ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
A classmate once mocked his prospects in life but entrepreneur Andy Ong’s assets now total a couple of hundred million.
A floor-to-ceiling cabinet dominates two thirds of a wall in Mr Andy Ong’s penthouse at an upscale Bukit Timah condominium. It is home to his shoes, and he owns several hundred pairs. Sheepishly, he lets on that he has more kept in a Bukit Timah bungalow and in his office. He shrugs when asked to explain his obsession and reckons it has something to do with his deprived childhood.
“I remember so many students wearing Nike, Adidas and Puma when I was in secondary school, but all I could afford was my China-made Panda brand canvas ones,” he says. “Maybe I’m trying to overcompensate now,” he adds with a loud cackle. Mr Ong, 42, is the founder and owner of Entrepreneur’s Resource Centre (ERC) Holdings, which has various businesses – from education and training to property investments – and an annual turnover in the tens of millions.
His beginnings, however, are humble. His father was a businessman who fell into drugs, flitted in and out of jail and abandoned his wife and five children when the young Andy was seven years old. Although the entrepreneur has blocked out many painful memories, he remembers violent episodes of his father hitting his mother and demanding money to feed his habit. “Many times, my siblings and I would shiver in bed when we heard him banging down the door in the middle of the night,” says Mr Ong, the second youngest in the family. Things became so dire his mother was forced to sell their five-room Henderson Road flat. “We moved to Toa Payoh, into the one-room flat of my aunt, who had two children of her own,” he recalls, adding that his mother eventually divorced his father and pulled two shifts as a waitress to make ends meet. It took a while before they could afford their own three-room flat in Commonwealth. Mr Ong and his siblings learnt to fend for themselves early. He did well enough at Delta West Primary School to be admitted to Raffles Institution but confesses he nursed a huge inferiority complex while there.
“I guess the circumstances of my classmates were a lot better and their dads were around,” he says. “I never invited any of them home because there was absolutely nothing there.” It didn’t help that a classmate once mocked him and labelled him “the guy least likely to succeed in life”. “That hurt, that really hurt,” he says. He decided early in life that being poor was no fun. “I was very hungry and I was prepared to do anything that was not illegal or immoral,” he says. While in secondary school, he sold flowers at Elizabeth Walk on weekends. To help pay his way through St An drew’s Junior College and the National University of Singapore, where he read economics and mathematics, he worked as a kitchen hand in a couple of Holland Village restaurants. He would wash dishes, chop vegetables and help to cook from 5.30pm to 11pm each day. “I’d earn $2 or $2.50 an hour. All I remember was being a very exhausted boy,” he says.
Upon graduation in the early 1990s, he worked as a journalist at a finance magazine. “I went from journalist to managing editor in two years; my pay was doubled,” he recalls. Then he lost his job in the wake of the Asian financial crisis in 1997. It turned out to be a blessing. With $10,000 from his savings and another $20,000 from credit lines, he started a magazine, the Asian Financial Planning Journal. He hired an assistant and operated from a small office space on the fourth floor of a shophouse in Circular Road. “I was scared s***less but I had to do it. I was absolutely resolute I didn’t want to lose,” he says.
“I went out to sell advertising because my contacts in the financial industry were good. We broke even within 10 days,” says Mr Ong, who worked with a team of freelancers. The outfit grew rapidly, thanks to a business concept which deviated radically from traditional publishing. “I felt that it was hard to survive just on advertising alone. So I decided to use the same overheads to also organise financial conferences and events as well as publish books,” says Mr Ong. He has written or co-authored nine books on finance and entrepreneurship.
These include Personal Financial Planning In Singapore, which has sold more than 40,000 copies, Investing In Unit Trusts, and Maniac. The last advocates a little craziness for a person to succeed in this world. His team swelled from two to eight staff; revenue grew from a couple of hundred thousand to a couple of million dollars in less than five years. In 2003, he sold the business for “a very tidy sum” to an American company.
With the money, he invested in several shophouses in places such as Club Street, Telok Ayer and Circular Road. “I bought one a year,” he says. They turned out to be excellent investments. For instance, the Club Street shophouse he bought for $2.2 million in the early 2000s was sold for nearly $6 million a couple of years ago. Meanwhile, he rounded up a few partners to pump in $1 million to start ERC in 2002 to encourage entrepreneurship and educate budding entrepreneurs. The Economic Development Board also gave him a grant for the project. “The idea was to impart useful and practical knowledge to those who want to start businesses. I majored in maths but have never integrated or differentiated once in my career,” he says.
Tapping on the expertise of his network, he helped to draw up a curriculum which included lessons on how to analyse market opportunities, drive sales and maximise human resources. “People must realise that employment is not the only way out. Getting a job in a multi-national corporation, joining the civil service or becoming a lawyer is not the be all and end all of life,” he says. The business also has a consulting and private equity arm which takes stakes in some of the businesses that the company helps to incubate. “We invest in them and, if they become the next Google, they can buy back the stake.”
So far, the company has invested in more than 15 companies, with stakes ranging from 10 per cent to 100 per cent. ERC Holdings grew quickly and also diversified into property investments. Today, the education arm works with partners like Britain’s University of Greenwich and University of Wolverhampton to offer a slew of courses – from certificate to post-graduate programmes – in entrepreneurship, financial services, and tourism and hospitality. It has more than 3,000 students from various nationalities studying at its two centres, one at the former River Valley Primary School and the other at North Bridge Commercial Complex, which Mr Ong bought from the Hong Leong Group in 2009 for $46 million. The complex is now worth more than $100 million.
He says: “I believe in starting businesses and investing in real estate. We buy for our business requirements. “The best hedge against risks is to have your own businesses use your properties.” It explains why he sold off all his shophouses in 2010 to buy the 16-storey Prime Centre in Middle Road for $103 million. He is turning it into a 302-room hotel which is scheduled to open just before the Singapore Formula One race in September. “Our students can intern there,” he says, declining to reveal the name of the hotel for now. He is convinced Singapore’s visitor arrivals far outstrip the number of hotel rooms here and chose the site because “there are five MRT stations within a 10 minute walking radius”.
“Orchard Road, Bugis and Serangoon Road are all short distances away,” says Mr Ong, who has long harboured dreams of being a hotelier. He visited 17 hotels – including stylish boutique set-ups such as 1Hotel and citizenM – all over the world to come up with a concept which is tailored to business executives and shoppers. “For the price, the rooms will not be big,” says Mr Ong, who intends to charge about $200 per room. “But there will be a very solid bed, Wi-Fi, very good shower and toiletries, thick towels and 500-thread count sheets.” He already has grand plans. “I hope to build one every two years.
I want to build a Singaporean hospitality brand and have hotels in Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia and China,” he says, adding that he is already looking at sites in South Korea. Mr Douglas Foo, chief executive of the Sakae Sushi chain, has known Mr Ong since his national service days more than 20 years ago. “He is very driven, very sharp and resourceful. Nothing is beyond his appetite. Once he decides on something,m he gets it done,” he says. “He is also a very good negotiator. You wouldn’t want to have him on the opposite side.” UBS banker Paul Steffanson counts Mr Ong as one of his best friends. “When I first came to Singapore about 10 years ago, I met Andy and this other guy. Both warned me about the other.
But Andy turnedout to be the honest one,” he says. He describes the entrepreneur as one who thinks outside the box, and who has a will to win and a hunger to achieve. “When people are aggressive, they’re not going to make themselves a bunch of friends, not many people are going to love them.” By his own admission, Mr Ong drives many people nuts, including his own staff. “I give people a lot of opportunities but I’m also very demanding. I get very disappointed with those who have potential but choose not to maximise it.” He has no answers when asked why he pushes himself so hard and what he lives for. “Sadly, I don’t know,” he says. “But I feel there are many things I have not achieved.” He adds, after a pause: “Deep down inside, I’m very insecure. Do you know, it was only last year that I convinced myself I was not poor any more?” This from a man whose hard assets total a couple of hundred million.
He lets on that he finally made peace with his father – who had been trying to reconcile with him for nearly two decades – only last year. Ong Senior, who is remarried with another son, is now in his 70s. “I went to his home during Chinese New Year. I’m no longer young and I didn’t want to have any regrets,” says Mr Ong, adding that his mother and siblings – all of whom have done well – had long reconnected with his father. “I was polite but I didn’t feel anything,” he says. “It’s strange. When you’re seven, he looked like a raging giant. Now he’s just a frail old man.
Mr Ong has a girlfriend but says marriage is not on the cards yet. “I don’t think I’m the easiest person to live with. Maybe it’s the fear of what happened to my parents’ relationship,” he says.
The strategic planner, however, is already prepared if he does walk down the aisle and becomes a father. “My penthouse at the Legend in Bukit Timah is within 1km of Singapore Chinese Girls’ School and Anglo-Chinese School.” He has also bought a bungalow in Sixth Avenue as a back-up. “It is within 500m of Henry Park Primary School,” he says with a grin.
Source: The Sunday Times© Singapore Press holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
29 April 2012