Owen Yeo made his own luck. And found it in rubbish.
The director of Enerprof Pte Ltd, which deals in waste management, is just 31-years-old but has already had four years of running a successful business that provides food waste management machines to restaurants and hotels, including the Marina Bay Sands Hotel.
So not exactly in rubbish, but in waste management.
When he graduated four years ago, he decided, after some pondering, to go into the family business in the construction sector run by his dad and uncle.
His degree was in sociology and political science, along with a masters in social sciences, so it had little to do with engineering. The understanding then was that he joined to explore ways in which the company, established in 1985, could diversify.
He went to construction, engineering and environmental exhibitions and fairs in various cities and after a year in the company, came across a machine which fascinated him – a machine that turned food waste into compost.
“I did some internet research and found similar machines that turned food waste into water, which is something more relevant to Singapore as we don’t have very much in the way of agriculture so there’s not much demand for compost,” says Owen.
He got in touch with manufacturers of such waste to water systems and was on the verge of getting a dealership for such equipment when he saw a call for a tender by the National Environment Agency (NEA) in May 2015 for food waste management for two hawker centres – one in Ang Mo Kio and the other in Tiong Bahru.
“I thought that if the NEA was calling for a tender, then there should be a business potential here. I quickly secured the dealership because of that,” says Owen.
Unfortunately, though, Enerprof did not win the tender.
“The competition had a lot more experience in matters of pricing, we were also very new but it was a good learning experience.
But the opportunities opened up later.
“I can’t even begin to explain how lucky I was, twice, after this,” says Owen.
In the first instance, he went on a networking cruise and met someone who was, at the time, a member of parliament, and he took an interest to the food waste management systems and introduced Owen to a hawker centre that was exploring its use.
“I offered it for free and it as a great project reference,” says Owen. He feels that if he had not seized the opportunity that came after that cruise, he would not have been able to showcase the company’s capabilities.
The next instance was a deal that came from Marina Bay Sands Hotel. According to him, the hotel chain is a very environmentally conscious organisation and was always concerned with food waste management. Way before he had secured the dealership, the group had already procured the machines and were operating them, and when it came to maintenance, the job practically fell on his lap.
“This came just three months after I had signed the dealership for the machines,” says Owen.
In the years he has been in this business and seeing the “shocking amounts of food going to waste”, Owen has become a lot more environmentally conscious than he had been before he went into this business. He says it is a consumer mindset that has to change, and there would always be waste because of how restaurants operate on account of the expectations of their clients.
“I’ve seen, in the past four years, countless initiatives to combat food waste, including the redistribution of food to prevent wastage. It’s not exactly great for my business, but it is a good thing,” he concedes.
His company has since gone into other parts of waste management, like providing bins and working on new systems for waste management. In the meantime, he realises that the challenge for him is that it is a niche sector with a steady income but slow growth.
“I’m on the lookout for new business opportunities, and I’m always looking for things to do to expand,” he says.
He says that his approach to business is a straightforward one.
“You can apply the gloss on your machines and capabilities, but you cannot oversell. It would be bad if you did that and cannot deliver. I had a potential client who once asked, ‘Why everything cannot, cannot, cannot? You want to sell or not?’
“If something cannot be done within a certain budget, we will tell the client. If it can be done but there are challenges, we would also be upfront about it and tell them. It is all about being honest,” he says.
“It is important that you and the client have a common understanding but you yourself need to know the capacity and capabilities of your equipment or product to be able to provide this information.”
And of course, don’t give up so easily. Had he given up after that first failure, he wouldn’t have had the opportunities that followed.
“But you don’t have to be so stubborn. You may choose to go against the tide but you need to see if it is worth the effort and resources. Sometimes, it is better to look for another opportunity.”