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Eric Cheng, CEO of ECG Group, recalls getting 'the bigger picture' that launched his business journey. And, as MINDY TAN finds out, he credits his success to his team

It would take more than a modicum of self-confidence to match Eric Cheng's purposeful drive. From the energy that he emanates through his firm handshake and confident stride, to the decisions he has had to make as an entrepreneur, there is a dynamism to him that might make a lesser man quake.
The prospect of walking away from a steady job when Singapore was still grappling with the effects of its worst-ever recession in 2001 would have given most people pause, but not Mr Cheng. Today he is the chief executive of the ECG Group of Companies, and owner of several businesses, mainly in property sales and development, and lifestyle services.
A flight steward with Singapore Airlines for eight years before he left in 2002, Mr Cheng recalls: 'I was in my mid-twenties, and I knew I couldn't fly forever. I've always wanted to be a businessman, so I started looking around for business opportunities.'
Even though Mr Cheng dabbled in different businesses, ranging from abalone trading, to car-wash services, he was constantly drawn back to property, a passion he had nurtured from a young age. He later attained his qualifications to be a licensed property agent, and started working part-time while still flying with SIA.
'I think all businessmen need to work through a couple of businesses before you know what you really want to do, and I found it eventually,' Mr Cheng says.
It was not until he met a monk whom he served on a flight to Taiwan that he made up his mind to return to his first love, property.
'The monk showed me the bigger picture. In life, it's not about chasing money. You've got to work hard, in a job you are passionate about, and the money will come naturally,' he notes.
Less than three months later, Mr Cheng walked out on his $45,000-a-year job, in the middle of a sluggish economy, although he had just got married, and was paying the mortgage on a $790,000 condominium, and a new BMW 3-series.
Driven by 'hunger' and an awareness that he did not have the luxury of a basic pay as a safety net, Mr Cheng took the plunge into the soft property market with PropNex. His 18-hour work days paid off, and he was not only one of the top salesmen in the industry within the first year, but he also made his first million a year later, at the age of 28.
Buoyed by his success, in 2003, he set up ECG Property, which grew to over 1,500 agents within the span of two and a half years. The following year, he set up a programming and software firm, SG1Stop, to develop software and hardware to better manage operations. Shortly after, he set up ECG Development, a boutique property development firm.
ECG Development, which manages an average of 10 projects a year, has since acquired and developed landed property in Malaysia and Australia, and apartments in Bangkok. This year, Mr Cheng projects that these three markets would account for up to 46 per cent of the company's revenue.
In 2007, in a move that surprised many, Mr Cheng expanded beyond the property industry to set up SG Yacht, a luxury yacht rental operation. As the rest of the world struggled with the global financial crisis, he soldiered on, and added another set-up to his growing list of companies.
Working from the point of view that yachts should not just be available to the rich, he decided to make yachts available at affordable prices through chartering, and co-sharing programmes.
The following year, he formed ECG Events and Lifestyle, and interior design and construction firm SG Concept.
'To me, it's about perseverance; you also have to believe in yourself and you need to know what you want in life,' he says. 'Of course, along the way, I also learnt that it's more than that. In every business, you need projections, you need a product that you believe in, you need an exit plan, but above all, you need to have a team which shares your vision.'
Even as some companies struggled against the deep malaise that continued to mire them, Mr Cheng dived into fresh waters in 2009, and acquired a fish farm off Pasir Ris.
After purchasing the fish farm for more than $700,000 and dropping another $250,000 on renovations, Mr Cheng has turned it into one of the largest in Singapore, with more than 120 net-cages, and over 90 tonnes of various species of fish.
'I have always believed that the person who conquers the food market will be the next millionaire,' he says. 'I had been looking for a fishery for two years when I finally found one. Of course, my focus is still on property development, but one day, if we need to, we have a platform to grow our aquaculture arm.'
'Besides,' he quips, 'Singapore is surrounded by water; this is the best opportunity for us!'
Taking on the diverse industries that he has does not faze Mr Cheng, who doesn't believe in being dependent on just one business.
To tackle new industries, he says, you just need to boil it down to three basic questions.
'You must do your research,' he says, 'and it's not difficult because you just have to focus on three things: the market, the product, and the consumer. You must know who your market competitor is, how competitive your produce or service is in comparison, what premium you are able to provide, and ultimately, you have to know who the consumer you are targeting is.'
Not putting all your eggs in one basket is financially prudent, says Mr Cheng, who has seen the ECG Group of Companies' turnover in the first year grow an exponential 53 times, from slightly below $600,000 to $32 million in the third year. Last year, the group's nine subsidiaries raked in over $61 million.
The humble founder, who was awarded the title of Young Entrepreneur of the Year at the 2011 Asia Pacific Entrepreneurship Awards, credits his success to his team.
'I spend a lot of time making sure my staff are happy, making sure they feel a sense of ownership in the company,' he says. 'It's the team that makes ECG what it is. Most of my staff have been working with me for a long time and I always let them feel that this company belongs to all of us. I'm very transparent. My room and fixtures have no locks because I have nothing to hide from them!'
He concludes: 'The success of a businessman, or a business, is not about the businessman himself; it is teamwork that makes the team, and the team that makes the company a success. That is something we tend to forget.'


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