While upon hearing the name Pan-United Corporation Ltd. (SGX: P52) you may immediately start picturing smartly dressed folk standing by sleek aeroplanes. You couldn’t be more wrong. The company is in fact Singapore’s largest cement and ready-mixed concrete supplier – and judging by the amount of construction I can see from my window alone, kept pretty busy by this island state. From China, to Singapore… Like many of Singapore’s entrepreneurs, Pan-United’s founder has links to southern China. Ng Kar Cheong was born in 1934, to a humble family in Jinjiang, Fujian province. However, following the Japanese imperial army’s invasion…
While upon hearing the name Pan-United Corporation Ltd (SGX: P52) you may immediately start picturing smartly dressed folk standing by sleek aeroplanes. You couldn’t be more wrong. The company is in fact Singapore’s largest cement and ready-mixed concrete supplier – and judging by the amount of construction I can see from my window alone, kept pretty busy by this island state.
From China, to Singapore…
Like many of Singapore’s entrepreneurs, Pan-United’s founder has links to southern China.
Ng Kar Cheong was born in 1934, to a humble family in Jinjiang, Fujian province. However, following the Japanese imperial army’s invasion of China, many young Chinese chose to flee to seek a better life in South East Asia.
Mr Ng’s father was no exception and headed for Singapore. He soon sent for his wife and seven-year-old son Ng Kar Cheong, who quickly settled into school.
Japanese Occupation of Singapore
However, the happy times lasted less than a year, as Singapore was next on the Japanese army’s list. Kar Cheong was pulled from school to instead sell you tiao (fried fritters) on the street to help his family.
By the time the war ended, Ng Kar Cheong was a teenager, proudly earning a modest sum selling his fritters.
However, things were to change when his Grandma Cai came to Singapore. Believing that the best way for her favourite grandson to be successful was to go into business, Ng Kar Cheong followed her advice and left the hawker trade. He became an apprentice and then took a job at a hardware store.
Then, in 1957 he spent all of his savings on a truck, becoming a truck-owner-driver.
Hiap Soon & Company
However, his life was soon to change completely – and due to Grandma Cai. After reprimanding him for leaving the business world, the forthright lady insisted he sell the truck. She then borrowed enough cash to allow him to become a partner in a new hardware company being set up by his friends. On 1 September 1958, the four partners established their new firm: Hiap Soon & Company.
The timing was good. The Korean War had ended; there was a strong demand for hardware and following Singapore’s independence in 1965, opportunities plentiful. Hiap Soon grew rapidly, and started to extend credit to customers.
However, this made Ng Kar Cheong uneasy – and realising how much foreign direct investment Singapore was attracting, proposed the company move into the construction industry.
Ng Kar Cheong had a lot to learn about the construction industry, including how to source for barges to support his projects. In 1974, he set up a subsidiary of Hiap Soon – the Pan-United Shipping Pte Ltd to deal with this side of the business – and when Hiap Soon was split up in 1984 Mr Ng received Pan-United as his share.
Location, location, location…
Despite the marine industry being in the doldrums at the time and friends telling him this was a big mistake, Mr Ng and his son Henry worked together to expand their ship repair and ship building business. Mr Ng argued that Singapore’s strategic location in the centre of major shipping routes would make it the perfect place for ships to stop for repairs and maintenance.
He also believed strongly in involving his children in the business and made his son Henry Managing Director in 1988. By the 1990s, Pan-United Shipping had become one of the largest, medium-sized shipyards in Singapore and the company continued to expand into China and South East Asia.
In the 1990s, the Singapore Government decided to shut all of the quarries on Pulau Ubin. The Pan-United Corp. group set up a joint venture to open a quarry on Indonesia’s Karimun Island, ferrying the aggregate to Singapore using its own barges.
The group expanded its basic building materials business and formed the United Cement Pte Ltd with Kedah Cement Holdings, which was soon importing cement to supply amongst others, Singapore’s Housing & Development Board. The company also formed its own, ready-mixed concrete operation.
But did you know…
- The Pan-United Corp. group also controls Changshu Xinghua Port in the Jiangsu Province, China.
- Henry Ng is ranked at position 34 in the Forbes’ Singapore’s 50 Richest list and rumoured to be worth $160m.
- He is also a council member of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce & Industry.
- Ng Kar Cheong opened an industrial park and water treatment plant in his hometown in China, in a bid to improve the lives of the people in his old village.
- Pan-United Corp. was the sole ready-mixed concrete supplier for the construction of Changi Airport’s Terminal 3 and the Fort Canning Tunnel. The group was also responsible for the re-paving of more than 100km of Singapore’s roads to “dress-up” the city in time for it to host the 2006 IMF and World Bank meetings.
Today, the Pan-United Corp. group is an investment holding company, which engages in integrated logistics and resource development business in Asia.
Its three main segments include Shipping, Port and Logistics (including the operation of the Changshu Xinghua Port in China) and its Basic Building Resources segment is Singapore’s largest supplier of cement and ready-mixed concrete.
It also engages in the production of asphalt and the building and repair of roadways.
Not a bad story for a boy who was forced to drop out of school to sell fritters – but who could fortunately boast a most determined and ambitious grandma.
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The information provided is for general information purposes only and is not intended to be personalised investment or financial advice. Motley Fool Singapore contributor Alison Hunt doesn’t own shares in any companies mentioned.