CEO Series

He Bought A Company For S$1 To Start Own Tech Firm, Now Serves S$33B Construction Industry

We may not have much land, but Singapore never stops building.

There are constantly new BTO flats, condominiums, office towers, shopping malls or even airport terminals up and coming.

According to the Building and Construction Authority (BCA), the total value of contracts awarded to construction projects is predicted to stand between S$27 billion and S$32 billion at the end of 2019.

Needless to say, money isn’t the only big number in the industry which relies heavily on human labour.

The construction sector had 444,700 workers employed in 2018, of which about three quarters were foreign workers.

construction singapore
Image Credit: GineersNow

Construction has always been crucial to the country’s development whether we notice it or not, and managing the comings and goings in this industry is a truly gargantuan task.

Companies constantly navigate the challenge of being accountable for all their employees at once, which could easily be hundreds to thousands of workers in a single construction site.

Overseeing this includes managing each employee’s personal data, ensuring only authorised personnel have access to sites, and adhering to regulations to hire workers with legal and up to date permits.

Under these heavy loads, companies grapple with difficulties to generate and store insane amounts of paperwork, and along with it comes a lot of time needed to sift through and analyse all this information on hand.

Considering the high-risk environment they operate in, there’s no room for error.

How Computers Solve The People Problem

Where regular folks just see noisy and dusty construction sites turn into shiny new buildings, one Singaporean thought about how he could solve these problems going on behind the scenes.

38-year-old Kelvin Koh is the founder and CEO of Intercorp, a technology company that builds solutions to help enterprises manage manpower.

With Intercorp, developers can view all their employees’ information and track their attendance across multiple venues, consolidated in one centralised database in real-time.

This data also lets companies measure their productivity and outputs, and generate in-depth management reports.

Starting out in the early 2000s, Intercorp was the first to bring companies away from manually collecting punch cards and time sheets.

They did away with this physical method by introducing their digital Biometrics Authentication System that has the ability to grant authorised access through biometric fingerprint recognition.

construction workers authorised access to construction sites
An employee’s access rights at a glance / Image Credit: Intercorp

Intercorp provides this cloud-based software as a service (SaaS) to companies by subscription, where they are charged according to their headcount.

“We felt this is a fairer model, as smaller companies and projects pay less due to lower usage rate,” Kelvin explains.

What was once revolutionary nearly 20 years ago may not turn heads today, as many of us are now familiar with using our fingerprints to clock in at our schools and office buildings.

That may be because besides serving the construction sector, Intercorp works with companies like NTUC Fairprice, Golden Village, the Singapore Zoo, and schools like MDIS and Curtin University too.

Never Stop Fixing Things

Before he found his calling to this field, Kelvin always hoped to balance his contrasting passions for creativity and science.

He grew up with one foot in arts and music, while on the other hand he seemed like your typical computer geek in the 80s.

Since PC was introduced in Singapore, I was awed by it and spent much time on it, either learning hardware knowledge by taking things apart [or] learning some basic coding and macro-scripting.

intercorp singapore founder and ceo kelvin koh
Kelvin Koh, founder and CEO of Intercorp / Image Credit: SBO

For him, studying computer science was the perfect way to combine technology with his creative flair to solve problems.

Just before graduating, he started talking to a friend about emerging biometric technologies which they believed would soon have a huge impact on the world.

He was only in his early twenties when he decided to start up a company that taps on this.

“Biometric [technology] is capable of handling enormous datasets effectively,” he says, and it became clear to him that the construction sector, being “one of the most manpower intensive industries” yet having “one of the lowest productivity growth rates”, was in need of something just like that.

Recycling A Defunct Company

Rather than start from ground zero setting up his own corporation, Kelvin chose a different approach where he could make use of a foundation already laid out.

“Back then, no clients would trust nor buy from a newly formed startup without a track record,” he explains.

Particularly working with the construction sector, he had to consider that having a track record was everything to his established clients.

Chancing upon a defunct R&D entity Blackwater Management that was registered in 1996, he “took the chance and bought the company for $1“.

Taking over this company let him “salvage some [of its] productivity software source codes” and repurpose some of its still useful parts.

Between him and his business partner, they put in an initial fund of $100,000 to get operations going, some of which they had to borrow from their families.

Fear Of The Unfamiliar

In early 2000s, when biometric technologies [were] still in their infancy, we’ve faced a lot of difficulties in convincing customers that it is beneficial to them.


[As it was] very new and unproven, many clients were reluctant to try it, preferring to go with the traditional manual recording methods.

Trying to sell a technology few people had heard of, it was inevitable he had to deal with doubts and fears.

The difficulty securing customers even caused Intercorp to “[run] out of money in the first few years”, struggling through a time when they had “no reserves to pay [their team’s] salaries”.

Kelvin recalls it was an uphill task to convince managers who weren’t confident his tech could handle their workers at such a large scale.

Some, on the other hand, asked him: What if it worked too well, and employees who were once able to abuse the system to slip through the cracks would put up a huge resistance to the change?

construction workers attendance app intercorp
Workers can do self check-ins and keep their attendance updated / Image Credit: Intercorp

“When we introduced cloud computing, clients were also worried their data would be lost in transmission,” he says.

“[These are] questions that would not be asked today, [as technology like this has] become part of our daily lives.”

To get to where they are now, they’ve had to repeatedly prove their concepts.

Only when companies saw real results that Intercorp’s tech helped to improve their management processes and save running costs, did they start turning into long-term customers.

intercorp construction workers employee attendance database
Full headcount visibility for employers / Image Credit: Intercorp

Owning The Major Market

Fast forward to today, and distrust in technology is no longer a problem.

In fact, his construction clients adopted facial recognition “seven years before Apple launched their FaceID”, Kelvin tells us.

By paying attention to this unsung industry that others may rarely think about, Intercorp has grown to win the lion’s share, accounting for “about 60% to 70%” of the construction market in Singapore.

Their solutions are now used on the sites of many “construction heavyweights” including Landlease Asia, Koh Brothers, Woh Hup and KTC, as well as projects managed by government agencies like LTA and HDB.

intercorp singapore enterprise top 100 trusted SMEs
Image Credit: Intercorp

In 2018, Intercorp was awarded a Medal of Honour by the Singapore Enterprise Association for clinching a spot among the Top 100 Trusted SMEs.

Beyond home, they’re also frequently getting projects from Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam and China.

Keeping His Sights In The Distance

Behind their longevity, Kelvin explains it’s nothing flashy that got them there, but simply putting in the hard work to constantly “relook and innovate [their] solutions”.

“It’s important that we don’t cut corners and always seek to make long-term decisions,” he says.

intercorp team biometrics manpower management company
Image Credit: Intercorp

He admits there have been times he got so caught up in being busy that he lost sight of long-term goals—to expand the company internationally.

During those times, they stifled their own growth as they only focused on daily tasks but “failed to plan and structure [their] solutions for scalability”.

Eventually, I had to pull myself away from the daily grind to re-possess the high level oversight and plan on how to take our overseas expansion into reality.

“[There was] an extensive list of things to rework, from solution infrastructures, to marketing outreach, partners sales kits, and overseas project support,” he says.

As he tackled issues once overlooked, Kelvin began bringing Intercorp closer to its goals, with the first overseas office opened in Chennai, India in 2018.

His future plans will stay on this path, to “bring [their] solution to larger captive audiences” in other countries, and across industries like “retail, education and manufacturing” as well.

When it comes to breaking through stagnancy and moving further ahead, he learned a valuable lesson:

Don’t stay stuck in one place where “everyone is busy peddling, and no one [is] looking at where [the] ship is heading”.

Succeed Where Others Aren’t Playing

As we follow the entrepreneur scene in Singapore, we’ve written about many exciting startups doing new things in F&B, retail, services and more.

Many of them also use technology to bring various sectors further.

But getting to speak with a startup that looks into the nitty gritty needs of the often forgotten, unsexy construction industry isn’t something we bump into every day.

While Intercorp’s tech innovation forms the basis of what the firm can provide, what they’ve really succeeded in is identifying who can benefit most from its application and selling the solution to them.

They’ve made their name by playing a field that others don’t really pay attention to.

Not many startups can say they’ve captured a slice of a multi-billion dollar industry, and construction clearly isn’t one that would ever hit the ground.

Featured Image Credit: Intercorp / ATT Training Hub

 

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