Thrust unexpectedly into leadership, Chang Yeh Hong has used his two decades worth of banking skills to grow Nordic Group Limited’s operations. His tenure as Executive Chairman has overcome the challenges posed by the global financial crisis, as well as helped to position Nordic Group Limited as a global player. “Since I began with the business, we have continued to grow and to reach a certain level of achievement,” Chang comments.

Nordic Group Limited, an investment holding company, provides solutions in the areas of systems integration; maintenance, repair, overhaul, and trading; precision engineering; petrochemical and environment engineering services; scaffolding; and insulation in Singapore, China, and internationally.

Chang had initially invested in the Singapore-based company because the industry it services was thriving. “I could see that continuing for the next five to seven years. If you invest in a growth industry, even in the wrong company, you will not lose as much as if you invest in a dying industry.”

Chang Yeh Hong navigates turbulent waters

When Chang originally stepped in to helm the ship, it was matter of riding the wave of a surging sector. However, the sector later went into a major downturn. Yet Chang was able to drive growth that ran counter to broader trends.

“My training as a banker put me in good stead to position the organisation in such a way that we were ready to move to the next level. It managed not only to survive, but also to grow at 20% every year, even during the downturn, because of the foresight that the industry was turning and that we needed to do something.”

It managed not just to survive, but to grow … because of the foresight that the industry was turning.

What he decided to do was to expand the company downstream into the petrochemical business, which offered greater stability. Chang credits this diversification and a number of well-chosen acquisitions for the company achieving healthy compound growth that bucked industry trends.

While an industry-wide slowdown presented major obstacles, Chang describes the global financial crisis as easily the biggest challenge he has faced. He paints a vivid picture of the economic carnage of 2008: “At that point in time, the banks were basically withdrawing all of their financial lines. Nobody was willing to lend their money. Everyone was so afraid and businesses were suffering.”

Again, his experience and connections from the world of banking proved crucial. “My former colleagues and my employer were there to support me so that I could fulfil my contracts. We managed to turn it around and, in fact, we doubled the sales that year.” Crucially, Chang avoided the trap of prioritising profits over cash flow, which many companies would fall into. “Profits are an illusion,” he explains. “Cash flow is the most vital component.”

Three qualities every CEO should have

Chang says that a proactive approach, financial prudency and the ability to look forward are the best traits in business. “I would say I’m prudent because of my past training. I’m proactively involved in the business at a strategic level, not at the ground – I leave that to my people. I look ahead to the next three to five years to see what’s going to happen and how to sustain performance and profits. I don’t look at what the business currently is and then just wait, I look at what’s going to happen and react now before it happens.”

He also subscribes to the idea that if you find something you are passionate about, it feels a lot less like a job. This approach is certainly paying dividends for Nordic Group Limited. Since listing on the Singapore Stock Exchange in 2010, the company’s market capital has increased by more than 10 times – from S$20 million to over S$200 million. Chang adds that the target is to double that market capital again within the next five years.

Chang concludes that it is imperative in business to stay engaged and have a strong understanding of what is happening in the world. “By doing that, you keep yourself ahead of your competitors so that you will be fast enough to adapt and change. By keeping abreast of global developments and trends it actually sets your thinking ahead of what you need to do now.”