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Headline Teeing off with passion: Eric Phua

Eric Phua Deputy Group Managing Director of TEE International

When it comes to his job, Eric Phua is a passionate man. So much so, that when the HR department at TEE International asked its employees to list their hobbies, Eric didn’t hesitate. He knew exactly where his enthusiasm lay. Eric listed ‘work’. “Yeah, it’s work,” he laughs. “It’s what drives me, what motivates me. It’s definitely my passion.”

It’s to be expected, really, when you consider TEE International’s Deputy Group Managing Director was instrumental in establishing the company he is so passionate about. He was one of just three family members who built the business from an HDB flat in Singapore, more than 25 years ago, to an integration juggernaut offering world-class services in engineering, real estate and infrastructure throughout Singapore, Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand.

Eric Phua, Deputy Group Managing Director of TEE International
Eric Phua, Deputy Group Managing Director of TEE International

Its engineering subsidiaries, Trans Equatorial Engineering and PBT Engineering, provide one-stop solutions for large-scale and complex building projects for office, commercial and institutional buildings, factories, residential apartments, and research and infrastructure facilities. One-stop design and building packages with elite project management services are also offered to meet client requirements and expectations.

Many of these are repeat customers, returning time and time again for TEE’s renowned quality service and care. They include SMRT, CapitaLand, Citibank NA, Las Vegas Sands, Changi Airport Group, National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University and Hyundai Engineering and Construction.

This year, TEE Engineering announced it had landed S$65 million worth of engineering contracts from February to July, boosting its outstanding order book to S$280 million.

PBT Engineering won an assets enhancement initiative (AEI) contract for Singapore’s shopping mall, Ang Mo Kio Hub, while Trans won an AEI contract to upgrade the Income At Raffles building. Trans was also awarded two more contracts by Changi Airport Group, adding to the six already underway. It’s been a mammoth journey for Eric since he left Singapore Polytechnic with a mechanical engineering diploma in 1989 and launched his career in Singapore’s public sector.“It was with the Public Utilities Board, or PUB, and I was there for about two years. It taught me respect for the industry and developed my passion for engineering,” he explains.

Humble begginings

Encouraged by his older brother, C.K. Phua, Eric joined Trans Equatorial Engineering in 1991, which had been operating as a general trading and engineering company since 1980, before C.K. took over and transformed it into an electrical and engineering sub-contracting company. As a primarily self-funded private company, cash flow and space were scarce.

“Those days were tough,” Eric remembers. “There was just my older brother, his wife and I, working from their home, a very small HDB apartment with a table in the middle and no computers.”

While their ‘office’ and team may have been tiny, the enthusiasm was huge. Each team member wore multiple hats, with Eric’s sister-in-law handling admin and finance, while the brothers pitched for engineering jobs, handled procurement and tender submissions, supervised sites, and nurtured relationships with consultants and suppliers.

It was a crucial period for the young company, aiming to prove itself and earn trust in a competitive market. Establishing leads and networks was imperative, as was earning a reputation and repeat business.

“Eventually, we moved into a small office and operated from there. Then, as we made more money, we moved to a retail unit in a commercial complex, and that’s when we started to hire employees.”

Those employees – a project engineer and a secretary – expanded the team to five, just enough to get the company through the contract work for about three years, leading into the mid 1990s. Then, in 1996, just five years after TEE was launched, the company secured its first substantial and prestigious project, a contract with the National University of Singapore (NUS) to upgrade the university’s fire alarm and electrical systems. It was exactly the boost needed to firmly establish TEE in Singapore as a trusted source for engineering projects, no matter how large or small.

“Previously, we were a sub-contractor for the bigger players in the university market,” Eric explains. “But with the NUS contract, we managed to carve out a name for ourselves and secured other engineering projects from the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore University of Technology and Design, and Singapore Institute of Technology. We took off. All these higher learning institutions are still our regular partners. Even today, 27 years later, 90% of our clients are repeat customers.

“From very early on we earned respect,” Eric adds. “We had the vision to be the best and the preferred choice within the industry. We not only had to meet the expectations of our clients, we felt we had to exceed them. “For me, the most important aspect of a job is the delivery. It must be within schedule, of good quality and, of course, meet the requirements of the client. That is how we get repeat customers.”

“We had a vision to be the best and the preferred choice within the industry.”

Eric Phua, Deputy Group Managing Director of TEE International

TEE Land
TEE Land Limited is a regional real estate developer and investor, with a presence in Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand.

As an established property developer, TEE Land has a strong track record of delivering quality and well-designed living, commercial and industrial spaces that harmonise societies, businesses and people.

Its property development projects are predominantly freehold in tenure and are targeted at middle- to high-income consumers who value exclusivity in good locations.

Rapid growth

As the company gained an impressive reputation for its quality assurance and delivery of projects on schedule, the brothers expanded their services to include integrated mechanical and electrical systems and employed an operations team of managers, engineers, supervisors, electricians and support executives.

With the business growing substantially, the company was taken public, listed in 2001 on the SGX Catalist with a market capitalisation of S$16 million. It upgraded to the Main Board of Singapore’s Stock exchange in 2008 and today enjoys a market capitalisation of S$115 million.

Heading into the new millennium, the Phua brothers recognised Singapore had moved on from being a developing economy into a First World economy. The transition provided plenty of opportunities for engineering and construction, and TEE wasted no time in taking advantage of them.

“That’s when we decided to expand,” Eric remembers. “Our staff had grown to a team of 30, plus we had the resources, the reputation and the drive, so we started moving into new markets.”

In 2006, recognising the time was right for a move into real estate, the company launched TEE Land. The fledgling company focused on producing mostly boutique and residential developments, quickly earning a reputation for delivering high-quality, well-designed projects. It only took a year for the business to be confident enough to expand further still and, in 2008, it delved into real estate development in Thailand, as well as facilities management including the design and build of the workers’ dormitory for Singapore’s first integrated resort, Marina Bay Sands, and the management of the housing development project for the National Housing Association of Thailand, the Rom Klao Estate.

“It was a natural progression for us,” Eric explains. “By that time, we had increased to more than 100 staff, we had developed our strength and capabilities and had a solid background, and a firm footprint in the engineering and construction sectors. “The market was also right for us,” he adds.

“Our only competitors were locals, so there was no steep competition like there is now with international players such as the Japanese and Koreans. We knew we could successfully diversify into real estate. It was a big break for us.”

Today, the company enjoys success as a regional developer of and investor in residential, commercial and industrial projects in Malaysia, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand. Its developments are predominantly freehold in prime locations and targeted at middle-to-high income clients.

In Singapore, TEE Land is responsible for the residential developments The Peak@Cairnhill 1, Hilbre 28 and Rezi 32, while in Bangkok, it has built Chewathai Interchange and Hallmark Chaengwattana. It has also accumulated over 30 residential, commercial and industrial properties.

“I will always be proud of our first completed development, The Thomson Duplex. It’s relatively small, just six units in a boutique residential apartment block in the Novena Planning Area, minutes from the Orchard Road shopping belt. But when it was launched in 2010, it was an enormous achievement and a milestone for us in real estate.”

TEE’s achievements and highlights

There are other early projects Eric recalls fondly as highlights of his career. They include the M&E fit-outs of Asia Square Tower 1 and the S$109 million contract for the electrical installation to the northern and southern podiums of Marina Bay Sands. That venture remains one of the biggest electrical installation contracts ever awarded to a single contractor in Singapore.“Moving on to these mega-projects in the financial district is where we grew a lot,” Eric explains.

In 2013, TEE Engineering teamed up with Hyundai Mechanical and Construction Co to deliver an S$142 million M&E package for Marina One, which is one of two sprawling developments constructed by M+S, a joint venture between the Malaysian and Singaporean governments. The mixed-use development, located in Singapore’s financial district in Marina South, offers residential, commercial, retail and lifestyle opportunities and is recognised worldwide as a landmark project. It covers a gross floor area of more than one million square metres and includes two 34-storey residential towers, two 30-storey prime Grade A office towers, a retail podium and a 400,000-square-metre garden extending over several storeys.

“This is an iconic project completed jointly by the two governments. Projects like these come once in a lifetime and it’s one we are very proud to have been part of.”

While reflecting on TEE’s achievements is immensely satisfying, and its growth from such humble beginnings a great story to tell the children, Eric admits he prefers to look ahead. “Of course, we look back and tell our kids how we reached this level of success,” Eric says. “Remembering all the obstacles we had to overcome does give us an enormous sense of achievement. But I think we spend more time, or at least I do, looking forward, rather than back.”

Remembering the original vision he shared with his brother, ‘to be among the best and the preferred choice in the industry’, Eric is happy with where the company sits today. To a point.

“To reach the top is not that difficult. The challenge is to maintain that position,” he explains. “I would say that right now we have. But we are not resting on our laurels, even when we have reached the top, we still want to look for the next peak. So, for today, yes, we have achieved our goal. But, we are continually striving for more and, tomorrow, we will reach for something better because there is always something better.”

“To reach the top, is not that difficult. The challenge is to maintain that position.”

One strategy TEE employed to be ‘better than the best’ was to create TEE Infrastructure to join its real estate and engineering subsidiaries. Comfortably established in real estate and engineering, and enjoying steady growth with a constant flow of projects and developments, all of which contributed to the TEE group, it was time to expand into new areas.

“So, we moved into infrastructure and that is our big push now,” Eric says. “It’s a relatively new division, only three years old.”

Eric Phua, Deputy Group Managing Director of TEE International

Alliances and acquisitions

In September 2017, TEE International formed a strategic alliance with integrated services provider Advancer Global, which offers a maid agency, cleaning, stewarding and security services. The two companies united to focus on exploring opportunities for joint tenders in contracts that require mechanical and electrical engineering works and facility management services, and to invest in facilities management projects in the Asia–Pacific region.

In November last year, the two firms, along with another investor, acquired waste management provider Chiang Kiong Environmental (now known as TEE Environmental), one of Singapore’s leading environmental services provider for waste and recycling management. TEE sees the acquisition as an opportunity to complement its infrastructure business with its water, power and environmental chain.“We had power and water, and now we have environmental services,” Eric says.

Subsequently, TEE Infrastructure acquired a medical waste management division from Sembcorp Environment (now known as TEE Medical Services). “We’re focusing on new investments and acquisitions all the time. In this area, if you are not big, you will be eaten by the big fish.

TEE also launched an environmental push in 2011 when it invested in a 49% stake in GETCO (Global Environmental Technology), one of Thailand’s largest waste water treatment companies, with a total capacity of 350 million litres per day, serving commercial, industrial, business and residential communities. It also operates two other wastewater treatment plants, including Bangkok’s first underground waste water treatment plant in Bang Sue.

It has a 21% investment in PowerSource Philippines Distributed Power Holdings, Inc. and, in 2015, constructed a 25-megawatt greenfield power plant. The company installed a 17-kilowatt solar power system on the TEE Building’s roof and has entered into the solar business with partners to explore opportunities in Singapore and South-East Asia.

Apart from the mechanics of its multiple business interests and strategies, Eric believes TEE’s fundamental relationships with its own people are what sets it apart from its competitors. Most of its principal staff have been with the company for more than 10 years, with many having spent 20 years with TEE, joining straight after completing their tertiary education and progressing to leadership positions.

Another clear advantage is that most of the staff are local. “Yes, they are predominantly local and are all passionate about the business,” Eric says. “We consider them as very important to the company and take care of them. That is a driving factor for us as we understand everybody has a family to take care of. I think this human element definitely distinguishes us from our competitors.“Of course, the other thing that differentiates us is being more price efficient. As a local company, our overheads are way lower than our foreign competitors, even though foreign contractors are becoming more competitive.”

Acknowledging the obstacles during the early days of TEE he and his brother had to overcome, Eric is very conscious of passing on lessons learned to his son, En Yew. About to complete his military service, the business student has only ever witnessed TEE’s heady days of success.

“I will make sure he goes through the school of hard knocks,” Eric says. “Yes, he has done an internship at TEE, but I have also encouraged him to go to other companies, even different industries, to learn more.

“He started off studying business and engineering, but having seen the way his father works, all day and night, he wants to continue with the business side,” Eric laughs. “He realises engineering is a burnout option. He still has three more years of studies to go and I have told him that when he finishes he will not come directly to TEE. Only after a few years working outside the company will he be considered ready to join. No doubt, if he does, he’ll be telling me how to run the business.”

TEE infrastructure
TEE Infrastructure, a wholly owned subsidiary of TEE International, invests in infrastructure assets across the region in the environmental, power and water segments.

With a presence in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, TEE Infrastructure strives to move up the value chains for each of its segments through strategic acquisitions, centred on the core principle of capability-building.

Nurturing personal and working relationships

In spite of the long hours spent on his work, Eric’s wife, a homemaker, is very supportive of all his endeavours over all these years. Naturally, Eric’s long personal and working relationship with his brother has been critical to their shared success. Having worked alongside C.K. for nearly three decades, watching the business grow from nothing, through sheer hard work and dedication, Eric is candid about its significance.

“We are not friends. No, we are more than that, we are real brothers, very close,” he reveals. “There are many start-ups launched by families that result in the family breaking up. Problems have occurred between brother and sister, or parents and children. It is very common.”

“But my brother and I are super close. We talk at all levels. We meet often to discuss business, our strategies and direction, but we also talk about personal things, family stuff.”

Eric’s enduring loyalty, his strong work ethic and his passionate commitment to the company are leadership qualities he extends to, and expects from, his employees, particularly his management teams.

Starting his day early, often at 6am, with a fresh mind and no interruptions, Eric continues his day with mornings at the head office clearing up admin, as well as reviewing financial reports of respective projects. Afternoons are mostly spent visiting sites and attending meetings. He endeavours to visit each project site at least twice a week and long days are sometimes finished with a meal and a beer with his staff.

“I always tell my staff that the best fertiliser for a farmer’s crop is the farmer’s feet,” Eric says. “I make it a point to visit all the worksites to talk to the people, understand their difficulties, and offer words of encouragement and advice.

“It’s very simple for me. There is no point in sitting in the office looking only at the good reports fed to me. I’m very hands-on and want to be aware of any problems as well. My staff and my passion for the job are the two things that drive me to strive to be better than the best.”

Eric’s professional prowess was recognised in 2016 when he won the Asia Pacific Entrepreneurship Award for Engineering. The previous year the company was awarded Best Companies to Work for in Asia.

“Success doesn’t drop from the sky,” Eric says. “All achievements or rewards are through hard work. There’s no substitute. But a crucial factor is passion, and I still have that 27 years after joining TEE.

“Challenges come and go, and we can always overcome them. But passion always remains with the person.”

“As long as there’s passion, all difficulties can be overcome.”

Tee Engineering

Established in 1991, TEE’s Engineering business has grown into an integrated engineering solutions provider for retail, commercial and institutional buildings, as well as factories, research facilities, residential apartments and infrastructure facilities.

TEE’s Engineering business operates under two wholly owned subsidiaries, Trans Equatorial Engineering and PBT Engineering to offer a full suite of high-value engineering solutions and construction services based on international standards that are adopted for large-scale and complex commercial building, as well as AEI projects. The professional and technical team also provides a one-stop design and build package alongside project management that meet clients’ requirements.

Its major clients over the years include SMRT, CapitaLand, Citibank NA, Frasers Centrepoint, Las Vegas Sands Group, Changi Airport Group, National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University and Hyundai Engineering and Construction. Majority of them are repeat clients, which bear testimony to TEE’s work quality and ability to deliver.

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