Ex-adman turns sporting passion into coaching cycling and setting up bike school

Ex-adman turns sporting passion into coaching cycling and setting up bike school

When Mr Kenneth Wee decided to become a part-time cycling coach some years ago, his first client was a 69-year-old grandmother who just had a hip replacement.

"She also had a hearing problem which affected her sense of balance," he recalls.

He got her pedalling comfortably after just two lessons. She bought herself a foldable bike and Mr Wee often spotted her on it at East Coast Park.

"She told me, 'You're doing a good thing. Otherwise, people like me won't get to do this and I won't be so happy,' " he recalls.

What she said helped him make a life-changing decision when he confronted a career crisis not long after.

Then running his own advertising studio, he had just lost a major corporate client whose business contributed more than 70 per cent to his bottom line.

"I was having a bit of a burnout then. Advertising was no longer fun and I felt I did not have anything to show for it," says the compactly built man, who joined the ad industry after completing his national service.

"I work three months on a campaign, and the next day, my dog is pooping on it. There is no longevity. I'm not leaving behind any legacy."

His wife told him that since going to the studio made him miserable and coaching made him happy, he should consider turning his passion into a career.

It meant giving up the $300-an- hour consultancy fee he charged as an adman to earn just $40 an hour as a cycling coach. But he bit the bullet and set up the country's only cycling instruction school, Singapore Bike School, in 2009. This was followed two years later by Singapore's first professional bike mechanic school, Bike School Asia.

It was not a painless decision.

Plagued by doubts that he might be giving his family short shrift, he fell into a blue funk. It took a couple of visits to the shrink to swat the demons in his head.

"It took me a while but, now, in hindsight, I've realised I don't need a lot to be happy," the 45-year-old says with a grin.

Mr Wee is sitting in his workshop in the Ubi area, a little bashful but not unwilling, with a bit of coaxing, to engage in a cathartic confessional.

He is the elder of two sons. His father worked in a bank and his mother is a former teacher.

As a child, he found it hard to make friends because he kept changing primary schools.

"Dad liked to spend lots of money on big-ticket items like cars and condos. Because he was always upgrading to better homes, I went to Haig Boys, Mattar East, Seraya and Bedok South. My mother was a teacher so we also moved because of where she taught," recalls Mr Wee, who continued his secondary education at Anglican High and Dunman Secondary.

Long before BMX bicycles were popularised in movies like Steven Spielberg's E.T., he had fallen in love with them after chancing upon a magazine called BMX Plus.

"Then, the BMX boom came in Singapore and all the bike shops started carrying them," he says.

There was a black Diamondback Turbo in a Tanjong Katong bike shop he took a special shine to. Ever so often, the then 12-year-old would go to the shop after school just to gawk at it. His father finally gave in and bought him the bike, which cost a hefty $500. His brother also got one.

"Within a month, we were racing around the neighbourhood. Without telling our mother, we would also cycle from Marine Parade to Jalan Kayu because we'd heard that a bike shop there was selling brake pads for $5 cheaper," he recalls.

His passion probably offered a respite from tension between his parents, who separated when he was 19.

"I didn't know much and was not home much, but my dad probably overstretched himself financially. My mum and dad kept fighting and arguing and then he didn't come home any more. My mother was left saddled with a lot of the debts because she was the guarantor," says Mr Wee, adding that his father was eventually made a bankrupt.

He remembers one frenzied night when he and his brother had to help their mother pack and move from their condo in the East Coast to a three-room HDB flat in Jurong East.

"The creditors were coming to seize assets. We just grabbed our clothes and loaded them into a lorry. The worst thing was we had to abandon our bikes and toys," he says.

Although Mr Wee - who took computer science for his A levels at Tampines Junior College - could have gone to university, he decided to start working after completing national service.

After putting together a portfolio of sketches, he went knocking on the doors of several ad agencies and landed a job in 1992 as a graphic designer with Raffles City Shopping Centre. His duties ran the gamut from visual merchandising to supervising photo shoots and designing press ads and annual reports.

In the evenings, he attended classes for a certificate in graphic design at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, but stopped after six months when he realised that what he did at work was more progressive than what he was learning.

After developing an interest in film production, he decided to apply for a job with a small production company called Interfilms.

"I joined at a time when everyone else at the firm resigned, so I ended up working with just cameraman and a copywriter. But I learnt everything, including lighting, camerawork, video editing and directing," he says.

The experience came in handy when he left not long after to join Bates Singapore as a junior art director. "The early 1990s were the golden days of advertising in Singapore. I got to work with people like Theseus Chan," he says, referring to the man nicknamed "The Godfather of Singapore Graphic Design".

Within a year, he was promoted to art director. Because he was good with the computer, he was tasked with digitalising the agency's equipment.

His technical skills stood him in very good stead over the next few years as the digital era barraged in and the Internet took off in a big way. He co-founded a digital studio, Wishing Well, with The Shooting Gallery in 1994, then one of Singapore's biggest and best- known production houses.

Two years later, he helped to set up Expanded Media, an Internet marketing agency and worked on websites and brand strategy for the likes of Singtel, ESPN Star Sports and Heineken.

Then, just in his early 20s, he was making a very handsome living.

But the frequent late nights spent at work took their toll. In 1999, he started experiencing vision loss in his right eye. A general practitioner he consulted told him he had migraine but he insisted on a referral to the National Eye Centre.

"I had to wait two weeks but when I finally saw a specialist, he called in another specialist, who called in another specialist, who called in another specialist," he says with a laugh.

Five specialists examined him, including Professor Ang Chong Lye, now chief executive at Singapore General Hospital. "He kept saying 'fantastic' and I was thinking to myself: 'Jialat lah, what the hell is happening?' " he says, using the Hokkien word for "dire".

"Then he told me that if I had come in a day later, my retina would have detached completely. And it was for both eyes. I had to go for immediate surgery," adds Mr Wee, who suspects the condition could have been the result of a fall he suffered while playing hockey.

Before the dot.com bubble burst in the early 2000s, he made two more professional moves, including co-founding another agency called Industrie.

After four years, he decided to strike out on his own by setting up A1 Brand. He did not, he says, want to worry about feeding staff and also wanted the freedom to be able to turn jobs down.

"I was very clear about what I wanted to do. I would have my own studio and work with just a group of very good freelancers."

He rented an attic in Amoy Street, a space so hot he always worked with his shirt off.

But for 12 years, he ran A1 Brand, offering creative services from branding to copywriting for the likes of Starwood Hotels and SMRT.

His generous income allowed him to begin collecting old bikes he and his brother used to lust after.

His first purchase on eBay was a black Diamondback Turbo BMX, for which he shelled out US$1,600 (S$2,250). It is the same make and model as the first bike he owned and was forced to leave behind in his old family home.

"It didn't stop there," says Mr Wee, who now has a collection of about 20 bikes, most of which are collectibles. "One day, I told my brother that since we were older and stronger, we should be able to jump those bikes. We tried but we could not," he says, adding that they fell flat on their faces.

Bruised but not thwarted, he started researching techniques and training methods on BMX racing, now an Olympic sport.

Eventually, he flew in a coach from Cycling Australia, who helped him and his brother attain their Level 1 coaching certificate.

He started giving clinics, inviting BMX enthusiasts he met at a makeshift BMX track in Tampines.

Word got around, and he was invited to join the Singapore Cycling Federation, where he became vice-president of BMX, managing and training the national team.

Keen on professionalising the sport, he went on to get a coaching diploma from Switzerland's Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the world governing body for sports cycling, and is Singapore's only UCI-trained BMX and mountainbiking coach.

The idea of setting up a bike school which will also offer a formal curriculum and structured training programmes by then had also started percolating in his head.

He did just that in 2009, after his major corporate client canned all projects to deal with a crisis.

Bike School Asia came two years later, when he decided that skills needed to be complemented by mechanical knowledge.

"A lot of people who go out and buy bikes do not know how to maintain them," says Mr Wee, who took a bike mechanic course in Portland.

Coming to terms with his decisions, however, took time. With a rueful laugh, he confesses: "I pegged my self-worth to how much I earned and how others perceived me. The truth is I was wallowing in self-pity."

He started unfriending people from the ad industry on Facebook. "I didn't want to know who just took another holiday in Greece."

It got so bad that he started weeping over trifling matters. One night, he left his bed and slept next to his car on the porch.

His wife, who works in public relations, kicked him back into their room and told him in no uncertain terms he had to see a shrink.

The psychiatrist helped him see the folly of his issues.

"I realised I was stressing myself unnecessarily. When I look back on my life, I know God's got my back and I've been very blessed. I now get to spend a lot more time with my family and there is no stress when I'm done for the day," says the father of two girls, aged nine and 14.

Although he is not earning what he used to, his outfits are doing well. Each month, about 40 people - from novices to athletes, and from countries as far as India and Brazil - take lessons on riding and repairing bikes from him. He charges $280 for three hours of cycling coaching for beginners, and between $210 and $1,350 for bike mechanic courses.

The blues, he admits, still hit him sometimes.

"I have an agreement with my wife: I have to tell her if I feel sad.

"And my psychiatrist tells me, 'If you're feeling sad, go and cycle. That is the thing which makes you really happy.' "

kimhoh@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Feb 21, 2016.
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