TAN CHIN HWEE
From Regional Financial Controller to Business Advisor for Fast-Growing Companies
Few Singaporean professionals have had the opportunities and exposure that Tan Chin Hwee has had. In the span of a 36-year career in the manufacturing and aerospace industries, this senior finance executive has worked with Fortune 100 companies, such as General Electric and Honeywell and has managed their financial operations across the Asia Pacific with turnovers of over US$1billion.
Fresh out of university at age 24, Chin Hwee’s joined General Electric Singapore as a cost specialist. Five years later, he was transferred to General Electric’s Aviation division where he performed outstandingly and became the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of the aviation plant at the relatively young age of 31. However, the work was strenuous. “Those were the days before computerization really took off. We had a very lean finance department to run a US$200 million business”, said Chin Hwee. The shortage of resources forced Chin Hwee to work smart and continually find novel ways, such as Six Sigma solutions, to increase productivity, reduce costs and generate cash for the business. Over the years, he became well versed with every aspect of the business, from manufacturing to servicing, regulatory requirements and human resources.
Although headhunters regularly knocked on his door, Chin Hwee chose to stay with General Electric for a good 23 years before further developing his career at another company. Even then, it was only because his former boss and mentor, who was then with Honeywell, asked him to go over to help. Chin Hwee was appointed CFO of the operations in Singapore where he quickly achieved productivity gains by streamlining the finance operations. At 49, Chin Hwee was promoted to become Honeywell’s Regional Financial Controller for the Asia Pacific covering 15 plants and more than 60 finance staff in China, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Australia.
Facing a career and life crossroad
When he turned 60 , Chin Hwee was asked if he would consider moving to Shanghai to continue with his regional financial control responsibilities. Although he was grateful that the company continued to value his contributions, Chin Hwee did not want to uproot to another country. However, as his company was moving most of its regional operations out of Singapore, there was no alternative role for him. “This became a major turning point in my career as well as my life,” he shared. “I had worked for almost 40 years and that was what I knew. I had learnt so much in business finance all these years and I felt that I had a lot of experience to share and to help others in their businesses. Chin Hwee also had to deal with the prospect that he would go from a healthy regular salary to no income. “Even though I had built up a nest egg for retirement, I was not prepared to dip into it yet. I still wanted to be productive and draw an income”.
The idea of retiring was quickly discarded. Instead, Chin Hwee started making preparations even before he left Honeywell. He signed up for courses at the Singapore Institute of Directors to learn about how to be an independent member of a board of directors. He networked with executives he met at his courses to understand what kind of financial advisory services small and medium enterprise companies were in need of. A friend also introduced him to Silver Spring.
Advisor to younger business owners
After leaving his company, Chin Hwee found it difficult to secure an independent directorship appointment, which he had hoped for. Instead of feeling despondent, he took up an offer that Silver Spring identified for him, to work part-time as the CFO for a start-up technology company and consultancy. Two months into the role, he had made such a good impression on the company that word spread. Silver Spring also put Chin Hwee in touch with another SME that needed finance consultancy work and he clinched a project to be their business advisor in transforming their finance system.
Today, at 61, Chin Hwee, works 3 to 4 days a week and spends the rest of his time with his family and hobbies. “This is an ideal arrangement for me”, he explains. “Having worked with big companies all my life, I am enjoying the refreshing change of flexible hours and working with smaller businesses in an advisory capacity. It is very fulfilling to be able to use what I have picked up in my nearly 40-year career to help these start-ups avoid unnecessary mistakes and also achieve more by working smart. At the same time, I am constantly updating myself in the finance industry”. His encouragement to mature PMEs is to keep their craft relevant by continually learning and be willing to try working in environments that may be different from what they have been used to.
“I had not realized that there are different opportunities for me to continue working until Silver Spring introduced me to these businesses. When others see that you can add value, they will respond positively”, Chin Hwee concludes.
From Corporate Sales Honcho to Entrepreneurial Mentor
In 2011, when Phillip Tan turned 58, his son suggested that it was perhaps time for him to retire and take time to ‘smell the roses’. Unexpectedly, the suggestion made Phillip feel depressed.
Not Retire Ready
“Although my son meant well, the suggestion made me feel like I was no longer useful in society”, said Phillip. “I was not ready to retire. I could not accept the idea of not working. I still felt strong and healthy and couldn’t imagine sitting at home or simply playing golf the whole day. I wanted to continue using the 30 plus years of corporate and entrepreneurial experience I had gathered to continue being productive”.
For over 30 years, Phillip had built a very successful career in the office automation industry, rising to become head of sales divisions for a series of global brands. In 2001, he left the corporate world to start an IT business, growing it with ups and downs over 10 years. When Phillip approaches 60, his family felt that he should wind down the business and enjoy a slower pace of life. Whilst he finally decided to wind down his own business “as we were finishing off our portfolio of IT contracts”, Phillip was at a loss as what to do next.
Keeping an open mind to change
Philip felt that there might be very little that a headhunter or recruitment agency could do for him, given his age. Instead, he contacted Silver Spring, which introduced him to the possibility of becoming a business advisor to a local trading company that had ambitions to grow aggressively. The company of 5 employees was in need of professional expertise but did not have the deep pockets to hire consultants or senior executives to run the business.
After several weeks of observing the operations, Phillip decided to join them and began deploying his years of experience in organizing sales teams and running a business to help build the organization. “I was impressed by the drive of the business owner, who was very keen to learn. I went in with a goal to help them remodel the business, develop the organization and grow their sales”, he said. Working closely with the younger and ambitious business owner, Phillip saw the company’s order-book jump from $2 million to $17 million in just three years. The number of employees also grew from 5 to 50.
Rejuvenated in new role
Whilst this new role does not pay Phillip the big bucks he used to get in his younger corporate days, he is deriving alot of satisfaction from seeing the company achieve its growth milestones, such as clinching their first major contract worth several millions of dollars.
“What Silver Spring did for me was to open up possibilities that I would not have known to exist or would even consider, such as going to work in a completely unfamiliar industry. They were able to see that I could make a positive contribution using the years of experience I had in corporate sales and knew how to bridge what I had to offer with a company that needed to achieve its business objectives”.
Making the leap from foreign MNCs to building a Singapore brand
Having worked continuously for over 20 years with big multi-national corporations, Bernard Tan, 49, made the brave decision to quit his regional sales and business development job in end 2011.
“I found myself going through the same product development and sales cycles year after year, and realized that I needed to take a step back to assess my work life goals. Even though I knew how to do my job well, it wasn’t as challenging anymore. I felt that I needed to do something where I could help to grow a company using my experience in management, business and process planning, as well as my regional exposure”, explained Bernard.
Slow start but undaunted
Unfortunately, the process of getting another job was not as smooth as Bernard had hoped. Over a 5- month period, he applied for more than 50 jobs. The closest he got was one interview. He also met with several job recruiters who wanted to find out more about his age, salary expectations and work experience. Even that turned into a dead end. “It was frustrating. I felt as if I was sending job applications into a black hole, with no acknowledgement or feedback coming back. Fortunately, I had a very supportive and understanding family”.
Adapting to a new culture
When Bernard found out about Silver Spring, he contacted them. After several career review sessions, Silver Spring matched his experience with a Singapore start-up company dealing in construction materials. Although it was not easy making the transition from an MNC work culture to a local SME, Bernard was up for the challenge. In fact, within a relatively short period, he executed an organizational gap analysis, put in place a series of business processes to step-up the quality of various functional units and thereafter helped his company achieve the Integrated Management System (IMS) and BizSAFE certifications.
“My job as Senior Manager of Strategic and Corporate Branding is to help build this company into one of the most well-recognized and sought-after brands in its category, not just in Singapore but internationally”, said Bernard. The opportunity to help a Singapore company make its mark on the international front is very exciting for Bernard and is keeping him actively engaged and reinvigorated.
“What Silver Spring did for me was incredibly valuable. During the one-on-one career coaching sessions, I felt that they truly understood what I was going through as a mid-career PME, both from the job search perspective and emotionally. Most importantly, I felt their sincerity in wanting to help me achieve my job aspiration. Instead of feeling rejected from all the unsuccessful job applications, I came away with a renewed sense of confidence and hope. Even after I started working again, they continued to keep in touch with me to ensure that I was adjusting well to the new role,” he adds.