The face of a company is more than just its employees. The workplace, usually an office, is just as much a part of any business’s presentation. In the right hands, the colour scheme, decor and fit-out of an office can be a mission statement all its own, and tell customers just as much about a company as the most enthusiastic sales pitch – if not more.
As the traditional office took a back seat during the pandemic, Zoom calls regularly began to feature carefully considered backdrops reminiscent of workplaces of old. Entire social media accounts exist to mock those who haven’t put any effort into their home offices. Even now, the look and feel of a workplace matters.
But nothing is set in stone. When a company wants to refresh its image or to accommodate new staff, the office is usually the first thing to get a facelift. One problem that tends to rear its head is that office managers aren’t always adept at interior design. A new pot plant and a coat of paint won’t cut it with clients who expect clarity of vision, which is why an entire industry has sprung up around interior office design and corporate fit-outs. For the leaders of this industry, change is just as important.
Driven by communication, the qualities of adaptability and versatility are key assets that make all the difference between a fresh face and old hat.
“Welcoming change really is part and parcel of our daily life,” says Jason Pang, General Manager of ADM Design & Build Singapore & Thailand. “We exist amid ever-changing market conditions and we must respond to them regularly, so having up-to-date plans help us identify the action we need to take to continue operations into the future.”
The Singapore arm of ADM was itself one such response. The parent firm, founded in Shanghai in 2003 by industry veteran David Zhang, largely concentrated on corporate office design and construction for international clients in Mainland China. “We spent the first six years researching the target market and determining the scope of our service,” David shares. “You need a strong base for fast growth in Mainland China, and it wasn’t until 2009 that we had base enough to launch.”
Demand soon carried ADM from Shanghai to Beijing, Shenzhen, Hong Kong and ultimately out into South-East Asia. A civil engineering graduate and longtime engineer for giants like AECOM and Lendlease in both South China and Singapore, David established the Singapore operations in 2018 to accommodate the team of professionals he’d built up around him.
“Throughout my career, I was involved in projects such as factories, residential and commercial buildings, and power plants in different countries and regions, which gave me a great opportunity to discover different cultures and different technology,” he reveals. “I felt they needed a platform. They wished to work on some great projects and I realised I had the opportunity – and the responsibility – to allow them to really create their own success.”
A construction major and an experienced project manager, Jason was the ideal candidate to lead the Singapore branch. “Over the years, I’ve developed a sharp eye for detail when maintaining properties under my care,” he reveals. “And as a project manager, I’ve learned that in order to successfully execute a project, you need a systematic action plan; that means you must anticipate all potentialities and challenges.”
Since becoming General Manager of ADM Singapore and Thailand in 2018 and 2019 respectively, Jason has used his 15 years of skills to cultivate a company culture of which he can be proud. “My team pays attention to the smallest details of their assigned jobs; they’re systematic in their work,” he says. “The constant change and new challenges in the industry demand an agile, versatile business plan, which we constantly refresh and revise.”
At the time of the company’s creation, a phalanx of international and multinational companies had chosen the nation as the place to set up service centres and business headquarters. “Many Chinese companies were also entering that market,” Jason explains. “ADM didn’t have a presence in Singapore prior to 2018, so David recognised this growing need to cater to his mainland clients who had made the move.”
“Showing our teams we care about their goals is a great way to grow the company.”
Once established, ADM Singapore became a base for ADM’s expansion into the greater South-East Asia market. Business was fruitful in its first year of operations, Jason says. “With the support from David and the management team at HQ, business growth was very positive from 2018–19.”
While 2020 was a snag for construction businesses the world over, Jason reveals that ADM had built enough of a foundation to weather the storm. “Things slowed down,” he admits. “But we’d developed the capabilities necessary to come back strong and stay competitive, and that was all down to our first year.”
Jason believes the trust and faith David put in his leadership helped him expand the Singapore office into a strong team that’s up for the challenge of catering to an entire region. “That’s my greatest achievement so far,” Jason smiles. “I’ve taken the core team and prepared it for South-East Asia, I’ve managed to hire and retain great talent, and I’ve kept our core values consistent. It’s a challenge, but I feel very proud and confident that the passion and skill within the team will set us up for further success.”
Jason’s feelings echo David’s own from the early days of ADM. “For my part, training a group of the very top people in the market over 10 years is my great achievement,” he says. “And multiplying revenue by 15 times what it was when we started, that’s also up there. But even though Jason’s situation is slightly different to mine, we both believe in that same approach of being able to adapt to change.”
Staying in touch
Key to this adaptability, Jason says, is communication. “The past year confronted us with a combination of unanticipated challenges and taught us how to be flexible,” he says. “One of the most crucial lessons was the importance of maintaining strong relationships with customers and partners through such a time, and to do that, you need strong communication not only with those partners and customers but within the business itself.”
Face-to-face meetings were, pre-COVID, a required part of the conceptual stage of ADM’s business. “We did this to understand the customer’s needs and requirements before we started our designs and concept planning,” Jason points out. “Suddenly, COVID-19 hit and our clients were all working from home; they weren’t so keen on meeting us in person.”
The answer was embracing remote meeting technology. “We could still interact and learn the requirements of the job, and then pass it on to the team so they could get to work,” he says. At the same time, much of the ADM team was also working from home. “That’s the new normal, right?” Jason says. “They don’t have to come to the office every day, so we’ve been on Zoom and Teams to disseminate client information and the like.”
One part of the process that couldn’t be done remotely was physical site construction, which had to be approached from a different angle. “Our workers and trade partners have to be on site. It’s unavoidable,” Jason says. “In the past, we’d organise the many elements of what is a very crowded environment to get the work done, but at the moment, we’ve stuck to organising the bare minimum teams to be on site at any one time.”
This skeleton crew has had to add several layers of extra protection to what was already an exhaustive safety procedure. “They need masks, sanitiser, social distancing, all while carrying out renovation and construction,” he says. “That’s pretty much how we have to function.”
Jason admits the pandemic caught ADM off guard, but ultimately proved an excellent test of his team’s ability to pivot. “Our primary business is the construction of offices, and the pandemic caused many companies to abandon the office in favour of working from home, so that affected our business and operations greatly,” he concedes. “Many clients aren’t sure what they want to do in terms of their plans to expand, or even their existing offices.”
Therein lay an opportunity for change. “We worked with them on those problems. We advised them of the best approach to make use of their offices, how to reconstruct and reconfigure to meet social distancing guidelines,” Jason says. “We were able to ensure communication and collaboration between those staff working in the office and those at home.”
The road ahead
As “the new normal” continues to evolve, the ADM team continues to learn. “Whatever we pick up along the way – from the market, from the industry – we share with our clients,” Jason adds. “Communication and education are essential to getting through this.”
With 2020 consigned to the annals of history, Jason says 2021 has already proven much kinder to ADM. “I’m happy to say that, this year, we’re much busier. We’ve gradually picked up more business. Of course, we hope this momentum will continue, but with the lessons we’ve learned, we’re well placed to keep going.”
ADM’s South-East Asia expansion plans are already underway, thanks to the solidity of Jason’s team and what he calls a “realistic” forecast of business conditions in the region. “The forecast is to help our team better understand what they’re working towards and whether their tactics have been effective,” he says. “We constantly have our team set new goals for growth and improvement.” Celebrating small wins along the way, he says, is a powerful tool for building trust and keeping morale high. “Showing our teams we care about their goals is a great way to grow the company.”
This strategic investment in employee development is, according to Jason, the future of ADM. “It’s how we’ll continue to build the team that will carry us into other parts of South-East Asia over the next three to five years. In fact, our next stop will be in Ho Chi Minh City.”
To make a splash in this brave new world, ADM will rely on its strengths; one of these, Jason believes, is superior customer service. “All clients expect great service, but a focus on superior customer service is often overlooked within the industry.” Not so by ADM, which he says strives to deliver quality work on time and up to a client’s expectations. “That’s how you establish trust and create a bond between business and client,” he explains.
“Building something … that is of great value to our clients still brings a lot of joy.”
“By providing our customer with the best experience, we gain loyalty in the process, as well as new clientele thanks to word of mouth.”
For David, one of the company’s greatest assets is its strong family-based culture. “My first priority in establishing ADM was the creation of a company culture that made employees feel like family,” he reflects. “We have staff working along a belt from Singapore to Beijing; they need to communicate across long distances, work harmoniously despite that distance. Within a culture like ADM’s, we have a strong worth ethic, open communication, honesty and respect, and a productive working relationship not only with each other, but with our partners as well.”
This culture of communication is the seed from which growth emerges, Jason says. “I strongly agree with David. Communication on everything ensures everyone in the business is on the same page. Partnerships both within and outside of the company shouldn’t simply be based on financial transaction, but on mutual trust and loyalty, and that’s what communication does,” he says. Similarly, ADM’s suppliers are made to feel like a part of the business. “That inclusivity is essential to boosting collaboration, reducing costs and improving service and quality, which is very important in our industry,” Jason adds.
Change will play a leading role as the office finds its new form post-COVID. For Jason and David, the uncertainty is tempered by a lesson from their days as project managers. “We’re still able to build something from nothing,” Jason says. “There are so many challenges in each job but to do that, all while building something from nothing, something that is of great value to our clients, still brings a lot of joy.”
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