Wong Kim Hoh
The Sunday Times
Tuesday, Aug 13, 2013
SINGAPORE - Four years ago, a friend asked Mr Mark Phooi to invest in a moneylending company.
It charged borrowers 20 per cent interest monthly on loans and was extremely lucrative. In less than a year, he not only recouped the $1.1 million he put in but also made a profit of about $500,000. However, his conscience got the better of him and he exited the venture not long after.
"Ninety-seven per cent of the borrowers were desperate gamblers, and poor. I'd rather make money from the rich," he says. His friend still runs the company.
The flamboyant, spiffily dressed 51-year-old left school with only two O-level passes but struck a big pot of gold after starting a design business which spawned a string of companies and the First Media Design School in Keong Saik Road.
Today, the entrepreneur owns several properties and three cars, including a Bentley cabriolet.
His immaculately furnished four-storey Bukit Timah home - which looks like a giant tree house - is worlds removed from the dingy two-bedroom Everton Park rental flat he grew up in.
"I didn't get a bed of my own until I was 14. I slept on a piece of plywood in the kitchen as a kid," says the fourth of five children of illiterate labourers.
His late father was a stevedore at the port; his mother, now 80, loaded detergent boxes into shipping containers in Jurong. Both were inveterate gamblers.
When they lost, which was often, Mr Phooi and one of his sisters were made to borrow money or rice from neighbours. "I developed a thick skin very young," he says.
With no firm hand to rein him in, he also became quite a bully in the neighbourhood. "I'm a Tiger and born in the evening, so I'm very hungry and aggressive," he says with a grin, referring to his Chinese zodiac sign.
Fighting was almost a daily sport but survival and making money were also top priorities.
"We often didn't have enough to eat, so I'd steal chocolate and snacks from shops in the area.
When I needed a new pair of shoes, I'd just go to one of the point blocks across the road and take what I needed," recalls the former student of Silat Primary and Tanglin Technical Secondary.
He was just seven when he started opening car doors for small tips at the Hillman Restaurant in Cantonment Road.
There were other gigs later, as a hotel bellboy and general dogsbody in a melon seed factory during school holidays.
More than the money he earned, the free meals that came with the jobs were a big draw. "It was the only time I could eat my fill," he says.
He also admits to behaviour that would make any proper boy scout ashamed.
As a sea scout, he was most flush with cash during the annual Job Week, when scouts raise money by doing odd jobs. He would not record all the jobs he did, and kept the money for himself.
"I would start one week early. Because I worked so hard, I could amass a couple of hundred dollars, enough to last me a few months," he says. It would take some time, but he would repay that debt eventually.
Not all his early entrepreneurial experiences were pleasant.
With a grimace, he recalls a couple of port labourers who would pay him and some of the neighbourhood boys to buy bottles of beer or stout. The men would then make the boys sit on their laps and grope them.
"I was just seven or eight and had no idea what was happening," he says. The trauma only hit him when he was in his 30s and a father himself.
"I was really upset and felt a lot of hatred and anger then," says Mr Phooi, who has three sons aged between 16 and 24.
In school, he was a sports ace but an academic dud and left Tanglin Technical with O-level passes in only Chinese and history.
"Many of my friends went on to junior college or polytechnic, but I could not even get into a vocational institute," he recalls.
He qualified only for the Construction Industry Training Centre (CITC) in Balestier. He quit after one day.
In the two years before he started national service, he was a factory hand at Bridgestone Tyres and a lifeguard at the Big Splash pool complex at the East Coast Park, a stint he enjoyed.
"I liked the attention and the authority I had. When I blew my whistle, people would react," says Mr Phooi, who perfected his swimming skills through countless training sessions as a sea scout and as a member of the Life Saving Club at Yan Kit Swimming Pool.
After national service, short stints as an encyclopaedia salesman and a timber yard supervisor followed. His mainstay, however, was teaching swimming, which netted him as much as $4,000 a month.
"I probably spent 44 hours in the water a week," he says. Then he chanced upon a theological book, The Seven Laws Of Success, and it changed his life.
"Among other things, the book says a person must have a goal, start with the end in mind, and have a lot of drive, perseverance as well as God to succeed in life.
"I didn't have much of an education but at that stage, I knew I wanted to be rich and to live in a nice house," he says.
So he hauled himself back to school to re-sit the O levels by attending night classes.
With a bellow, he says it took him four attempts over four years before he got another two passes in English and art. But, combined with his earlierO levels, his grades got him into the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.
There, he became chairman of the students' union. When he was 25 and in his second year in Nafa, he married Elisa, a former accounts clerk. He graduated one year later in 1988 with a diploma in graphic design.
He then landed an interview for a graphic designer position with a local advertising company and the agency head asked what he wanted out of life.
"I told him I wanted to be like him and run an agency. He gave me a scolding and told me to come down from my ivory tower. He said I had neither experience nor a network and ended the interview by asking me to write him 10 reasons why he should give me the job," he says.
That night, he sat on his bed trying to draw up the list.
"My wife - who was pregnant with our first child - asked me what I was doing and when I told her, she said the agency owner had insulted me. I threw away the piece of paper and told myself I would pit myself against him."
After working briefly at a design agency and a typesetting firm, he borrowed $2,000 from a friend and started Lancer Design Services in 1989.
"It was just enough for me to buy a computer and a dot-matrix printer. My bedroom was the office," says Mr Phooi, who was then living with his mother in her four-room flat in Clementi.
He started with no grand plans but discovered along the way that the design and printing of newsletters was a lucrative business.
He continued giving swimming lessons, but would make cold calls and knock on doors to get his new business off the ground.
"No one wanted to do newsletters because there was little room for design indulgence, but it was very good money. I was competing with printers, but because I was design trained, my standards were higher.
I did so well that at one time, I had the contracts for nearly 40 companies," says Mr Phooi, whose clients included Singapore Technologies, Great Eastern Life and Jurong Country Club.
By 1992, he had made his first million. The company was growing so fast that he had to move nine times in its first decade of operations.
An electronics company was so impressed by his service that it gave him a $500,000 contract to organise a three-day staff event on Sentosa.
"I knew nuts about events, but I did it. Although I didn't have a track record, they were impressed with me because I would deliver things on weekends, rush things out for them and keep them informed of all developments. If there were problems, I always gave solutions."
Completing that job successfully proved a game-changer.
"It told me I could take on big projects and it pushed me from the C market to the A market," he says.
Over the next decade, he started building a series of small design companies - 11 in Singapore and five more in the region, including Malaysia and Indonesia - each catering to a different market, from retail design to corporate design to product packaging. First Media was formed as a holding company in 2002.
"I always give my guys an opportunity to be their own boss," says Mr Phooi, who also returned to school and received a Masters in Design from the University of New South Wales.
He was named Entrepreneur of the Year by the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises (Asme) and the Rotary Club of Singapore in 2006. Since then, he has given away all of his companies to the staff who helped him build them and now just owns two.
It has not been smooth sailing all the way.
The 1997 Asian financial crisis nearly bankrupted him because he had one mortgage too many and the value of his properties had plunged by more than 30 per cent. A publishing venture in 2000 also failed, incurring $250,000 in losses.
But each setback, he says, only made him work harder and he managed to claw back his losses.
Despite the scare of 1997, he ventured back into property investments. "In hindsight, what I have now are astute investments. But even I thought myself a little crazy and reckless when I bought them," he says.
Some of the properties he acquired were those no one wanted, including odd-shaped buildings and even a brothel in Chinatown.
"I bought the brothel for $2.45 million in 2008. Two months after I renovated and fumigated it, I sold it and made $2 million," he says.
In 2006, he set up First Media Design School. The 9,000 sq ft school offers programmes in graphic design, multimedia and fashion design; its degrees are conferred by the University of the West of England.
One of the smallest private education institutions to clinch the Council for Private Education's (CPE) EduTrust mark, the school has about 150 students, 40 per cent of whom are from the region.
Candidly, Mr Phooi says the school is unprofitable. "Our capitalisation of $1.3 million is all gone and I've just put in another $600,000."
But the founder is not at all worked up, perhaps because it is payback time for taking money from the scouts' Job Week.
"It's almost like a social enterprise to me. We give out scholarships to many students from Vietnam and Cambodia and it's a great feeling to know that they will be going back to their countries to pass on what they've learnt here."
His business partner, Ms Audrey Chong, has known him for more than a decade.
She says: "His public persona is this hard-nosed, go-getting man always on the lookout for business opportunities. But he has a very humane and soft side. He is a very busy man but he regularly goes to the prison to give talks and offer lessons for the inmates."
Mr Phooi says he is at a point in his life when he can afford to do what pleases him. And what is important to him now is playing educator and leaving a legacy.
It explains why he has decided to splurge $60,000 to publish his autobiography. Available at Kinokuniya book store, it is called: Think Like A Sage, Work Like A Fool and Act Like A Criminal.