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One simple word passed down from father to son – and mentor to mentee – has stuck in Han Ren Lim’s mind: logic.
“Construction can be simplified if you apply logic to analyze the situation,” explains the Executive Director of Singapore construction company Soilbuild Construction Group.
“Take the engineering aspects, where we rely on professional engineers and consultants to design, out of the equation and the only thing left is the coordination and sequencing of works on site.
“That’s something that really boils down to logic as there should be a system and process in place to ensure the site works progress as per the planned program.”
Yet Lim has also applied this short but sweet nugget of knowledge to his career path as well.
Growing up, Lim says he felt no pressure to follow in the footsteps of his father, Chap Huat Lim, who co-founded the company in 1976 and has been Executive Chair since 2013.
“He didn’t insist we work for the family,” Lim explains. “In fact, he encouraged my brothers and I to explore and gain exposure outside of the business and he left it completely up to us whether or not we wanted to return.”
So Lim followed an early path outside of the industry, moving to New York to pursue studies in Finance and Accounting at New York University’s Stern School of Business. After graduating, he returned back to Singapore to work at a private equity fund.
Three years later, reflecting on how to best channel his energies, he joined the family fold.
“One big trigger for me to return to the family business was being able to enjoy the fruits of my labor,” he explains. “Private equity is often associated with long and hard working hours, which I was a part of during my time there.
“I thought to myself, if I am already working so hard for somebody else to generate returns, why not do it for my own family business, where I am able to generate and enjoy the benefit of these returns in the longer-term?”
He admits that getting to grips with the ins and outs of the new business was a steep learning curve.
“The construction industry is very technical in nature,” he says.
But there were skills from his old world which he has been able to bring to his new one.
“I am forever grateful for the training I’ve received in private equity as it has definitely broadened my perspectives and outlook, enabling me to contribute even more to my family business.
I’ve been able to look at the Group with a big-picture mindset, something that helps me to rethink and reinvent the way we go about our business and operations, including our tender processes, project management methodology and philosophy.”
When the business privatized its real estate investment trust, Soilbuild Business Space REIT, Lim was tasked with executing the deal. Once it was concluded, he then dedicated himself to the construction business.
What also added to that feeling of being thrown in the deep end was timing: Lim’s decision to join his father in business came just as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the world.
“The construction industry was one of the hardest hit industries,” he explains. “Both the pandemic and geopolitical tensions drove up the costs of construction material and labor, and prolonged procurement lead times.”
Despite the significant challenges and losses that the crisis triggered, he explains that the company continued to honor its commitment to clients and to deliver on the projects it had secured prior to it.
“We are proud to have successfully completed several projects in the face of adversity and our focus on quality and customer service has not wavered,” he says. He’s now excited about turning over a new page in the Soilbuild story.
“The Group is now at the tail-end of our pandemic chapter with order books up almost 60 percent at the end of 2022,” he says. “We are ready to emerge stronger.”
One of the big opportunities he spotted was in digitalization.
“The construction industry is one of the last industries to transform digitally,” he explains. “I saw the need to digitalize both internally and externally to streamline our processes and become more efficient in what we do.”
Looking inward, he got to work to introduce an enterprise resource planning system to automate and digitize processes.
“This eliminated much menial manual work, saving my colleagues time and allowing them to take on higher value tasks,” he explains.
Externally, he spotted the potential for digitalization software that could streamline and add value to both the tender stage and the project execution stage.
“We have built up our capabilities over the years and work with our partners to change the way we tender as well as organize and execute projects,” he explains.
It’s a transformation that he has approached from a client-centric mindset – a perspective he says is driven by his non-traditional background.
“For construction guys, building and completing a project is our bread and butter,” he explains. “Yet our clients perhaps work on a construction project once every 30 or 40 years, so they have trouble visualizing how their building will look from simple architectural plans.”
Instead, Lim has invested in data-rich 3D building information modeling (BIM) models and cutting edge virtual reality technology.
“We are able to create fly-through videos, both of the exterior facade and of the interior spaces. This gives our clients a good visual of how their building will eventually look once completed.”
Lim explains that Soilbuild works with its vendors to trial certain safety implementations as well.
“One such trial we were test bedding was a solution to mitigate entrapment risk during the operation of mobile elevated work platforms,” he says.
“Another implementation was the incorporation of AI software into our CCTV system to help enhance site supervision, enabling us to promptly intervene in any unsafe works or acts on site.”
The investment has already paid dividends.
“This has enabled us to engage with our clients more extensively and intimately to better understand and tailor to their needs,” he notes.
“We can even go to the extent of modeling out the exact dimensions of the various equipment that the client would like to place in different rooms and, with that, help them work out the most efficient layout and translate the exact look and feel that they envisioned to a reality.”
The shift to 3D BIM technology has allowed the Group to venture into the realm of digital twin models for Facilities Management (FM).
“This further value add gives clients the option of controlling and viewing all their FM data and models in a virtual building model,” he explains.
These digitialization efforts are also being channeled into safety initiatives and safety awareness.
“We are utilizing our BIM models to provide actual visualization to our work teams,” he explains, adding that such tools allow the simulation of how high-risk construction activities will be executed on site.
“We can then have a thorough discussion during our risk assessment review meetings and pre-plan the safety implementations to mitigate our risk on site,” he continues.
Lim also quickly recognized the potential for new blood in the business.
“The management team are all veterans who are very experienced in what they do,” he says.
“But as Singapore continues to grow and attract higher value MNCs [multinational corporations], we need to transform more professionally and have a team that could grow with me as I build upon what our Chair has achieved and accomplished over the past 50 years.”
What sets Soilbuild apart in the marketplace?
“We have a very good understanding of industrial buildings and it will continue to be part of the target segment for us to focus on,” Lim explains. “Our in-depth knowledge allows us to effectively design and efficiently build such facilities.
“Our digitalization capabilities allow us to better cater to our clients’ needs. Being able to price for a project competitively also puts us in good footing to secure and win new contracts.”
By that, he means expanding beyond Soilbuild’s traditional areas of strength: industrial buildings, or the likes of factories, production facilities, warehouses and logistics facilities.
Past projects include Solaris @ one-north and the Aperia Mall mixed use retail and industrial development.
In recent years, the Group has also made a foray into higher value, high specifications industrial buildings and has secured contracts for high tech industrial 4.0 manufacturing facilities with clean room capabilities for the electronics and semiconductor industry.
“As Singapore continues to position itself as the regional hub for advanced manufacturing, we expect to see greater investments into Singapore to develop more such facilities and Soilbuild will continue to target this market,” he explains.
He adds that, while industrial space will remain its main focus, the Group will also continue to tender for public and private residential projects.
Of course, he knows that change – no matter the industry you are in – is typically something most people resist.
“In order to achieve our goals, it’s essential to get buy-in from my colleagues in the direction that I’ve set out for them from the outset,” he explains. “Only with actual buy-in and belief from them can we achieve the goals that I’ve set.
“Having a core group of colleagues who share the same vision, and their echoing of the goals that I’ve set, will be key to bringing our goals to fruition.”
Another area of future vision for Lim is sustainability, although at Soilbuild, looking forward is not a new strategy.
“We built one of the first Green Mark Platinum-certified business park buildings in Singapore, the Solaris @ one-north, a complex completed a good 12 years ago,” he explains.
The certification is awarded by the Building and Construction Authority of Singapore to buildings that deliver at least 30 percent energy savings.
Solaris @ one-north comprises two towers connected with a naturally ventilated central and day-lit atrium.
“A key feature for Solaris is a 1.5 kilometer continuous landscape ramp that was built to connect the ground level to the upper levels of the building,” he says.
“The green ramp is part of a comprehensive strategy for the ambient cooling of the building facade and acts as a thermal buffer for the building and creates areas for relaxation and event spaces.”
By integrating the landscaped areas directly into the facade of the building, Soilbuild was able to achieve more than the required 30 percent reduction in energy consumption.
Another notable Green Mark Platinum-certified building includes the 93,000-square-meter Tai Seng Exchange.
“This is our fourth to date,” he says. “We have also started to explore LEED-certified buildings and are in the midst of designing and building one as we speak.”
Talent retention is, Lim says, one big challenge facing Soilbuild and the rest of the construction industry.
“The industry is also facing a bigger issue of not being able to attract younger employees as they are drawn to careers such as bankers, doctors and lawyers.
“Thankfully I have been able to bolster the team with a few younger faces who are also looking to grow with me and the organization. We have put in place a performance-based reward system and have also instituted town hall sessions and other get-togethers where we share our vision and bond together as a team,” he explains.
“I believe that a team with aligned aspirations will be able to deliver greater outcomes. I also believe that, for an organization to thrive, we must be able to attract employees who work with their heart.”
Other green strategies Lim names include rainwater harvesting and recycling, roof gardens and corner terraces, solar shafts puncturing through the building to allow natural light into the interior and extensive sun-shading louvers.
Similarly, the firm is venturing into the Design for Manufacturing and Assembly space.
“We are looking into the use of precast and prefabricated components to reduce the reliance on foreign labor,” he says.
In Singapore, Soilbuild operates one of five Integrated Construction and Prefabrication Hubs, producing precast components that can be used in residential, commercial and industrial buildings.
“With precast and prefabrication, we are able to first, reduce reliance on foreign labor through the use of more machinery and technology, and second, reduce safety risks as production will be in a controlled plant environment,” Lim adds.
The success of every project Soilbuild undertakes relies on the alignment of multiple stakeholders and, accordingly, Lim appreciates how integral building and forming relationships is to the business.
“Building relationships with our clients involves me getting to know them and their actual expectations, and delivering on those,” he says.
For some, it might be the time to market that is critical. For others, the key factor could be making a corporate statement or meeting budgetary commitments.
With suppliers, consultants and subcontractors, Lim knows that it’s about playing the long game to build trust and understanding. Businesses such as BK Design & Management, RSP Architects, BSD Building System & Diagnostics, GIMS & Associates and ID Architects have worked with Soilbuild on many projects over many years.
“They understand how we work, our emphasis on design quality, functionality and safety,” he says, adding that this is particularly crucial for projects with compressed timelines.
“We are able to synergize our works on site, reducing the need for unnecessary abortive works, thereby reducing costs.”
His first few years in the industry have been quite the baptism by fire, but Lim is brimming with optimism for what the future holds.
“The pandemic highlighted many weaknesses in the construction sector, and we have also seen many old names succumb to the pressures of rising costs,” he says.
“With the economy continuing to grow, Singapore will never run out of the need for construction. Similarly, Soilbuild will be here and continue to innovate and grow to keep up with construction demands.”