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The Peak Power List 2014: David Leong

Mired in debt after a dot-com bust, David Leong hunkered down with law books for six months, to fight and eventually win a tedious legal battle which turned his fortunes around.

David Leong clearly remembers the worst six months of his life in 2001. Jobless and living on credit, he started each day by sending his wife to work, before heading to his neighbourhood coffee shop for breakfast.

Then began an arduous daily ritual of reading law books, and drafting and faxing legal letters (without the help of a lawyer) in an acrimonious fight with the majority shareholder of iProperty, an Internet real-estate portal that Leong and a partner co-founded in 1999, at the height of the dot.com boom.

The shareholder, a bank, had ousted the pair from the company after a dispute over the company’s valuation – which hit $100 million at one stage – as it was preparing to list on the Singapore stock exchange. Representing a group of minority shareholders, he sought the liquidation of the business in 2001, so that they could recoup some of their investment.

“I was not bringing in money, I had to draw on my credit card and I was running an overdraft.

“At times, I would curl up and cry,” the 44-year-old says of that traumatic period. “But giving up never crossed my mind. I held on to the hope that as long as I didn’t give up, I would find a way out.

“It was a very unnerving experience fighting with the bank, which had some bigname lawyers, and I couldn’t even afford one. But I was as persistent as a bulldog. It had swallowed me whole and I was in its stomach, but I kept struggling and it had to spit me out because it became too painful.”

He eventually wore out the bank with his persistence and, against the odds, the partners walked away with million-dollar payouts in 2002. The day he received the cheque, he bought himself a traditional English chesterfield chair, which still stands behind his office desk today.

That was 12 years ago. While most would have sworn off the corporate world following that gruelling ordeal, Leong instead embarked on a new business venture. He spent $100,000 to start a manpower agency – despite having no human-resource experience – which today is known as Peopleworldwide Consulting. Leveraging on the media coverage of his time at iProperty, he soon became an oft-quoted human- resource expert in newspapers and on television shows, and the jobs came rolling in soon after.

Having been bitten hard once, his second turn as an entrepreneur has been very different from his first. He learnt the importance of trust – whether with partners, customers or shareholders – and also the need for a business to earn real money, rather than chase for funding or other things that were of no consequence to the customer.

“Trust is crucial to get your clients’ support. Your focus has to be on the client, and not chasing other things like popularity and website hits.” After a dozen years of success in the manpower business, Leong caught the dot.com bug again in 2012, when he envisioned building a portal that would serve the needs of human-resource professionals across the value chain.

The platform Manpowerku, also known as mKu, allows professionals to share trade, career and business opportunities. It won a gold medal at the Global Mobile Internet Conference, Asia’s most influential mobile- industry conference, in Beijing last year. It is currently in beta testing, and a launch in Japan and China is expected next year. He has roped in a Japanese partner, but is otherwise in no rush to chase for investors the way he did at iProperty.

“We are looking for strategic investors, people who can help us. We were an indiscriminate fund-raiser at iProperty. We accepted anyone who wanted to invest in us.”

The spectre of his first dot.com venture has not deterred him from this latest foray into the virtual world.

“I’ve achieved what I wanted to. I’m comfortable, so why am I still going on this start-up track? I live for the challenges. This is part of my psyche.”

“ I AM STILL GUIDED BY THIS FEELING THAT I NEED TO RISE, ALTHOUGH I DON’T KNOW WHERE I WANT TO RISE TO. IT IS SELF-ASPIRATIONAL, THIS DESIRE TO DO SOMETHING ON MY OWN.”

DAVID LEONG
MD, PEOPLEWORLDWIDE CONSULTING
CEO, MANPOWERKU

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