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Building a billion dollar business from scratch—in Singapore

Zafar Anjum | June 9, 2015
This is the story of Derek Goh, Executive Chairman and CEO, Serial System—a poor Singaporean boy from a street hawker family who built a billion dollar company

Derek Goh

I met Derek Goh (picture), the executive chairman and CEO of Singapore Mainboard-listed Serial System, just when the company he founded was about to cross one billion dollars in revenue.

Established in 1988 and listed on the SGX Mainboard since July 2000, Serial System thrives on a synergistic global network built with suppliers and customers. Today, Serial has one of Asia's largest distribution networks, with fifty-eight offices and ten warehouses located throughout the Asia Pacific region. It also has a wide customer base of more than 6,000, spanning a diverse range of industries such as consumer electronics, household appliances, industrial, telecommunication, electronic manufacturing services, automotives, and medical services. Its major suppliers include Texas Instruments, ON Semiconductor, Avago Technologies, TE Connectivity, Advanced Micro Devices and OSRAM Opto Semiconductors.

But this successful company was not built overnight. It had a very unusual beginning-it emerged out of a flower shop.

Sitting across a desk, Derek told me about his journey to become a businessman in such an entertaining way that I now feel compelled to share this with my readers. This is an inspiring, incredible story about a businessman who rose from a humble background to attain corporate success that many can only dream of.

Born in a poor Singaporean family, Derek was already helping his family in the hawker business by the age of 11 or 12. He sold fish porridge for almost six months. "After that, my father converted the stall to sell dim sums, paus, fan choy, et cetera," he says. "The business was so good, but that meant I had piles of plates to wash." The young boy washed plates until his hands were calloused and the skin sore.

"While washing, I also watched and learnt the food-making process because my father wanted me to be a food promoter," he says. "I learnt how to make buns and pastries. I know that once I learnt the skills, no one will look down on me. Within two years, I mastered all the skills and I was able to make all the paus from scratch."

"After I finished my 'O' Levels, my father asked me to take over the business but I refused," he adds.

"I found it meaningless because even if I ran the business, he would end up taking all the profit!" he laughs. "I suggested my other siblings take over the business instead."

This shows his business acumen. Even at that young age, he was mindful of profit and loss.

"I ended up working at an oil refinery in Pulau Bekong," he continues. "The working environment was very hot. The temperature was easily 400-500 degrees Celsius so I had to cover my face with a mask to prevent the heat from drying my skin. While waiting for my NS enlistment, there was a job posting in the newspapers for a position in the navy (electric and electronic). The job offered me money, the opportunity to travel the world, and an education; so I signed up for eight years." This was in the early 80s.


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