In the Pit Lane With: Mr. Wee Kok Wah, Stamford Tyres – Part 1: The Humble Beginnings

Stamford Tyres, founded by Mr. Wee Boon Kwee in the 1930s has a rich legacy spanning 80 years. With his son, Mr Wee Kok Wah now at the helm as CEO and President of Stamford Tyres, the company has been going from strength to strength, generating an incredible annual revenue of over 250 million. Mr Wee shares With Tyrexpo Series how the company adapted to emerging challenges through the times while retaining its core values.

Mr Wee Kok Wah, President
Stamford Tyres Corporation Limited

Tyrexpo Series: Thank you, Mr Wee Kok Wah for being able to do this interview with us today. This interview is part of our series of featuring key players in Singapore & South East Asian geographies for the automobile space. You are both president as well as CEO of Stamford Tyres, the company which has huge history, 80 years in total. So, we want to find out a little bit more about the man behind the business. What drives you and how you’ve been able to come back from many different adversities to create such an incredible business which generates upwards of 250 million a year. Thank you Mr Wee. So, just to give a little bit of understanding to our viewers who are going to obviously listen to this at some great detail, could you share with us the reason why your father, Mr Wee Boon Kwee, went into the business in the 1930s?

Mr Wee: My father started the business in the 30s, running a small petrol station and a shell dealer as well as a GoodYear dealer. So, that’s where the history of building up the tyre business emanated from. And as we got along, during this period of growth in the 30s, Singapore is a small growing country and not very modernised. So, obviously sales and opportunities were more limited.

Tyrexpo Series: Understand. How big was his role in shaping your need to come into the business?

Mr Wee: He didn’t ask me to join this but he always believed that if you wanted to start a business, you got to be driven and committed. So, I asked to join, he never asked me. So, I joined without conditions, without asking for anything; just work.

Tyrexpo Series: Even in your father’s tenth year, the business went through ups and downs as well. It started out in Stamford Road, it moved to Beach Road and even with the starting of the Beach Road business, it was through funding by your mother, I believe, to kick start the business after World War 2.

Mr Wee: I think it was quite common then, after the British came back and the Japanese left Singapore, to have a small seed working capital. There was nothing quite there so my mother fortunately had some savings and gave the money to my father to start (the business). I believe it was $500 then.

Tyrexpo Series: And eventually, it moved close to where Raffles Hotel is currently at. He started out retreading business there as well, in the backyard.

Mr Wee: Yeah, we had a petrol station next to Raffles Hotel. It is a historical site and we had a 10,000 square feet behind Raffles Hotel, where it used to be the laundry area.  That is also where we started the retreading plant and giving services to the British Army.

Tyrexpo Series: I understand you did a lot of work with GoodYear as well as retreading of GoodYear Tyres as well with the British Army.

Mr Wee: No, I correct that. We were contractors to the British Army and we bought GoodYear rubber then because they had a plant in Malaysia and rubber sourcing was available there.

Tyrexpo Series: In 1965, you were afforded a soft loan by EDB to set up a factory in the Kallang area, a retreading factory, to automate some of the work that you were doing at Raffles. Is that correct?

Mr Wee: I think when the government of Singapore became independent in the 60s, the government started promoting local small-medium enterprise. We jumped on it and took the loan from EDB and back then, they called it a small industry. From there, they provide working capital to buy the land and build the building. So, we started from there. We then moved the retread plant that was in downtown, near Raffles Hotel, all the way out to Kallang.

Tyrexpo Series: I understand Kallang was a place of importance for you when you were growing up because you did spend some time there as well.

Mr Wee: I mean I lived there. When my brother got married, I went upstairs and lived there illegally.

Tyrexpo Series: So, you decided to come into the business in the 1970s out of your own drive to join. You were a graduate then and it was very rare for graduates to want to come into such a business. Can you share a little bit more?

Mr Wee: In the 60s, when we graduated, there were not many graduates that wanted to do their own business. I had to, I suppose, went through several job interviews and never quite got any offers. I decided that I wanted to go into the tyre business. That was the calling I had. I decided to join my father.

Tyrexpo Series: It was timely in a sense because shortly after you join, the British pulled out and you needed to find a new way to drive your business forward. Was that correct?

Mr Wee: I think when the British pulled out, the British contract that catered for the Far East was no longer available. So, we had to look for alternative ways of doing businesses. The market in Singapore then was restructuring itself and those were the challenging times. We changed, we adjusted and we adapted.

Tyrexpo Series: I understand that you were very adventurous in your youth. You went to East Malaysia, Indonesia, and all the way even to Sri Lanka just to be able to sell off road tyres. There were quite a few stories about all the difficulties you faced there. Could you share any with us?

Mr Wee: It was quite natural for us then, being a small company at that time, when you do distribution of tyres, as well as today, you need a large working capital, you have to hold large inventories and you need to give fairly extensive account receivables. In those days, I needed cash flow so either you build a big retail chain or you go for large customers who can buy volumes and can pay you. So, the main business were all fleet owners, large mining companies and the forestry companies. We were selling to main people like Weyerhaeuser, we were selling to Mobil, and we were selling to various large companies. Until today, they are still our customers, Freeport-McMoRan, International Nickel and so forth. They may have restructured but our business, our tyre sales and services still goes up.

Tyrexpo Series: We’ve heard a story. We are not sure if it is a legend that you actually had to get a Tamil Tiger sympathizer who was a taxi driver to send you to certain areas of conflict.

Mr Wee: I went to Sri Lanka when the British was building the Mahaweli dam. So, when the British build the whole dam to provide a hydroproject, a big one, the British contractors and the European contractors were all up there. So, in order to get up to Mahaweli, you need to go from Colombo all the way up and that is where the Tiger Tamils are at so you just got to make sure that you employ a taxi driver that was Tamil. Then, how do you know (he is Tamil)?

Tyrexpo Series: So, that’s the question. How did you know?

Mr Wee: You look at his last name. If it ends with a N or M, like Aramugam. If his name ends with an E, like Weerasinghe, then you know he is Sinhalese. So, you look at the surname.

Tyrexpo Series: That’s the story that even people today would be worried on embarking as well. But it was important because they paid up-front, they paid cash and it allow you to fund your business and you were able to secure a number of distributorships using that cash flow. Is that correct, Mr Wee?

Mr Wee: It’s historical that in local tyre distribution business, cash flow and financing are actually key in most small-medium enterprises unless you’ve grown your size. Those days were especially important to us.

Tyrexpo Series: Was this part of a plan that you had established when you joined or did you adjust your plan as things develop?

Mr Wee: I think it’s out of necessity that you needed cash flow to survive and you needed to find the customers that could pay you to survive.

Tyrexpo Series: You simplified it quite well, Mr Wee. But a lot of businesses operate today the same way they’ve operated for 30 or 40 years but your business has diversified and go into many different areas. The next phase was in the 1980s when your father passed away. He didn’t leave a will to the business and we understand that you actually had to make a lot of sacrifice to acquire the shares legally. Could you share a bit about that, Mr Wee?

Mr Wee: My father died, in the stake, half went to my mother, the other half went to the children. There were six of us so it was divided equally. So, I decided, at that time, I wanted to buy the business. So, the only asset I had were two properties and in Singapore terms, they were quite substantive and I mortgage them & paid off my brothers and sisters for buying the business.

Tyrexpo Series: You risked everything?

Mr Wee: Yeah.

In part 2 of the interview, Mr. Wee will share with us on Stamford Tyres’ expansion phase and going beyond Singapore. Stay tuned.

 

Interviewer:
Mr. Ian Wu, Cluster Director – Tyrexpo Series