Career Transformation – Designpreneur to Design Educator

My career as a ‘Designpreneur’, though illustrious, has been like a roller coaster ride filled with rushes of adrenaline. As the consultancy business expanded, the tracks became narrower, steeper and higher – with each ride seeming more perilous than the last.

After 19 years of progressive effort as the FM Group CEO, I am sure everyone is fully aware of FM’s uncanny ability to seize opportunities and create milestones which were unmatched by others from the industry. FM’s vision, unique business model, operating system, investment and expansion strategies, business accolades, awards and speedy regional expansion caught our competitors by surprise. As a captain in the design industry, FM has blazed many uncharted trails throughout its journey of continuous advancement – often making the impossible possible.

 

Starting Well – My Formative Years

Many of you may not be familiar with my beginnings, so allow me to share the story of how I cultivated a yearning and drive for success. My strong desire to succeed stems from my experiences as an underprivileged kid. My parents were both labourers and I was often left alone to fend for myself. At the tender age of seven, I was already taking on holiday jobs while others my age were out at play. During the late 1960s, opening car doors outside local bars and restaurants was a great way to earn some money, especially for young kids like myself. Life was hard, but little did I know that the path I chose would eventually taught me many valuable lessons in survival, which I could not have learnt anywhere else.

My Scouting Days
My leadership skills were honed during my days as a Sea Scout. As a patrol leader, I was responsible for the performance, conduct and safety of my fellow scouts in outdoor adventure sports such as open water swimming, boating, survival camping, hiking and mountain climbing.

As an independent Sea Scout group, we had little guidance and only a minimum set of rules to adhere to. This ‘open’ environment gave me plenty of creative room to develop my adventurer’s spirit and helped me cultivate the quality of being a hands-on leader and fighter.

My Struggles – Academics and Financial
The pursuit of academic excellence was never one of my priorities and without a doubt, this attitude led me to attain GCE ‘O’ Level results that were too poor to be considered by any of the institutes of higher learning. Left with no other choice, I entered the full time workforce at the age of 16.

My first full-time job as a production operator exposed me to the harsh realities of working life. Working on rotational shifts that were constantly exploited and manipulated by senior workers, I was often bullied and abused by my senior colleagues. Cast out of childhood and thrust into a world of towering responsibilities, this was yet another lesson learnt in survival.

While waiting for the army call-up, I took on work as a lifeguard in Big Splash. During this time, I also helped my mother with her work as a labourer, stuffing cartons of detergent into 40-foot containers amidst scorching temperatures. Life as a labourer was physically strenuous and painful, giving me a traumatic firsthand experience of daily hardship that my parents had to endure.

Swimming – My First Love
Two years came and went, but my determination to succeed never once withered. I realised that I enjoyed teaching, so I fused this quality with one of my undying passions – swimming. I began to give swimming lessons at the age of 20. It was also around that age that I began to develop a strong affinity for the arts. I thought to myself — why not study the arts? With drive and determination, I took on the challenge of pursuing my love for art. It took me a total of four years, but finally, at the age of 24, I was accepted into the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA).

My Years in The Arts School 
In NAFA, all my classmates were between the ages of 18 to 20 and I felt out of place as the oldest and least talented student among them. I felt like a cube being forced into a circle. From learning how to draw to studying masterful talent without possessing any talent myself, my learning journey was no easy one. Somehow, I managed to pull through my days as a student, though I must admit that there were many times when quitting seemed like a good idea.

As the oldest and most matured student, my leadership skills were again put to good use. With the encouragement of my classmates, I was elected as the Students’ Union Chairman. Under my stewardship, I managed to put together the first and only Dinner and Dance in a 5 stars hotel for my fellow students and lecturers and organised a cross-country race as well as a community work programme in aid of children’s homes.

To help pay for my school fees and living expenses, I continued to teach swimming in a public pool every afternoon and evening. Although some may find it difficult to balance work and school, I thoroughly cherished the times I had for both my passions. In fact, I even went as far as to attain a Class One Competitive Swimming Coach certificate, under the tutelage of the late National Swimming Coach, Mr. Kee Soon Bee.

When I graduated from NAFA in mid 1988, I had more than 200 swimmers under my tutelage. Although this sport allowed me to keep in good physical form, I recognised that the job was not a very intellectually stimulating one. I then embarked on a management studies course to supplement my design education.

 

Inception of Lancer Design Services
I started Lancer Design Services in February 1989 and gave up on coaching to focus on my new design business venture. Cast out of my financial safety net, I knew that the only way was up. At 27, I started again from scratch, with only S$ 2,000 to start building my new career as the owner of a design house.

Friends, colleagues and partners, I would like to share my success formula with you. Hardship and adversity are invaluable life experiences that should serve to strengthen one’s resolve and determination to become better. Cherish these experiences like I have, for my times of turmoil have sparked within me a positive mental spirit that has become the cornerstone of my success.

I mapped out my life goals with my final destination in mind. With a conscious decision to succeed, I knew I wanted to become, not just a designer – but a ‘Designpreneur’.

Juggling between my new business, evening management classes, young family and my new-born baby, I knew that there was no substitute for hard work, and that this was the only route I could take to realise my dream. Without any relevant business connections or know-how, I toiled day and night to make up for my previous lack of experience and talent.

 

Importance of Management Studies
It was from management studies that I realised the importance of mapping out a comprehensive action plan. By creating such a plan, I gained a clearer understanding of what my ultimate career goals were and the steps I could take to achieve them. During this time, I also gained insight into the importance of staff motivation and investment plans — which, to this day, remain as two of my highest professional priorities.

During this time, the design consultancy business was my only means to an end. Learning from the imperfections of larger and more established outfits, I started developing long-term strategies to achieve my vision of shaping a ‘First Class’ design agency.

Soon enough, annual staff trips to Europe and Australia, Rolex watches, monthly staff lunches and outings and year-end bonuses became regular fixtures in our operations.

 

Ending My Designpreneurship Career Well
Business back then was no easier than it is today. Armed with no strong credentials, project portfolios or business know-how, mine was a business built from scratch, with loads of self-discipline and many long hours. For me, hard work, discipline, focus and commitment were best friends that got me through my darkest days.

I have had my fair share of both successes and failures. Although it certainly was a tremendous joy to see this business grow to its present size, it certainly involved plenty of personal sacrifices and strategic thinking. In those early days, I put in 14 to 16 work-hours a day, seven days a week. Today, I still put in an average of 12 hours of work everyday. 

Though the journey was tough, it was nevertheless always exhilarating. After two fruitful and rewarding decades, we became the first communications agency to be awarded the Enterprise 50 Start Up Award in 2005. In 2006, I was also the only designer ever to receive the Rotary/ASME Top Entrepreneurs of the Year Award in their 20 years of award history.

Finishing Well
At the end of it all, I am proud to say that mine is a tale of success sprung from adversity and humble beginnings.

My successes in life should not be determined by how much wealth I have accumulated, nor by the multiple awards I have received over the years. As you probably would have read in 2006, I have rejected a multi-million dollars offer from a large media conglomerate in UK to sell FM group for one simple reason i.e. their refusal to allow me to fulfil my vision of setting up a design academy. Personally, I have come to the conclusion that my achievements are best measured by the number of people whose lives I have touched and changed. To date, I have nurtured and trained more than 50 ‘designpreneurs’ and given career hope to hundreds of colleagues and partners in this region.

Given my love for nurturing young minds, the commencement of my new career as an educator may be more challenging, but will surely re-energise my zeal for teaching and love of design. I see it to be fitting, for now I am able to infuse two of my greatest passions.

Not wanting to lose sight of my focus as an educator, I formally announced a closure to my illustrious career as a ‘designpreneur’. With that, I want to move on and wholeheartedly commit to shaping, cultivating and nurturing the young minds in First Media Design School (FMDS). I hope to achieve the same level of success that I had in the design business and make all our students proud to be a part of FM’s extended family.

At this juncture, I have the pleasure of announcing the official appointment of Audrey Chong as my successor. Audrey, as you all know, has been with the group since 2002. She is currently Lancer Design’s Account Director, as well as the Group’s Director. I am constantly encouraged by the loyalty, commitment and passion that she has shown. She has been well groomed for the task, and possesses distinctive leadership capabilities that will ensure the continued success of FM’s design operations.

Thank You
To all my friends, fellow colleagues, partners and my beloved family: Although words may not adequately reflect the journey I have travelled, I wish to thank all of you for being by my side during all these wonderful years. I truly appreciate you for putting up with the hardship, discipline and stress I have imposed on you, and more importantly, for the fond memories you have all given me. 

Thank you and I am looking forward to starting a brand new chapter of FM’s history in the education sector.