Racer's boss stays ahead of the curve

PHOTO: Racer's boss stays ahead of the curve
Mr Koh mortgaged his house to raise capital to start his own business in 1997. Today, his 10-year plan includes increasing the number of patents registered from one a year to three to five on average, and doubling his company's revenue to $100 million.

When Mr Willy Koh took the plunge to start his own business 15 years ago, he chose an apt name: Racer Technology.

The company has raced ahead to achieve an annual turnover of almost $50 million a year - and Mr Koh, 58, aims to double that figure over the next decade.

Racer manufactures medical and health-care products such as hearing aids and has even helped to develop a health tracker, a wearable device tracking statistics such as heart rate and calories that is the market's "smartest".

For instance, it monitors sleep patterns, providing the user with an idea of how his lifestyle might be affecting his sleep.

Apart from manufacturing, Racer is now increasingly involved in the design process as well to help firms reduce costs and increase efficiency.

"An issue we see in the United States is that while their product design is very good, when it comes to mechanical design - how it can be manufactured and be functional - it is not as good because most of their designers have not seen a factory before," Mr Koh said.

This is where Racer steps in at an earlier stage to provide input as its complementary strength lies in "hardware, mechanical design and production".

Take, for instance, the health tracker. Racer was able to address certain mechanical issues to ensure the product could be manufactured to a higher standard.

This led to the yield rate - the number of working products - increasing from 65 to 99 per cent.

Racer is also taking on "complete-built" projects where, for instance, a client gives it an idea and the firm comes up with a product from scratch, including design, software and production.

A self-proclaimed risk-taker, Mr Koh revealed that he had mortgaged his house to get enough capital when he decided to strike out on his own in 1997.

His love for product design and a desire to be his own boss were the key drivers that led him to take that step after working as a product designer and programme manager for American firms for most of his life.

While medical technology is an expensive business which requires "deep pockets" - it takes five to eight years to get regulatory approvals for a product to get on the market - the firm focuses on this segment as the average life span of a medical product is 15 to 20 years, compared to a shelf life as short as six months for a consumer product.

Racer has enlarged its footprint overseas with either a sales office, design office or factory every year since it was established. It now has a presence in six countries.

It also makes products such as security and automotive parts.

It is looking for collaborations with smaller firms in the San Francisco Bay Area, the epicentre of the global start-up scene.

A sales and design office was opened in the US five years ago and it has been enjoying a healthy stream of projects.

And Mr Koh, who makes it a point to train his key staff personally, has big plans for the future. His 10-year plan includes attaining three to five patents yearly, up from about one on average now, and doubling the company's revenue to $100 million.

He also hopes to eventually develop Racer's own products rather than make products or components for other firms.

But challenges remain with the recent hike in foreign worker levy and a lower quota, which have increased total costs by 8 per cent, and the strong Singapore dollar putting a strain on the company's bottom line.

The move to a more productive economy is a "painful transition" for small and medium-sized enterprises. But if a company can survive this, it can survive anything, Mr Koh added.

"If you go to my production floor, half of my machines are not running. It's not because I don't have orders, it's because I don't have workers to run them... We are now looking to shift some of our production to Indonesia and Malaysia."

High-technology manufacturing, however, will be kept at its headquarters and research and development centre in Singapore.

Already, Racer invests more in automation now after making a decision to bring in machines once three months of steady orders have been received - down from the six to nine months previously.

"But it's also risky because the product might not last long. Six months later, the product could be discontinued but we would have already invested a ton of money."

Despite the slowing global economy, Racer is forging ahead and banking on lifting its sales in the US while sustaining sales in Europe.

If Mr Koh's track record is anything to go by, the race is on.

esthert@sph.com.sg