When you live and breathe your passion, nobody is ever left wondering what you’re all about. Armed with a degree in building and construction management, Kelvin Hon went straight from four years at the National University of Singapore to a seven-year stint with a local construction firm. It didn’t take long for his talents to be noticed.
“A recruiter came to me and said, ‘Kelvin, there’s this construction firm looking for someone like you,’” he recalls. “That was 11 years ago.” The company was ISG Limited, a global construction services specialist based in London and built on an unparalleled track record and reputation for delivery in Singapore since 1999. “From the start I was managing bids and project finance,” Kelvin says.“I’ve been given a variety of opportunities to grow. I’ve been very fortunate.”
Formed as an interiors company in 1989, ISG has grown into a multibillion-dollar business. Its achievements and capabilities are showcased on some of the UK’s most esteemed architectural landmarks including St Pancras International railway station, the Royal Festival Hall and Lord’s cricket ground. Beyond those borders, it has a presence in the Middle East, Europe and South-East Asia, where Kelvin now heads up ISG’s Singapore office as General Manager.
“This business has grown from doing just fit-outs to much more complicated projects,” Kelvin shares. “During our formative years in Singapore, ISG delivered the design and build for the world’s first Louis Vuitton on water at Marina Bay Sands. The construction team was very close-knitted and experienced, and together, the team went on to complete the refurbishment for the Fairmont Singapore and facade upgrading works for the Royal Plaza on Scotts at Singapore’s City Hall and Orchard Road area respectively.”
The latter two in particular are prime examples of ISG’s broadened horizons. The firm has branched out into the education, life sciences and medical sectors in addition to its solid foundations in commercial and hospitality. “We went on to deliver luxury retail boutiques for Victoria’s Secret and Michael Kors,” Kelvin points out. “And gradually, we inched towards addition and alteration works because we recognise that being adept at fit-outs is not enough.”
Diversification, Kelvin explains, is how ISG has grown as a business. “Being good at what you do is no longer enough,” he says. “You need to be very good at what you do, and you need to learn new things – and then be even better at those things. If not, you’ll forever be siloed in a certain circle or arena, where when you talk about growth, you are limited already.”
And so it was for Kelvin, whose first taste of leadership at ISG came with managing project finance and operations. “I was walking the ground and speaking to my partners and clients on a daily basis about the works on site,” he explains. “When a problem comes up, it’s energising to come up with innovative solutions – I actually embrace the challenge when it arises because it compels me to think out of the box.”
Before long, Kelvin’s problem-solving skills and attention to detail became hallmarks of his success within the company. “I rose through the ranks,” he reveals. “The leaders and managers of the business saw that I worked well with people and, when required, could come up on top of the game. As a result I was very fortunate to be offered senior leadership positions.”
Kelvin eventually came to the attention of Steve Ramsden, ISG’s Managing Director for South-East Asia and the Middle East. “Steve was very encouraging, we both had the same vision for future success in Singapore,” he remembers.
“He could see we have a great team here to make sure the business has a real competitive advantage, which I think is a big plus for any executive. It takes like-minded people to form a strong, effective team in any industry, especially one as competitive as construction.”
When Kelvin’s team goes to work, there’s a lot to consider – the constantly evolving needs of the market above all. “In fit-outs, you have structural alterations and many engineering requirements,” he says. “Clients today are seeking a one-stop solution.”
This may sound simple in theory, but for ISG, that means it must ensure that it provides a more diverse and high-quality service offering. “To deliver transformative results, the main contractor needs to understand quality, as well as being a design specialist with expertise in complex engineering solutions,” he says. “A good contractor with their construction capability can marry engineering and architecture into one.”
That’s when ISG began to expand into addition and alteration (A&A) works. “There’s a big market for this. As a fully accredited main contractor, we specialise in everything from construction and interior fit-outs to engineering and A&A works. And we were able to do that because we had the engineering capabilities within the business already.”
“To deliver transformative results, the main contractor needs to understand quality, as well as being a design specialist with expertise in complex engineering solutions.”
Skilled personnel and global construction capabilities have allowed ISG to tread where few others dare. One such project was a boutique hotel along Singapore’s Middle Road that ISG transformed into an avant-garde icon. “It had an aged facade that we had to alter for a complete refurbishment to happen,” Kelvin says. “But in the midst of that we had to alter much of the hotel’s structural elements which, in my opinion, few traditional contractors could have delivered successfully.”
It was in keeping with the company’s evolution into more complex projects, a reflection of its growth and expanding service offerings. “In Singapore, ISG has a wealth of experience in terms of construction, fit-out, A&A and refurbishment,” he reveals. “The formula for our continuing success is in having an outstanding team – the right team – and the commitment from that team to upskill in order to take on more complex projects and deliver them successfully.”
This work couldn’t be delivered so successfully without ISG’s strong network of suppliers, partners and contractors. “Being trustworthy is everything in this industry,” Kelvin says. “It’s about being up-front and acting on what you commit to deliver. Suppliers and contractors enable our business to thrive and we invest in these trusted relationships that we have built over 20 years and honour our commitments to our valued partners.”
Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, which thrust the world into an unprecedented state of uncertainty, Kelvin believes communication was the key to moving forward. “We are instinctively problem-solvers, so when the pandemic hit, who best to have on your side than a team of highly motivated professionals working towards a common goal? Effective communication is always the solution and we delivered outstanding results in the midst of a global challenge.”
No matter the nature of the relationship, Kelvin believes the most important element is prioritisation. “Communication has a timeline. The key thing is to be proactive and not passive,” he says. “This approach across all of our projects resulted in positive outcomes for our customers and wider teams. However, we never rest on our laurels and are constantly looking at ways we can improve our business and deliver better for customers. Every learning we have taken from the pandemic has made us a better and stronger business.”
While COVID-19 is one of the biggest challenges facing the modern world, climate change is arguably even bigger. Society’s visibility of sustainability has changed dramatically in the past decade alone, and the construction industry has inherited certain obligations when building for the future.
“We’re making sure that in terms of construction technology, construction engineering and digitalisation are inherent in our practices,” Kelvin says. “A prime example of that is we’ve started to deliver projects with clear sustainability benchmarks and standards required by the US Green Building Council and Building and Construction Authority of Singapore.”
The Green Mark certification scheme is Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority’s green rating system for a building’s environmental footprint. As the world’s response to the climate crisis has ramped up, ISG has shown real leadership in sustainable construction solutions and approaches. “Sustainability is intrinsically linked to corporate reputations,” Kelvin says. “ISG’s approach to ethically built solutions enables our clients to positively use their projects to attract new business, investments and secure and retain the best talent.
“We compete on cost, but offer so much more to clients in terms of the quality and reputational construction solution we tailor for every bespoke situation.”
“ISG’s approach to ethically built solutions enables our clients to positively use their projects to attract new business, investments and secure and retain the best talent.”
“ISG uses the latest technology tools such as building information modelling to enable our clients and partners to better visualise and execute our ethically built solutions,” Kelvin enthuses. “You don’t have to wait for days for tradesmen to finish mock-ups. You’ll rarely hear contractors say they’re able to provide top-to-bottom, 360-degree models of the project right there on the desktop. That’s where we’re going, and that’s why the quality of the people delivering a project is so important.”
In fact, ISG’s thought leadership on sustainability has become one of the company’s guiding principles. Its Sustainable Buildings Monitor, released in 2021, outlines the impact buildings are already having on the environment – a quarter of all carbon emissions come from buildings – and charts the path the global community must walk to reach zero-carbon targets.
And ISG is leading by example. The firm recently completed work on The Great Room’s fifth co-working space in Singapore. Occupying three floors of the Afro-Asia building on Robinson Road and designed by celebrated Hong Kong interior designer Joyce Wang, The Great Room, Afro-Asia contains a wide range of sustainable elements. Recycled and upcycled materials, a sky garden and an energy-efficient cooling system are just some of the features incorporated into the project, itself already a part of a LEED Platinum and Green Mark Platinum building.
And innovations such as these give ISG an edge in staying ahead of the game. “If we talk about growth, we’re talking about bigger challenges down the road and staying ahead of them,” he explains. “That’s how you determine where you’ll diversify in the coming years. When you open up your horizons and not just put all your eggs in one basket, that’s the key to business.”
Consistently innovating and recognising strong talent are the hallmarks of any strong corporate culture, but what sets ISG apart is how that’s done. The company’s ‘All 4 by 24’ strategy is a statement of intent to achieve four clear corporate goals by 2024: to provide the best customer experience in the industry; achieve optimal operational efficiency; drive revolutionary change in the construction industry; and to recruit and develop the best talent in the sector. So highly regarded are these values within ISG that each year, the company bestows awards to employees whose performance best reflects them.
“We empower people, and people grow through the business,” Kelvin reflects. Indeed, his own trajectory through the company provides a perfect example. “I started as a quantity surveyor; today, I’m a General Manager. This may not happen in many companies, as there are usually glass ceilings you can’t break through.”
Instead, ISG understands that when people are empowered to make decisions and take greater responsibility, they can grow. “And everyone will be given the opportunity to grow,” Kelvin insists. “This is because we’re firm believers in business continuity.
“Our ‘Never Stop Learning’ value supports our teams to grow and reach their potential. We are immensely proud that so many of our leaders have progressed through the business – encouraged and nurtured within a culture of genuine care and passion around unleashing everyone’s unique talent and potential.”
This sense of solidarity is intrinsic in every aspect of ISG, a business that, much like Kelvin, lives and breathes its passion. The company’s clarity of vision and firm adherence to its values has made ISG a dominant force within the construction industry. “That’s why we believe in empowering our staff,” Kelvin says. “Our people represent our finest asset and with the very best teams in the industry, nothing is beyond our capability.”