Entrepreneur wants a life rich in giving

PHOTO: Entrepreneur wants a life rich in giving

Mr Derek Goh's dream is to leave behind an entrepreneurship school. That will be his most endearing legacy, he hopes, teaching the poor how to fish and fend for themselves, amid rising social inequality.

He says he wants to help others home in on the best angling spots, select the right tackle, net the best catch possible. And then he wants to train them how best to steam, barbecue, or grill the fish, then serve it delectably and profitably to the table.

In a manner of speaking, of course.

The executive chairman and group CEO of electronics component distributor Serial System is starting small on his big dreams.

He has begun lecturing on entrepreneurship at Australia's Swinburne University in Malaysia to transmit his business know-how gleaned from hard knocks. He also plans to start two charitable foundations here in the next few years to benefit abandoned elderly and poor kids.

Tonight, at Serial System's 25th anniversary dinner at Resorts World Sentosa, he will be announcing that the company is committing $100,000 apiece yearly to all five Community Development Councils (CDCs) starting next year for three years.

Through Taoist religious group Zhi Zhen Tan Dao Xue Hui, which he founded seven years ago to do charity, he has pledged to donate another $50,000 each to the five CDCs over the next three years. If it fails to raise that, he will personally underwrite the shortfall.

Under a dollar matching system, the Government will top up his $2.25 million donation to a total of $4.5 million over three years. He chose this "one for one" donation route, simply, to maximize bang for his buck.

Call it an orchestrated image makeover, or what you will.

But the embattled businessman wants to redefine what it means to be rich and up the ante on giving back here. Through his own example, he wants the boast of the wealthy to be about how much they've contributed to others. And the 51-year-old is putting his money where his mouth is.

He says that he has personally given away over $5 million to causes to date. From Hindu, Buddhist to Taoist temples, scholarships and bursaries, to the blind, transport vouchers for senior citizens, school lunch boxes for poor children, he says he has given away at least $200,000 a year minimum and over $1 million at his peak.

He has no formula for giving, he doesn't do percentages or calculate tax incentives, it just depends on what he "feels like". "If they ask, I feel okay, then I donate," he says matter-of-factly.

He says he has never talked about his donations before, not wishing to "lose karma points". Charity, he says, in halting but vivid English, is not supposed to be an "advertisement for yourself".

The Taoist-Buddhist's rationale: "If nobody knows, you get 100 karma points. If you're boastful, you get 50 points." And he can't afford the 50 per cent discount, he says, with candour, during a four-hour interview at his five-storey Ubi View office.

At 26, he began giving, even when he was just scrabbling a living together and starting his sole proprietorship in 1988. Every Chinese New Year, he would visit an old folks' home, carting along a few thousand dollars' worth of oranges and food hampers.

By 27, he got involved with raising funds for the chronic sick unit of Ren Ci Hospital and helping to organise school visits and entertainment for its residents. Those were the years of "bo meh bo jit" (no night, no day in Hokkien). "I slept four hours a night, worked seven days a week... People ask me, I don't think, I just do, do, do," he says.

By 1997, he was the hospital's patron and helped raise a record $1.7 million for it in a charity vegetarian dinner. Over $100,000 - one third of his annual pay cheque then - came from his pocket.

Public relations consultant Benjie Ng, 58, a volunteer who later became the hospital's head of fund-raising, remembers: "He led the way by example, by donating generously, and also tapped all his networks and mobilised other entrepreneurs to do the same."

Till today, the sum raised is a record for the hospital which Mr Goh proudly states remains unbroken, clearly keeping score by how much he raises and donates. The businessman, who sports a woven gold chain, jade ring and long pinkie finger nail and whose eyes gleam when he ferrets out a money-making angle, says his original goal hasn't changed. It remains, "To make more money, contribute more to society, that's it."

Problems of lack

He always hated watching his washerwoman mother, hugely pregnant, bent over washing clothes for others up until she gave birth. It gave her constant refrain, "Derek, when you succeed, don't forget about poor and less privileged," poignancy.

The fourth of 11 kids, who grew up in an Old Airport Road one-room flat, dreamt of a time of more than enough.

From age 11, he woke up at 4am to help out at his father's porridge stall, washing dishes, soliciting customers and marinating meats. After Broadrick Secondary School, he apprenticed at a Pulau Bukom oil refinery, repairing pipes in high heat conditions because it paid well. A year later, he joined the navy "to see the world", as the slogan went. It was too good to pass up for the O-level holder, who had not even been to Malaysia.

While at sea, he studied for a diploma with City & Guilds in London. Back home, he spent entire weekends on the streets, with a cloth laid out, selling lighters, pen sets, imitation watches, anything he could turn a quick profit on. He was even a runner for bookies.

What kept him toiling as his peers enjoyed themselves was seeing scores of relationships break up over money. It convinced him that lack of - rather than love of - money was the root of all evil.

Eight years later, frustrated with his lack of prospects and seeing younger officers with more "toilet paper" (higher paper qualifications) being promoted over him, he quit the navy. In 1988, at 26, he opened a florist shop in Golden Mile Tower and traded electronic components out of its 80 sq ft back room. That year, he bought his first pair of wheels - a nine-year-old Datsun 120Y - as a one-man sales, delivery and repair operation.

At 28, he married Christina Au, an English-speaking, Catholic, A-level holder, after six years of courtship. At 30, he incorporated Serial System, and he made his first million a year later. At 33, he made the Enterprise 50 short-list and sat behind the wheel of a Mercedes Benz E200. At 34, he won the 1996 Entrepreneur of the Year Award. At 35, he took his company public.

Problems of plenty

Two years later, he relinquished the running of Serial, then turning a profit of $9.2 million, and the CEO's role to right-hand man and navy buddy Eddie Chng. He became executive chairman and hunted for new revenue streams.

Barely 18 months later, Serial reported an operating loss. A fierce boardroom battle ensued between Mr Goh and Mr Chng, who resigned after a no-confidence vote from the board. All Mr Goh will say of the episode is: "Open your eyes when you bring in people."

The past decade saw him clawing his way back to profitability. He took back the CEO's reins and expanded the shrinking core component business though aggressive mergers and acquisitions in Korea, China and Hong Kong. Last year, Serial System reported revenue growth of 7 per cent to $825.4 million, despite a general decline in the cut-throat semiconductor industry known for thin margins. This year, he expects turnover to top $1 billion.

Looking forward, he has set his next bold, specific goal for Serial, which now hires over 800 people in 12 countries. He wants it to turn over $5 billion within the next 10 years.

Throughout his troubles, the long-time People's Action Party member has never stopped his community and grassroots work since the late 1990s. He's been a town councillor with various CDCs, Citizens' Consultative Committee chairman and remains patron for Braddell Heights, Punggol-East and Punggol-South.

Despite his gruff, combative exterior, his gift is his ability to rally supporters, "build consensus and unite a team", says fellow entrepreneur Kenny Yap, 48, chairman of fish breeder Qian Hu Corporation.

His friends also know him for never losing sight of his goals. His hopes of upgrading from his semi-detached house in Yio Chu Kang to a 23,000sqft Leedon Road bungalow he bought in 1999, were foiled by a legal fight with a neighbour over a fence line. He sold it, but didn't give up on his detached dream.

Ten years later, in 2009, he finally moved into a 28,000sqft Queen Astrid Park bungalow together with his family, in laws and parents. It has three cars parked out front: Mercedes S500 for him, Porsche Panamera for his wife, and a BMW 3 series for his kids.

The youthful-looking man with a glowing, unlined face, now takes twice-yearly family holidays - no time for more - where he and his wife travel business-class and the kids in coach. He admits to a penchant for steam saunas, Chinese teas, ginseng remedies, hiking at the weekend and trying to "exchange wealth for health", after all his slogging years.

His most prized possessions are his kids: Marcus, 22; Victoria, 20; Stefanie, 17; and Ryan, 15, who have all done attachments at Serial from secondary school onwards. All are required to submit a report to him afterwards suggesting improvements.

He made sure they toddled after him, from young, in his visits to old folks' homes to "teach them to be filial, appreciate life, don't complain". He's made clear to them his job is to provide, theirs is to study. "I tell them: 'You want to study until 40 years, no problem.' Concentrate on your studies. After you graduate, no more, you're on your own. If I give you anything, it's a privilege, not an entitlement."

The rest is earmarked for charity, reiterates the man who wants to distinguish himself, not by fast cars, but by how he gives others a lift.

Long-time friend, MP Teo Ser Luck, 45, notes that Mr Goh's mantra is: "'If you are successful, never forget those left behind', like he once was. Building wealth to him is not external but internal, in his heart," he relates.

Asked why he gives, Mr Goh falls silent for a rare moment, then pipes up: "One of these days, I'll invite you to the old folks' home during Chinese New Year. When they hold your hand and say kum sia (thank you in Hokkien), that kind of feeling is better than tio beh pio (striking lottery)."

suelong@sph.com.sg

The Long Interview will return next year.


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