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A silver line in starting over – birth of a recruitment agency

The Business Times, 14 Oct 2011

Having weathered two economic crises and nearly going bankrupt, ACHIEVE Group’s Joshua Yim – a former Entrepreneur of the Year – has now set his sights on growing the group’s revenue to $100 million by 2020, reports IDAYU SUPARTO

BEING in the human resource (HR) industry, Joshua Yim knows quite well the business of putting in the right person for the job.

His start in business, however, came while he was a 20-something selling flowers together with two friends as part of a small shop in Ayer Rajah and later in Hougang.

‘That wasn’t very successful though, but that gave me some ideas. Eventually, I didn’t find that it was a very viable business, so I had to divest it off,’ said the 47-year-old who leads the ACHIEVE Group of Companies.

The group comprises ACHIEVE Career Consultant – the first company to be set up – and three others which focus on specific niches of human resources including technology and international recruitment. Its clients include local conglomerates and multinational companies in the Asia Pacific region.

Though he subsequently stepped away from helming a business to work in sales and marketing at a local engineering firm, Mr Yim said the experience taught him some of the basics of getting a business off the ground.

That came in handy when he decided to leave his next job at a German MNC to take over full-time responsibility of the human resource business he had set up with two friends as a sideline in 1990.

Two months after he took over, the company broke even.

‘It was very exciting because I needed to do everything myself – operations, delivery, finance, administration, even cleaning the office. I just had a table in front of me and then there was the wall,’ he said, recalling the Bukit Merah office that first housed the company.

A year-and-a-half later, the company grew to a five-strong outfit and it moved to an office in the Orchard area. In 1995, he bought out his partners.

‘I’m very grateful to them because they gave me the opportunity. They gained dividends for the next three years, which I thought was my little contribution to them.’

But while his stint running the flower shop may have taught him when to leave a struggling business, it was his decision to hang on – even as the company he had built up was facing losses amounting to almost $1 million – that proved to be wise.

In 2003, in the midst of the Sars crisis which saw an economic climate leading to a dearth of companies willing to hire, Mr Yim was on the brink of bankruptcy.

That bleak period followed a lingering recession after Sept 11, 2001, which resulted in a prolonged episode of uncertainty for the company.

Having already put down the payments for the leases of his two offices then located in International Plaza, he laboured to keep the company afloat as he racked up loans that ran up to $100,000 used to pay his staff and sustain operations.

Though the company came very close to folding, he said that he never gave much thought to giving up.

‘At that moment, I was going through a very tough time which I believe many businesspeople would have gone through. I believed that the trial that I went through would lead me to a greater blessing.’

He said that having a supportive family and his faith helped him through the difficult time. As part of his efforts to deal with the crisis, he stopped paying himself a salary for several years.

‘It’s not so difficult to steer a ship when it’s all sunshine and good winds, but when there are storms and difficulties – that is a test of the captain of the ship, isn’t it?’

Fortunately, business picked up in the first quarter of 2004 and by the next year, he had settled all of his loans.

What the incident underscored for him was the importance of having the right people who can help the company grow even in times of hardship.

‘It was either break under pressure or become stronger. Simple physics, but it applies to us as well.’

The lessons that he had learnt from that period helped the company to weather the most recent financial meltdown, in which it managed to avoid losing money.

A proud moment for him was in 2009 when he was honoured as one of the top entrepreneurs with the Rotary Club and Association of Small and Medium Enterprises Entrepreneur of the Year Award.

Last year, the company was among the winners of the Singapore Prestige Brand Award in the Established Brands category.

But while it seems that the worst may be over, Mr Yim said that he was mindful of the challenges that still abound for the 60-strong firm.

‘You have got LinkedIn, Facebook and job portals like JobsCentral and JobsDB and so forth, but we still have a role to play in terms of finding the people through our proper screening and selection. So this is a very tricky evolution because of technology. This is our biggest threat and biggest opportunity.’

Revenue last year came to $16 million and Mr Yim expects a 10 per cent increase this year. The group has smaller operations in Malaysia and Hong Kong. His strategy for growth is to move into the area of human resource development, which encompasses consultation work, training and development, in addition to providing recruitment solutions.

‘We already have a customer base in terms of the HR community, so we can leverage our position and branding to penetrate old markets with new products. We are also looking into acquiring companies for expansion.’

An even bigger goal that he has is to propel the company to be one of the 1,000 homegrown companies to cross the $100 million mark in terms of annual revenue by 2020 – one of the recommendations spelt out by the Economic Strategies Committee last year to help Singapore grow in the long term.

‘What happens now is that on a yearly growth of approximately 20 per cent, we would be able to reach $100 million in turnover by 2020. That is the ultimate goal 10 years down the road which we are really excited about,’ he said.

Source: The Sunday Times, 14 June 2011