Von Lee, the founder of Expand Construction which has 500 staff and $200 million in annual turnover, admits he did not have the natural instinct to be an entrepreneur. Rather, it was his desire to help his elder brother’s struggling business that led him to leave a government job at the height of the Asian financial crisis, armed with only a degree in civil engineering from Nanyang Technological University and the certainty that he could supplement his sibling’s erratic $1,600 a month salary. Eighteen years later, Lee, now 48 and EY Entrepreneur of the Year for Engineering and Construction, has led Expand from a C3 Building and Construction Authority-ranked outfit that can bid only for projects capped at $650,000, to A1 unlimited tender capacity. But he hasn’t forgotten the struggles of the early days and finds fulfilment in helping others succeed.
WHEN I STARTED THE COMPANY IN 2000, we had no track record. We had to be cheaper than the cheapest, for people to give us projects. My first project was A&A (Additions and Alterations) works valued at $300,000. We lacked resources but we could buy hammers.
FOR THE PAST EIGHT YEARS, we have been working on mega projects at the $200-million mark. The challenge now is to be a more balanced contractor. We are looking to build infrastructure such as MRT, tunnels, sewerage systems, etc – not only buildings. That will bring us to another level of competitiveness.
I UNWIND BY GOING ON HOLIDAYS with my wife and good friends. We like Japan for its seasons. Seeing that is important for me, because it breaks my year into four quarters. I try to do an expedition every quarter.
BEING ABLE TO SIT DOWN AT A CAFE and have coffee for an hour or two is relaxing to me. I used to have 10 coffees a day to take me through meetings. My wife asked me why I didn’t order tea. I told her that, as a boss, if I ordered a tea, I would feel a bit weak.
I HAVE 200, 300 WHATSAPP MESSAGES A DAY. The platform is useful for its interest groups. I have one on Pokemon catching in the neighbourhood. At times, I’d go Pokemon hunting with these people – it’s good that I have such social activities with my neighbours. And it’s not just a game, it gets you walking.
THE BEST GIFT FOR ME THIS CHRISTMAS, and every year, is to see my 81-year-old mother healthy and active. She has gone through much hardship. My father passed away almost 15 years ago, at the age of 65, after suffering the effects of a stroke at age 49. Seeing my mother being able to enjoy her golden years is a very big deal to me. I hope for another 20 years, for my mother to become a 100-year-old grand lady.
HIS GIVING PHILOSOPHY
“My entrepreneurship journey started because I wanted to share,” says Von Lee. “And, today, I am blessed because the more I have, the more I can give.” In addition to investing in the welfare of his staff, Lee in 2016 gave $1 million to NTU to start a bursary for needy engineering students. He will follow that donation up with another $1 million in 2020 to create a scholarship. “When the people around me do better, I feel more fulfilled. Because at the end of the day, life is pretty short. Seeing the smiles around you and the thank-yous makes your journey through life, although short, more sweet.”