It pays to test the waters

PHOTO: It pays to test the waters

Water has never been very far away from businessman Sidney Suen's career, even from his earliest days in the workforce.

One of his first jobs was at a water treatment firm, which sowed seeds that still bear fruit today.

"Water is one of the most important commodities; in fact, I think it's more important than oil. Without water, we will die. So that was the business I wanted to be in," Mr Suen, 62, says.

His ambition led him to set up water analysis company Shecey Singapore in 1987 with a start-up capital of just $20,000. He ploughed in his own savings and borrowed money from relatives as it was difficult to get a bank loan for his business. Mr Suen also had help from a friend in renting a tiny, 100 sq ft office at Tanjong Penjuru for a nominal sum.

The one-man operation as it was then initially just distributed water-testing equipment, a business it still operates.

The gadgets are priced from $100 to $10,000. Customers, which include fish farms and construction sites, use the equipment to test how clean the water is.

He said: "You are the marketing executive, the salesman, the deliveryman, the accounts staff, the technical support. You are everything, so you find that 24 hours a day is not enough."

Despite some teething issues, the pool of customers based on contacts he made in his earlier job gave the business a major boost and allowed it to gain some market traction.

But getting new clients was another matter altogether. Many potential customers were concerned about a possible lack of after-sales support.

That led Mr Suen to expand operations a year later, hiring an assistant to do the administrative work while he focused on sales and distribution.

The firm now employs 16 people, although manpower remains a problem.

Mr Suen says that people do not like working for small companies. Even when the right people come on board, it has not been easy to retain staff. Tighter rules on hiring foreign workers have also made it harder for Shecey.

The company, which is based at Bukit Batok, has five foreign employees - two from India, two Filipinos and a Malaysian.

"When it's time for the renewal of their S Passes, we have a lot of headaches. We have to appeal and re-appeal," says Mr Suen.

Shecey had an annual turnover of some $2 million last year and has been profitable every year since it was set up.

With the firm now speaking for an estimated market share of 35 per cent, Mr Suen intends to explore the water analysis markets in Hong Kong, China, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Shecey also provides online monitoring systems, which allows customers such as construction firms to check on the water quality at their sites any time.

A firm such as a fish farm could also log on to the Internet and access data on its water-analysis equipment.

Shecey is also diversifying revenue streams. Besides being in the water analysis business, Mr Suen branched out in 2007 to distribute temperature-logging devices.

Some clients use these to check for sudden changes in the temperature of frozen foods, such as in the case of a power cut.

It is also exploring the clean energy market. Shecey has collaborated with Nanyang Polytechnic on building a prototype hydrogen fuel cell back-up system, developed at a cost of $10,000, which the firm hopes can eventually replace the lead-acid back-up batteries commonly used in lifts.

Shecey hopes building owners will switch to the hydrogen fuel cell back-up system, as it is more environmentally friendly.

But water will always have a special place in Mr Suen's heart.

"When you're known for Newater and clean water (as Singapore is), it sort of rubs off on people because the public will always be concerned about water quality. It really helps our water analysis business," he said.

feimok@sph.com.sg


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