Shirley Kiu had just a few days to decide what to do when her husband passed away suddenly. She stepped into his shoes as the chief executive of Sanchoon Builders in 2012 and has never looked back. Despite being a rarity in the male-dominated construction industry, Shirley won’t let anyone quench her spirit. Now with global economic turbulence looming, she’s calling on her team to follow her lead and embrace the opportunity to lift the bar even higher. As she says, “I believe that when our hearts and wisdom are in the right place, we can overcome our challenges and live to tell some inspiring stories.”

The CEO Magazine:Tell us about your professional background before you became CEO of Sanchoon Builders.

Shirley: I graduated from UNSW in 1988 with a Bachelor of Commerce and I’m a CPA. Upon returning to Singapore, I joined the then fourth-largest local bank, Overseas Union Bank, and had a very fruitful career for 13 years in financial accounting and management information.

Sanchoon Builders Pte Ltd was incorporated in 1991 as an entry-level local contractor. Under the leadership of my late husband, Michael Chew, the company successfully transitioned over 25 years to our current Building and Construction Authority Singapore A1 grading, the highest general building grade. 

Shirley Kiu, Chief Executive of Sanchoon Builders
Shirley Kiu, Chief Executive of Sanchoon Builders

“I’m a strong believer that positivity breeds further positivity.” – Shirley Kiu

I joined the Board in 2012, though not in the normal way. My husband’s sudden demise left an unsettling gap at the helm of the management operation, and in the throes of grief I had to make a swift decision about what to do next. Armed only with my confidence and faith in the good people at the company, I stepped in as chief executive immediately after my husband’s funeral.

What have been some of your biggest challenges, and how have you worked to overcome them?

The biggest challenge then was to handle the uncertainty surrounding the viability of the operation. I was a total stranger to the business and had no background in engineering and construction as a CPA, but I chose to face the challenges head on. After four years, I’m encouraged that this very challenge has become one of my greatest achievements. Internally, I lead a team who believe in the value of the company, and together we work to not only maintain but to exceed external expectations. 

What gives Sanchoon Builders its point of difference in the marketplace?

Our people are our strength. They prove that tough times never last, tough people do. Another key to success for any business is its supply chain. In a demanding industry such as construction, the challenge of the main contractor is to bring all the parties together — developers/users, consultants, financial institutions, subcontractors and suppliers — and proceed as a team. It takes consistent effort over the years to ensure the chain is strengthened, rather than broken, during times of adversity. 

Shirley Kiu, Chief Executive of Sanchoon Builders
Sanchoon Builders Pte Ltd was incorporated in 1991 as an entry-level local contractor. Under the leadership of my (Shirley Kiu) late husband, Michael Chew, the company successfully transitioned over 25 years to our current Building and Construction Authority Singapore A1 grading, the highest general building grade.

Our company takes pride in the delivery of projects of various shapes and sizes, and that’s only possible by fostering strong and trusting relationships with our key partners who stood by us when the skies were stormy.

Are there any innovations you’re undertaking to improve productivity? 

Construction is no longer just a labour-intensive bricks-and-mortar trade. The company will continue to engage in innovative ways of building through construction methodologies, equipment and technologies such as pre-cast components, lifting and handling machinery, and digital tools to improve project management. 

Over the next 12–18 months, what will be your key areas of focus? 

As global markets face turbulent times in the next 12–18 months, we’ll continue to look out for opportunities to undertake projects beyond our shores, as well as competing diligently in the increasingly challenging local landscape. 

Internally, consolidation to improve the execution of current projects is one way to protect jobs and ensure safe and quality delivery. 

How do you invest in and engage your employees?

I’m a strong believer that positivity breeds further positivity. Increasing market competition should be seen as a platform for us to get out of our comfort zones and aim higher. 

As the CEO, I believe that the trust and passion of our people are the intangible assets of the company. It’s my priority to lead by example and lift the company to new heights.

You also give back to the community. Can you tell us more about that?

We volunteer our time for meaningful causes and hope that we can help people in need, particularly children and students. We feel that we’re already the fortunate ones to be able to give back, so this will remain an ongoing commitment by the company.