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50 years for the Singapore trailblazer

Jul 18, 2013
The extraordinary story of K.C. Dat. By Steve Jordan.
 

It was Kok Chong Dat, a mover from Kuala Lumpur who, on 11 July, 1963 with his business partner Michael Lee, headed south to start a new company in Singapore.   Little did he know then, but from humble beginnings the company he sired was destined to become one of Asia’s most successful: a pioneer, an innovator, an inspiration to others across the globe.  Its success would largely be down to the energy, enthusiasm and expertise of some extraordinary people - most notable of them, Eric Lim.

 

In 1969 K.C. Dat sold a controlling share to Harper Gifilan Plc., a major trading company based in the UK.  Eric Lim joined the company in 1975 about the time that the company was sold again to a consortium of some of the industry’s most recognised characters led by Jean-Jacques Bordstedt.

Open all hours

Eric was a salesman for a company under the stewardship of Geoff Eyer as MD.  Within few years he would be a shareholder and, after weathering many a commercial storm, become the majority owner.  Geoff was an inspirational leader and Eric and the other 20 or so employees were happy to work hard doing whatever was needed to achieve success.  They worked from a small rented office and a single-storey warehouse in Jalan Terusan aggressively competing against some of the most iconic names in the moving industry - Crown, Smythe and North American Van Lines - all of which had much greater resources than K.C. Dat. 

“We worked long hours every day, including weekends,” Eric remembered.  “When we got a packing job everyone would help out. We were all passionate about the business and the company grew through recommendation.”

Then came a twist of fate. In 1983 Geoff Eyer, the company’s driving force, had to return to his native USA due to ill health.  His departure left an opportunity for Eric, having invested his profit-sharing bonuses to become a minority shareholder in the business, to become General Manager. That was, arguably, the moment the K.C. Dat we know today was born.

 

Eric takes control

After a further change of ownership, 1990 saw Eric mortgaging his house to raise the funds to buy back the shares, with the help of the consortium.  Later Eric managed to raise the funds needed to become the single biggest shareholder and in 2002 he gained a controlling interest.  It took him 27 years but at last Eric had bought the company he loved and had worked so hard to build into a success.

 

K.C. Dat has many extraordinary people all contributing in their own way.  People like Anne Lim, who joined in 1970 as a typist and still works for the company; Mohd Dom, Ali Moksin and Mohd Amin, packers who joined as early as 1963 and stayed throughout their working lives; Gordon Bell who joined in 1978, working in the warehouse, but was forced out of Singapore because of government regulations only to return to the company in 2004 as the Chairman of Asian Tigers; Robbie Heng, the intensely loyal GMS General Manager who has been with the company 35 years and has done every job from sweeping the floor upwards; Ruth Loy, PA to the chairman, who has been with the company for 33 years; John Koh, Financial Director, who was the accountant for Boustead but stayed on with K.C. Dat when the company changed hands; and John Lim, Eric’s younger brother and Group General Manager.  This level of loyalty is a remarkable achievement in a country with full employment.

 

Setting up for FIDI

The company we see today is a far cry from the old days of hardship.  Eric has, himself, also become a world figure, a long way from the enthusiastic salesman of the old days.  He was one of the first to recognise the opportunities of relocation, when the rest of the moving industry was hiding its head and hoping it would go away, forming ARM (Asian Relocation Management) and later LARM (Latin American Relocation Management).  He was the inspiration behind Asian Tigers 14 years ago and helped to build it into one of the most powerful driving forces in the industry anywhere in the world.  And, in 2006 he became the first Asian President of FIDI.

 

Changing times

Today the company has matured into a true world player and has had to adapt to meet the needs of a changing industry.  And although the temptation to follow prices down in the face of more aggressive purchasing tactics by its corporate customers has been compelling, it has largely resisted.  “We used to think that we could get a premium for our service,” explained John Lim, “but the rules have changed. Cost had become a huge factor and often companies don’t want all the value added, they just wanted to get the basics done cheaply. So we have had to strike a balance between the services we offer and what the client is prepared to pay. In practice, the service hasn’t changed, just what we include.” 

 

The key to success

The company’s tale is one of people: people with drive, energy, enthusiasm and extraordinary loyalty.  That loyalty is not something that has been accidental.  Employees are loyal to the company because they love to be part of it; they are proud to work for it and respect immensely the whole management team.  “Our key difference is our people,” said John Lim.  “We feel that it is the interaction with our staff that makes the difference at every touch point: reception, surveyor, move specialists, crews, quality control.  We treat every client as if they are the last client we have.”

 

John Lim stressed that everyone in the organisation is important and understands their part in the process.   “The customer will not buy a jigsaw puzzle with a piece missing.”

 

A new home

Two years the company built itself a new home on its existing site.  Walk into the company’s new, six-storey offices and you will be struck instantly by the entrancing air of peace. At first it seems empty, but look closer and everyone is working quietly, at work stations, with communications mainly online and only the occasional soft telephone conversation to ripple the air.  

 

The building is little short of magnificent: open-plan, with a majestic glass staircase forming the centre piece running to all levels as if underlining the natural culture of openness, innovation, support and empowerment. It is designed and built to accommodate a rapidly growing company and provide a comfortable ‘home’ for the staff who have made the company what it is today. The word ‘home’ is not out of place here. Talk to anyone and they will speak of being part of a family, of enjoying the support of the management, and of belonging.  This is a place of work, yes, but in every other respect it is a home as well.

 

The future

The management of K.C. Dat has rarely been short of good ideas and the company continuously gains in strength. It now has offices in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Myanmar.  Relocation is providing much of the company’s growth.  The Asian Tigers Group, conceived by Eric, has become a true global player.  And at home in Singapore the company is the market leader in the moving sector and Eric knows that it will only be through innovation that it will be able to grow further.

 

“The world is changing every minute and if you don’t change too it will pass you by,” he said.  At 62 years old, and despite taking a distant back seat in the day-to-day running of the company, he has no plans to let anything pass him by.  Succession in the business is secure with a dedicated and experienced team in place now and plenty of young talent waiting in the wings including Eric’s daughter Erika of whom he is immensely proud.  After 50 years of success, the future looks rosy.

 

 

Comments from staff

 

 “Leadership makes this a good place to work. Our managers are all unique and I hold them all in very high regard.  The folks here too make the whole place enjoyable.  There is a lot of respect.  Office politics is non-existent in this company …” Patrick Goh, General Manager, Relocation Services – 10 years’ service

 

“I respect the people in this organisation – team mates to managers. Problems can crop up but nobody shuts doors.  People run towards problems to get them solved, not away from them.  People cross demarcation lines to do all they can to help each other.  It’s easy to find joy working in this company …” Kelvin Yap, Marketing Manager – 11 years’ service

 

 “I am just married to the company and truly enjoy what I do every day. The personal commitment from individuals means that they can anticipate problems and solve them easily …” Robbie Heng, - General Manager – 35 years’ service 

 

“The management are very supportive.  They are always there to help if I have a problem.  They are very loyal to their staff even through the financial crisis …”  Linda Chong, Senior Manager, Move Management – 17 years’ service.

 

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