little twitchy.

After all, this is a man who had been working since childhood, when he had two or three jobs to add to his family’s modest income.

“If the company were to go belly-up, all these people would lose all of their savings.”

So in 2014, when the then 49-year-old was introduced to the executives of the world’s largest land-based abalone producer Oceanus Group, his interest was piqued.

“For a retiree to come back to do something, it has to have purpose and meaning,” Koh tells The CEO Magazine.

At that time, Oceanus had sunk to the point that it had been placed on the Singaporean stock exchange watch list, with an eye-watering debt of US$94 million.


Approached to spearhead the company’s turnaround, Koh found the purpose and meaning he had been searching for when he attended his first shareholders’ meeting.

“I quickly realized the majority of the company’s 10,000 shareholders were retirees and old folks,” he recalls.

“If the company were to go belly-up, all these people would lose all of their savings.”

An Unexpected Journey

Koh only intended to come on board as an independent director, but when presented with the opportunity to change the fate of the shareholders for the better, he took on the role of CEO.

He didn’t pull any punches in that first face-to-face with the investors either.

“Standing on stage for my maiden speech to the shareholders as CEO, the first words that came out of my mouth were: ‘The company is very sick. Unless we admit this and do something about it, we won’t get any better.’

“After I came off stage, I was asked to vet any future speeches – but I’m a person that calls a spade a spade.

“I think after I explained the three stages I wanted to implement, the shareholders appreciated the honesty.”

Koh embarked upon a three-pronged strategy to clean up, build-up and tech-up.

“We had to clean up the mess before we could move forward. Then we had to be able to put food on the table in order to be able to feed ourselves. And finally, we had to tech-up to head into the future,” he says.

“Today we have passed the two earlier stages. We have already built a company with multiple disciplines in multiple countries, and all these are brick and mortar businesses.

“What we have to do next is digitalize all these businesses, because if we don’t change, we could be the dinosaurs of tomorrow.”

Digital Vision

When asked about the company’s investment in digitalization, Koh talks about the trifecta of ecommerce, e-payment and e-procurement.

“The Oceanus Digital Network (ODIN) is being developed as we speak, there is a focus on the metaverse, and Oceanus Media Global even owns the most advanced augmented reality studio in South-East Asia,” he says.

“I do not know if digitalization is the right or wrong thing, or if it will bring new growth. But I do know that if we don’t change we’ll fall behind.

“I once told my shareholders, ‘15–20 years ago, it would’ve been unthinkable to say that we will be able to use a phone to shop. Now it’s a way of life.’

“We are very mindful that we have to be alert to what’s happening next. We have to be in a position where we can adapt if we are caught in a situation we are unprepared for.”

“We have to be in a position where we can adapt if we are caught in a situation we are unprepared for.”

Koh’s three steps have proven masterful to date. Oceanus is now in the futureproofing stage, with a strong financial position and trusted, long-time partners like Kwang Yeow Heng.

In one of his proudest moments since joining Oceanus, he was able to stand in front of his shareholders in 2017, almost three years after calling the company “sick”, and tell them, “We have done it”.

Through his debt restructuring exercise, Koh had steered the company back into the black and off the Singapore Exchange watch list.

“The event was our AGM and after the announcement, they all came up to the stage and hugged and thanked us with tears streaming down their cheeks,” he says with a smile.

“It was an emotional journey for all of us in the management team, but it was at that very moment we felt all the sacrifice was well worth it. Most companies start from ground zero, but we got ourselves out from the basement.”

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