Less than a month into his role as COO of Singapore air-conditioner and investment holding company Natural Cool, Benjamin Choy experienced a baptism of fire. “I took up this role around two years ago,” he recalls. “The CEO needed somebody he could work with on the board to help him manage the business.”
That was March 2020. “Weeks later we were locked down,” Benjamin says. “It became a scramble, a mad scramble to understand the business and its issues, to try to get people to work together. It’s been a pretty interesting journey.” After a pause, he smiles. “But I don’t know if I want to go through that again.”
In a country where humidity is a constant and temperatures rarely dip below 20℃, air conditioning is more than simply a creature comfort. In fact, Singapore has the highest number of air-conditioning installations in South-East Asia; about 99 per cent of Singaporean condos are wired for cool air.
Natural Cool Holdings was established in 1989 to meet technology needs, and Natural Cool Air-Conditioning and Engineering was established in 1993 to meet the blossoming demands for air conditioning. In 2005, the company underwent a restructuring and listed its shares on the Singapore Exchange. High-profile partnerships with brands such as Mitsubishi Electric, Daikin, Panasonic, LG, Fujitsu and Toshiba have helped establish Natural Cool as a one-stop shop for air-conditioning needs.
“Through diversification and reinvention, we’re giving our people opportunities to better themselves.”
The company has extended its services past its initial remit: today, it installs, maintains, repairs and replaces air-conditioning systems throughout Singapore, as well as selling parts and tools used in air-conditioning installation and servicing.
Additionally, Natural Cool has branched out beyond even the realm of air conditioning; the group manufactures and sells a range of industrial paints and solvents, and is also involved in food manufacturing, distribution and retail.
It’s this kind of transformation that Benjamin says is crucial to Natural Cool’s sustainability and viability. “We are transforming our business, trying to move ourselves away from our current business model to one that’s a lot more sustainable and adds more value to both the business and our stakeholders,” he says.
“It’s about meaningful work. If our people do the same thing day in, day out, it gets very tiring. If you don’t do meaningful work and don’t deliver a meaningful output, you don’t learn much and it’s very hard for your organisation to recognise you. Through diversification and reinvention, we’re giving our people opportunities to better themselves. It’s not just for us; it’s for them.”
The approach has done wonders for Natural Cool’s retention. Human capital development is one of Benjamin’s personal key performance indicators, and he says prioritising people has made a difference. “We have employees that have been with us for more than 20 years. I’m not just talking about senior staff, but technicians and rank-and-file employees who have been with us for decades,” he says. “We don’t expect everybody that joins us at Natural Cool to stay for so long, but I’d like for anyone who joins us to be able to say that the experience was enriching and fulfilling.”
And in the best kind of leadership tradition, that’s something the COO himself is able to say. After more than a decade in corporate finance and investment banking, Benjamin had earned a reputation as an investment professional. When Natural Cool came knocking in 2014, that’s exactly what it was looking for. “When the opportunity arose, Natural Cool initially wanted someone to help run its investment mergers and acquisitions function and at the same time manage its oil and gas investments in Indonesia,” he says.
Faced with a CIO role with responsibilities across Singapore and Indonesia, Benjamin took the plunge. “I said to myself, ‘Why not?’ At the very least, I’d learn something.”
That learning experience was cut short in 2017, when Benjamin returned to Natural Cool’s head office to work with the board to stabilise operations. “I work well with the CEO; we work well as a team,” he says. “I actually never thought I’d be here as long as I have; it’s now one of the longest jobs of my career. And now that COVID-19 is here to stay, things will never be the same.”
“After the last two years, I’ve begun to feel that people should be first. That’s the biggest takeaway I’ve had.”
The great disruptor, COVID-19 had a mixed effect on Natural Cool’s fortunes. On one hand, lockdowns kept people at home, where air conditioning was needed the most. “I was in the midst of trying to define my new role,” Benjamin says. “Previously there wasn’t a group COO role at Natural Cool; this was a completely new role.” At the same time, he was doing his best as a leader, working with the Group CEO to hold their people together. “Again, I’ll use the term baptism of fire,” he says. “But you realise that people are amazing creatures. In times of adversity, you can bring out the best in people.”
Benjamin’s mantra, “What man can do, man can undo”, proved particularly valuable during this time. “It’s all about people. They can be flexible when they need to be, but as a manager, as a leader, you need to convince them that there’s a need to be flexible.”
It can be hard at the best of times to keep a team focused on a common goal, never mind to agree on a strategy, but Benjamin says the advent of COVID-19 caused his team to well new depths of resourcefulness and solidarity. “They were willing to work with each other, to support each other, to step up and help. During a circuit-breaker event like COVID-19, the so-called fixed mindset can change. The whole episode brought senior leadership and the management team a little bit closer as well, and I’m actually hoping to build on that to move the company forward in the future.”
The turbulent years of COVID-19 also marked a shift in Benjamin’s own mindset as it related to work. “After 11 years in investment banking, money was first and foremost in my mind,” he says. “After the last two years, I’ve begun to feel that people should be first. That’s the biggest takeaway I’ve had.”
Forced to confront his own preconceptions of leadership, empathy emerged as the strongest element in Benjamin’s reassessment. “You have to have empathy. Without it, you can’t communicate, you can’t connect and appeal to a person’s higher consciousness to want to help you and go the extra mile.”
From a business perspective, COVID-19 has heralded many changes in Natural Cool’s operations. “We’re looking at stackable hours, we’re looking at downsizing; in fact, we’ve downsized significantly in the last few months,” Benjamin says. “We’re encouraging working from home and telecommuting, and we’re doing our own digital transformation so we can automate more of our processes. That’s ongoing.”
These plans were on the cards even before the pandemic, he says – another example of Natural Cool’s transformative game plan. “We wanted to roll it out early in 2020; COVID-19 actually caused us to hold back a little bit,” he says.
Currently, Benjamin’s focus remains his people. “We’re doing more team building and bonding exercises between senior leadership and among individual business units as well,” he says. “A person that can do aircon installation isn’t necessarily someone that wants to do that thing. So we’re offering training opportunities in different skill sets to keep our people engaged and relevant.”
On the other end of the spectrum is Natural Cool’s digital transformation plans. “Digital is a big word, and one that’s been tossed around quite a bit in recent years,” Benjamin says. “But we’ve taken it quite seriously, and in the area of digital transformation, I’m happy to say we’ve made even more progress than we have with our human capital development.”
“We want to move ourselves away from equipment and services to what I call a real product company, meaning we’ll develop and build and sell products we develop ourselves.”
This digitalisation was significant enough to attract the attention of one of Singapore’s leading government agencies in the business field. Natural Cool Air-Conditioning and Engineering has been selected as one of nine companies to participate in the inaugural batch of the Digital Leaders Programme, a program jointly run by the Infocomm Media Development Authority and Enterprise Singapore that aims to help promising local companies to integrate technology into their core business strategy to develop new capabilities and business models, and to capture new growth opportunities.
“As part of this program, we will embrace digital technology to achieve two fronts,” Benjamin says. “One is to create new revenue platforms for ourselves, and along that line, we’re developing mobile applications to cater to the air-conditioning home services market in Singapore and overseas.” Much progress has already been made on these apps, with a launch date tentatively set for early 2022.
“On top of that, we’re automating our sale and warehouse inventory systems to provide more self-service options to our customers,” he says. “That’s a big push for us, to democratise some of the corporate services rather than have an entire team of human resources or finance staff.”
The final area Natural Cool is looking to digitise is product development. “We’re an equipment and services company, mainly in air conditioning. We’re not as nimble as some of the smaller players, though,” Benjamin says. “So we want to move ourselves away from equipment and services to what I call a real product company, meaning we’ll develop and build and sell products we develop ourselves.”
This is another area in which Enterprise Singapore has made overtures to get involved. “They’re engaging with us on some research and development initiatives to develop these products, but that’s a longer-term plan,” he says. “We’ve been making some very small strategic acquisitions – buying capabilities – in the background to meet this aim, and we’ll continue to do that.”
In this, Benjamin’s experience in investment banking proved it’s worth. “We’ve built a healthy pipeline of acquisitions and investments, and we have a small in-house corporate finance team to help us look at these deals. That’s where we’re heading.”
To become a product-based company means overcoming one of the greatest challenges of the COVID-19 era: supply chains. Benjamin believes trust is the strongest glue, and that Natural Cool is well stocked in that regard. “After so many years working with our partners, I think we have a good understanding that when we say we’ll do something, we deliver,” he says. “And it’s these long-term relationships that last through thick or thin. They also act as a signal to brands, subcontractors and suppliers we haven’t yet aligned with that partnering with us is a good idea.”
Underscoring these relationships is a concept Benjamin describes as “the speed of trust”. “That’s how quickly two parties can establish trust,” he says. “Depending on the nature or the length of the relationship, it can be easier to jump on a phone call and gain support, or even on a handshake, instead of being bogged down in documentation. Trust can clear those hurdles.”
From his start as a career investment banker looking for a change, Benjamin has developed into an empathetic, multifaceted, people-first leader during his time at Natural Cool, but he says it wasn’t by design. “I don’t aspire to be a leader,” he says. “I never did. Leaders are made by the circumstances of their situation.”
“Everybody who considers themselves a leader must consider that they’re a work in progress.”
Having said that, he recognises in himself three traits he believes any leader worth their salt should have. “What I want to see in a leader, and this is not negotiable, is integrity, clear communication and the ability to keep a bird’s-eye view of what’s happening but at the same time have your finger on the pulse. If you don’t know what’s going on in your own business, or with your team, then how can you lead? I don’t think these are groundbreaking, earth-shattering new philosophies, either. It’s just common sense.”
Whether Benjamin has perfected these three qualities is another issue entirely, and plays right into Natural Cool’s – and his own – ongoing transformation. “Everybody who considers themselves a leader must consider that they’re a work in progress.”