Engineer turned CEO runs US$1 billion company at age 32

Engineer turned CEO runs US$1 billion company at age 32

Singapore - Lim Yeow Keong, 40, was just an engineer at Sembcorp when he was offered the opportunity to relocate to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). He decided to move, putting him in the right place at the right time. Today, he is the CEO of Sembcorp's US$1 billion (S$1.35 billion) Salalah Power & Water Company, the only publicly-listed company owned by Sembcorp outside of Singapore.

His journey with Sembcorp began when he received a scholarship from the company in 1997. After graduating with a degree in chemical and environmental engineering from the University of Toronto, he started working with the company in 2001.

When he returned to Singapore that year, he was given the choice to pursue a more commercial business development track, or engineering-related project development. He chose the latter, leading him to spend the next few years working on engineering projects, a choice he does not regret.

Even though it was "the less glamorous of the two", it equipped him with the necessary engineering and operational knowledge. These knowledge enabled him to capitalise on the opportunities that subsequently emerged.

For example, in 2004 Sembcorp decided to venture overseas and was exploring business opportunities in the Middle East. This led to Mr Lim's first relocation to the UAE in 2006, where he assumed a commercial role. He was first posted to its capital city, Abu Dhabi, but later moved out to the eastern emirate of the UAE to Fujairah, to be near the company's new facility.

"It was a very high profile project and I was quite career-minded at the time. I thought it was a good opportunity for me to accumulate overseas experience, so I just packed up and left, thinking I had nothing much to lose anyway," explained Mr Lim.

His big break came in 2008 when Sembcorp started exploring the Middle East for new projects again, eventually scouting out an opportunity in Oman. When Sembcorp decided to enter the Oman market, it offered the then-32-year-old the opportunity to lead its US$1 billion water and power plant in Salalah.

He accepted the offer without a second thought, knowing that such opportunities rarely come by for someone that young.

"It was a defining moment of my life and I have never looked back since," said Mr Lim. However, he did have to overcome many hurdles to get to where he is today. Among them, the first two and a half years of construction of the power plant in Oman, which were the most challenging period of his career.

"It was extremely tough because we were setting up shop for the first time in Oman; from scratch, and in an environment we were not familiar with. The terrain, culture, language - everything was different," he said.

To make matters worse, the power plant was to be built at a remote area, on the southern coast of Oman. The location was nothing more than bare rock when Mr Lim and his team arrived.

Since there was no power, water, amenities, or food, the team had to bring over everything they needed; including generating their own electricity. They also had to transport small packaged desalination plants to provide water for the 1,000-strong team during the construction period.

"It's something you definitely would never experience in Singapore, at least not nowadays," he said.

Mr Lim added that Singapore's government often does a good job in making sure a parcel of land has access to things like electricity and water, and that any issues with land rights are settled before the land is sold. But in Oman, the land can be completely barren, and the recipient may face altercations with locals in the area.

Another challenge Mr Lim faced was getting used to Arab culture and their way of conducting business. One example is that of Arabs placing a very high emphasis on relationships and there are many overlaps between their personal and professional lives. As a result, he had to put in a lot of effort to cultivate these relationships with his Arab counterparts.

"As a general rule, 80 per cent of initial conversations are spent talking about things unrelated to work. Business is only discussed in the last 10 to 20 per cent. If I directly jump into talking about business, locals will interpret it as being aggressive and unfriendly."

Although he admits it is time- and energy-consuming, Mr Lim believes it was worth the effort as the Arabs usually choose to work with people they trust and are familiar with.

If cultural differences did not make life tough, Mr Lim also had to deal with intense competition.

According to him, there are several other established developers bidding for every infrastructure project in Oman. To keep abreast of the competition, Mr Lim's advice is to "be brave and more innovative".

For his Salalah project, Mr Lim's team brought Chinese contractors into Oman at a time when projects in the region traditionally engaged Korean and European contractors.

He explained that it was a risky move as one could easily end up with sub-standard products. However given Sembcorp's extensive experience in China, they already had a network of trustworthy Chinese contractors.

The bold move paid off in the end, and the contractor is now the biggest foreign power contractor in Oman.

Mr Lim's career began with one courageous decision to relocate, then took off when he boldly took the lead for the Salalah project, and continued to grow one step at a time.

His advice to other aspiring individuals: "Especially for the young ones, be adventurous and brave. Venture out of your comfort zone while you are young. Don't wait until you have a family and commitments."

While Singapore has many opportunities to offer, Mr Lim believes that there are many more out there.

This article was first published on July 7, 2016.
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