For YPO member Tze Boon Ong, Chairman of the Board at ONG&ONG, a multi-disciplinary architectural design firm established in 1972 by his parents, Ong Teng Cheong and Ling Siew May, dinner conversations revolved around the family business. At a young age, he picked up words such as ‘retaining walls’ and ‘contractors,’ and subconsciously became aware of the business.
Ong shared his parents’ creative inclinations but set off to establish himself independently in the United States, earning an undergraduate degree in architecture from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree from Rice University in Houston, Texas, before working for Gehry Partners, LLP, in Los Angeles, California. It wasn’t until his father was diagnosed with cancer in 1992 that he returned and joined the family architectural practice in 1995. Less than two years later, his mother, who had run ONG&ONG since 1975, soon after his father became a member of parliament, also received a cancer diagnosis.
“Within a span of 30 months, I would lose both my parents,” says Ong. “No longer was I the architect in the design department; I was now the boss of the company. I was 30 years old.”
In 2001, Ong took the helm of the family business, determined to carry on the legacy of his parents. Following are his insights for scaling a business to survive beyond its founders.
Steer a new course
At the age of 30, Ong didn’t know if he would be able to secure the work it took to sustain 62 employees. It was a difficult time not only personally but economically: The Asian financial crisis, dot-com bubble, 9/11 attacks and SARS epidemic were all working against the real estate market.
Ong foresaw three possibilities for ONG&ONG: become a cutting-edge boutique design firm with a smaller staff; maintain the business as-is as best he could; or scale the business. He opted for the latter.
“It was a survival need that became an instinct,” says Ong. “You have to be hungry to really want to make it. If you’re comfortable, you won’t be out there pushing 24/7. So, I went to my one client and said, ‘you know we do interior design, will you give us a chance? And we do landscape design, too. We’ll coordinate landscape, design and architecture all under the same roof for you.’”
With one project and three fees, he steered the company in a revolutionary direction, banking on the possibility of creating a successful integrated services platform, a relatively new concept at the time.
Learn the business
Although innovation and creativity has always been at the heart of an architect’s work, finance has not. Ong had been trained in building design, sewage lines and more, but not in the intricacies of running a business. To gain a better understanding of how to grow ONG&ONG, he participated in a three-year EO executive education program with Verne Harnish, author of Scaling Up: How a Few Companies Make It … and Why the Rest Don’t, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. However, he felt he didn’t immediately distill how to apply those learnings to a business that was dependent on the genius of one individual.
“Can a creative scale?” he asked Harnish. The response: “Whatever business you’re in, it really doesn’t matter. What matters is we all have the same report card called your balance sheet and return on investment, so go figure it out.”
Enrolling next in a finance program for non-financial managers at the University of Michigan, Ong says he realized he saw finances in shades of gray: either you have money or you don’t. By the end of the program, he saw financial issues in color, and a new understanding of his business and how it could expand began to take shape.
“Once you get a handle on the concept of interest and time, money becomes color to you. It’s not the amount of money but the amount of interest rate,” says Ong. “And when you start seeing the world in color, you can make very fast decisions.”
With an eye toward improving productivity and execution within his organization, Ong took a closer look at the design process. Why did clients occasionally throw out his designs? What services did real estate developers need that he wasn’t providing? To better address the challenges developers faced and understand the industry in which he operated, he enrolled in the Advanced Management Development Program in Real Estate at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. This allowed him, he says, “to speak their language as opposed to just an artist’s language.”
If I’m successful in making my role obsolete, I’ve done my company a service. ”
— Tze Boon Ong, Chairman of the Board, ONG&ONG share
That connection changed how he looked at the business — no longer was he offering a service but, instead, an innovative solution to a pressing issue. “When you are only looking for a service, you are looking for who can do it the most affordably for you. Cheap, good and fast,” says Ong. “If I’m looking for a solution, I’m prepared to pay. Only a solution provider warrants that premium on top of the service. If I could address all your real estate issues, I’d be on top of the queue.”
Go wide and deep
To offer a 360-degree design solution required partners and experts beyond the design effort. As the architect at the top of the design ecosystem, Ong could persuade other disciplines to join him. He promoted from within before filling in gaps with outside hires. And then he went into acquisition mode to assemble a more formidable solution.
“I went wide to include mechanical, electrical, structural, interior, lighting, landscape, branding. While at the same time, I went deep into as many territories as I could,” says Ong. “It takes time. In order to do that, you have to wait for your first crop to harvest. You reap what you sow, and then you sell it and you get the cash, and you sow the next.”
Today, ONG&ONG has approximately 1,000 employees in seven countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Create a generous culture
“A lot of creative people leave organizations because they don’t feel appreciated, they don’t feel recognized,” Ong says. “I found that if I’m prepared to share the profits generously with them, they will stay and be happy working. To run a business requires cash, risk, liability and loss, and most people don’t want to have to stomach all of that.”
Recognizing employees for their contributions makes them want to continue to do well and give their best effort. As an aggregator of talent, Ong became an even greater success by having his employees invest in the outcome of the business.
“Accountability requires empowerment,” says Ong. “You can’t hold them accountable for results for which they’re not empowered to act on.”
Ong encourages his employees to invest in the legacy and financial future of the company through a combination of shares ownership and profit-sharing. Because the company’s growth has been impressive, most employees are excited about the prospect. Today, he says he expects the company to be employee-owned in another 5 to 10 years.
Planning for continuity
“I think we’re all ready for that kind of ownership that goes beyond me,” says Ong. “I’ve been working really hard to eliminate myself, and I think the only way to do that is through scale. If I eliminate myself, there is continuity for the organization. The company is called ONG&ONG, which is my mom and dad, not me. Eventually the company will take a life of its own. If I’m successful of getting rid of myself, I’ve done the company a favor.”