SPEECH BY MR WEE KOK WAH
STAMFORD TYRES CORPORATION LIMITED
AT THE POLYTECHNIC'S 54TH GRADUATION CEREMONY
MONDAY, 26 MAY 2014 (SESSION 6)
Congratulations to the graduating students & their families.
Good Morning to all especially to Mr Tan Choon Shian principal of the Singapore Polytechnic who invited me to be the guest speaker. I am honoured and happy to be here but when I received the invite I was a little concerned. What should I say to graduates of a 60 year old highly respected educational institution.
Yes I am now a successful businessman - President of Stamford Tyres - a pioneer company which started at Stamford Road in the 1930s by my late father
Wee Boon Kwee and now a SGX listed company with a turnover of S$300M. But does Mr Tan know that I was actually a very average student. I was in the worst class in St Andrew's Secondary School called "remove" class. I was only one of the 2 students who made it to "A Levels". At the University of Singapore I was playful and had to negotiate with my lecturers not to fail me. Actually I had many friends in the Singapore Poly which was then at Prince Edward Road. I would often go there to play poker with them.
I graduated with only a "General" Degree in Economics/Law. But I was invited by the faculty head to a dinner for the top honours graduates. So when a first class honours guy asked me what I was doing there I told him: You only got 1st class honours lah - I am a "General"!!
This was in 1970 when our young nation, Singapore was developing fast. Many of my cohort with their honours degrees were embarking on their careers in banking and finance and working in traditional British trading houses like Harpers, Boustead and Inchcape. I, with my "General" degree, decided to join my father in the tyre business. It was hardwork. Then Stamford Tyres was mainly a tyre retreading company servicing the British Army. When the British Army withdrew from Singapore in the 1970s I then sought business from the contractors who were building Singapore's infrastructure like the Jurong Industrial Estate.
I drove a truck and collected tyre casings from construction sites and often worked bare chested in the hot retreading factory -buffing tyres. I was the talk of the tyre trade then. My competitors called me a madman - "why go into this rough and tough trade when you are a graduate!!" They reckon I should be sitting in a nice office and working in air-con comfort.
But I found running a business really challenging as I was very driven and hungry - I was determined to build the business and make it successful. I had developed a passion for the tyre business. You could say the tyre dust got into my blood stream…..
In the 1970s I knew that to grow the business I had to diversify from being a retreader to a distributor - so I travelled to Japan & Europe to knock on the doors of the tyre manufacturers and managed to secure the Falken & Continental agency.
We still distribute their tyres today. I also travelled to the jungles & mining camps of Indonesia & E.Malaysia to sell the giant tyres called OTR or Off the Road Tyres. I also flew to Sri Lanka when they were constructing the Victoria dam. There was the civil war but I made sure my taxi driver was a Tamil Tigers sympathiser when I went to areas held by them. In the 80s, I started distribution centres in Malaysia & Thailand. I also ventured afar to Australia and South Africa. Today, Stamford has distribution centres in 11 countries selling to thousands of customers and employing 1,200 people. In Singapore we have 2 major warehouses which can store 1 million passengers and commercial tyres. We also have an aluminium wheel manufacturing plant in Thailand.
As I was building and growing the business I stayed focused on what I knew best although there were times when the going was tough - but I always gritted my teeth (never say die) and stayed the course.
Of course my success in life & the success of Stamford Tyres - is not just due to my entrepreneurship or my business acumen
A lot is attributed to the people who helped me along the journey to success. Nurturing strong and trusting lifelong relationships are of utmost importance. No man is an island - so I am fiercely protective of my staff especially those who are loyal and had served the company for many years.
When we recently opened our new S$25million Commercial Centre housing our 6 bay truck servicing centre, new commercial tyre retreading plant & 22,600 sqm commercial tyre warehouse space, you could see the joy of everyone coming together celebrating our achievement as one big family.
There are 10 of us who served the company for more than 30 years in Singapore - they were our VIPs at the opening ceremony.
Besides the 10 of us there are 17 staff with over 20 years & 80 with over 10 years service.
A key factor of success is building up a core group of people who supports, trusts and shares your vision.
This would include the business partners I believe in the win-win strategy with them. I spent a lot of time developing and nurturing relationships with our suppliers, customers and bankers. There must be mutual benefit and respect in any business partnership - hence all the tyre brands we distribute we have built enduring relationships with them for more than 40 years. Customers have supported us for decades from their fathers to sons to grandsons.
I personally invest a lot of time building relationships even to this day. I talk to my key managers daily. I travel regularly to pay respects to my major suppliers. I also travel regularly to my overseas operations to visit customers and interact with my team members. When I am in Singapore I spend my weekends visiting my retail centres.
On the personal side - I come from a loving & supportive family - my late mother was a pillar of strength - she gave her life savings of S$800.00 to my father as seed money to start his tyre business after WW11.
I am married to my university classmate Dawn for 44 years ago - she is also my business partner. We have 3 children - our eldest Li Ann is a doctor & she sits on the Stamford Tyres mainboard. Li Lin is an award winning film director who often contributes to the creativity of our Stamford Tyres marketing campaigns and JY my son works in our management systems department. We also have a beautiful 4 years old granddaughter and of course I am hoping for more grandchildren.
I truly appreciate my family and try to set aside quality time with them inspite of my busy schedule. I am supportive of them as they are of me.
My success did not come easy - I had to cross many bridges fought many battles including kidney cancer in 1986, rebuilding the business after a devastating fire in 1996 which destroyed our Singapore warehouse, had a brain surgery in 1997. Each time I bounced back stronger.
I am now 68 years old - still working hard, still excited when I am building the business and still meeting the challenges each day and enjoying all the interactions with my young team, associates, partners and family. I am living my life to the fullest.
As you young graduates embark in your next step in life. Singapore Polytechnic has trained you well - I read the course curriculum &was most impressed.
But may I just remind you of what I consider to have been some of the most important things in my life. In conclusion, let me summarise and leave you the important lessons that I have learnt:-
I took the journey less travelled - I went to sell tyres when most of my friends took the high flying banking and corporate jobs. I am still enjoying the path I took.
Perhaps some day the words on my epitaph which best sum up the story of my life would read as follows: "He never tires selling tyres".
Congratulations again and come see me if you want to sell tyres!