With his bottom lifted over his torso, Alex Chua was being stacked by his opponent, as practitioners of Brazilian jiujitsu term it. Whereas he could have tapped out and walked away injury-free, Chua resisted even though he could not break away – and spent the next six months recovering from a broken rib.
It was also a harsh reminder to Chua to check his ego. “Brute strength doesn’t matter here. I was owned by a kid in my first class (seven years ago),” the 37-year-old, who has a purple belt, says. “You can’t hit; there’s only submission. That’s why it’s called the gentle art.”
Yet, for all of Chua’s love for this martial art and what it espouses, the ascension to humility has been a hard-fought battle. For nearly 10 years, he refused to yield to the convention of joining his family’s business, preferring to strike out on his own in the corporate world. Goldbell Group, which his father and chairman William and late grandfather, Chua Kim Cheng, founded in 1980, is Singapore’s largest commercial vehicles and industrial equipment distribution and leasing company.
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Clients include Lam Soon, Khong Guan, Redmart, Singpost and Ninja Van. It also has operations in Australia, Malaysia and Vietnam. His 35-year-old brother, Arthur, who’s been with Goldbell for 10 years, is CEO.
“I don’t know if it’s a chip on the shoulder or a mentality of wanting to prove to my dad that I can survive on my own,” Chua says. “He’s provided for me my whole life. It was time to stand on my own two feet to prove that I had the mettle to survive in the harsh corporate world.”
FORGING HIS OWN PATH
After graduating from the University of Michigan with an industrial engineering degree, he worked in Puerto Rico for a year for health-care conglomerate Johnson & Johnson, before joining JPMorgan Chase in Hong Kong where he was head of equity derivatives, retail structured products distribution, South-east Asia.
It was the best time of his life, he says. “We were working nearly every day but it was so fun. You understand what it means to work in a team. They are still my closest friends. When I need advice, I call them.”
He earned a good living and made his mark in the banking world, such as launching a first-of-its-kind retail structured product for JP Morgan in Singapore, and the first retail fund in Malaysia tracking the performance of oil.
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But a piece of the puzzle was missing in his pursuit of self-fulfilment. “I realised that my father and brother shared a language that I wasn’t a part of – the family business. There was another dimension of closeness that I didn’t have with them. I thought, maybe it was time that my personal goals were set aside. It was time to come back to see what I could learn and contribute, from having worked in a big corporation. Not that my father needed help, but if I didn’t chip in for the family, who would?
“Besides, how hard can working in a family office in Singapore be, right? And I was proven wrong very quickly.”
NIGHT AND DAY
Chua’s first rude shock was a whopping 70 per cent pay cut. He was sent to a department where “I couldn’t cause much harm” – marketing, which mainly set up events and distributed flyers at the time. “The worst I could do was spend too much on an exhibition,” he says with a chuckle.
While bankers were outspoken, Chua soon found out that Goldbell staff were more humble and not as expressive. “You need to learn how to distil the wealth of knowledge and experience that they have.”
And to do this, he had to rewire himself and learn to listen. “In the bank, you think so fast that you answer your own questions, which is very bad. No one will give you answers anymore, since you give the impression that you know it all. It’s about taking the time to listen, even if you think you might know the answer, because there could be that 10 per cent (of knowledge from contributing opinions) that could give more insight.”
To top it all, he didn’t know what to do with himself. “I didn’t know how I could contribute; I would be full of myself if I told you otherwise. I didn’t even understand the full extent of the business, other than it having to do with trucks and forklifts,” he says.
“In a big organisation, you have one very specific role. You don’t have real impact, other than perhaps improving the bottom line. In a family business, you have greater influence and are more intertwined with staff. The responsibility is overwhelming because 700 staff members depend on you.”
He speaks frequently of the value of face, especially when talking about his athletic pursuits. Like the time he took part in his first and only half- Ironman, and forced himself to smile at the end of the race for a “photo finish”. Or refusing to take part in the open category of an upcoming jiu-jitsu world championship in Las Vegas because “I don’t want to have the fastest tap-out in history”.
Just as he had been single-minded in becoming his own person and stepping out of his father’s shadow, it was this same pride that pushed him to dig deep in a situation of figuring himself out again.
Chua, who is currently chief operating officer, has been playing catch-up over the last five years and, today, he’s spewing company statistics and organisational intricacies competently. He has no qualms telling us that he asks “stupid questions” often, never mind the presence of two minders.
“Clients who have become friends always remind me that Goldbell will go on fine without me,” he says. “I hate it but it’s true. I have to find my valueadd. Sometimes a company continues to run because of existing infrastructure. It’s not really you; your output is mostly because of what your predecessors have done. It’s about always finding a purpose in the bigger scheme of things.”
He’s finally found a niche within Goldbell: processes. Together with a newly formed business intelligence team, he’s spent the last three years rejigging the IT system to collate and crunch big data.
“My dad always says that it’s going by gut feel that makes one a good businessman. But if I can back it with data, wouldn’t my decision be more sound? The hard part is convincing management to embrace a change that has no bottom line effect yet – and that this is not a waste of money (the overhaul cost $4 million), which my dad is constantly reminding me about.
“My intel team is now flooded with requests. Instead of executing business with a parang, I have a surgeon’s knife. I now know why a truck was delayed (in the workshop) for two minutes, which can have a ripple effect on my clients’ businesses.”
To bolster Goldbell’s after-sales service capabilities, Chua is building a state-of-the-art workshop powered by a computerised system that will help diagnose problems, and manned by robots that will deliver parts to repair bays. A recent investment in Pitstop, a car servicing and workshop aggregator from India, and a partnership with Mobileye, which develops systems and chips for autonomous vehicular navigation and to prevent collisions, aim to strengthen Goldbell’s offerings in fleet management.
Goldbell Financial Services, which he set up three years ago to offer loans to SMEs, has become one of the largest non-bank financial institutions in Singapore. A new partnership inked last month with crowd-lending platform New Union aims to match SMEs that need funds with those seeking alternative investment options.
“We realised that SMEs were not very well covered by banks so we grew the Goldbell ecosystem and went into financial services. Every pivot we make is from customer insight; where there’s a need, we fill the gap if we can do it. Goldbell is looking to expand our ecosystem to support our clients, and actively investing in start-ups that challenge the status quo of today’s mobility, with the aim to improve and bring the industry forward.
“In jiu-jitsu, everyone knows the same set of moves. It’s how, through relentless practice, you refine the transition of moves to perfection. You appreciate the fluidity of these moves. Jiu-jitsu is all about strategising to get your opponent in a position for you to execute a particular move. It’s the same for business: You want to put it in a situation so you can reap the benefits of whatever you are doing.”
Ever since the two brothers joined the business, the pace in Goldbell has picked up considerably, says Chua. “We always have ideas. There’s this group of people who are used to working at a certain speed, and you come in and want to work like a rocket. So you have to temper the two. You’ve got to make sure that you don’t ride a go-kart for a rocket race. That’s why we spend so much on infrastructure so people can catch up.”
While some elders in other corporations have been known to be resistant to change, their father has kept a very open mind in this digital age of rapid modernisation. Chua says that his father has never imposed his will on his children, and is always willing to try new things.
In fact, Chua senior has insisted that the business would be professionally run from Day One, and to date, only Chua and his brother are involved in Goldbell. “Everyone has the same goal by which we drive the company. My brother and I share the grand vision, which every one of us executes. Decision-making is more linear this way.”
FREE TO DECIDE
It is this same freedom that has afforded Chua the privilege to discover his own interests. The Chinese High alumnus has played water polo, cycled around world, run marathons and tackled triathlons, before finding his groove in jiu-jitsu seven years ago. Oh, and he plays 13 musical instruments, including the piano, guitar and glockenspiel.
Chua, who works out every day and sometimes twice a day, is constantly pushing his limits – at work and at play – and you wonder if he’s spreading himself too thin. Turns out, there was a near-misadventure involving losing weight quickly for a jiu-jitsu competition. He guffaws, tickled by the memory.
Decorated with Bearbricks (“even my father thinks they are cute”) and Lego Simpsons display sets, his office is an extension of his fun-loving character. “Outside of my home, this is where I spend most of my time. I want it to be more comfortable.”
In his man cave at home, Chua says piles of unopened Lego boxes occupy one wall. Playstation, Wii, Xbox – name any game console and he has it. Chua, who has a one-year-old son, says: “My father was very strict when I was growing up. He allowed me to buy only books. I told myself, when I finally make my own money, I would buy all these things. But now, I don’t have time to play with them.”
His time will be stretched even more, now that he’s on the board of non-profit organisation Food From The Heart. It was a Goldbell salesperson who inspired his contribution. He had given up his commission in order to sell a forklift at a lower price to the client. “If he could do something like that, what more me?”
His journey of self-discovery is hardly over; he’s only just started revving the engine. Has he attained closeness with his father and brother, that yearning that first drew him back to the company?
“I’m still figuring it out every day,” Chua says thoughtfully. “But I’m getting there.”
5 TIPS ON HOW TO NAVIGATE A FAMILY BUSINESS
TAKE IT FROM NEWBIE ALEX CHUA.
01: DAD IS RIGHT 99.9 PER CENT OF THE TIME. “I just don’t know it yet. One may not need to agree, but one needs to take what he says into consideration because of his wealth of experience.”
02: NEVER SAY “I TOLD YOU SO”. “In business, there is no right or wrong. You just so happen to make the right decision at the right time. We must all remember that it is for the same purpose.”
03: IT’S NOT PERSONAL. “The hardest part is learning to communicate such that you disagree on the matter and not take it to a personal level, although it’s often difficult to decouple the two.”
04: BE CONSIDERATE. “I respect my brother’s time and I always ask if he would be free to speak with me. I give him the same courtesy as I would to my peers and staff.”
05: DON’T ASSUME. “I cannot expect my brother to know everything on my mind and to trust me wholeheartedly just because we’re family. Everyone will have doubts, which is not wrong.”