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A Second-Generation business leader’s journey

29 Nov 2017

How a ‘real job’ helped Toby Koh lead Ademco into the 21st century, and how security guards are misunderstood 

When Toby Koh joined the family business in 1995, he started by taking on a sales role and doing door-to-door cold calls. That’s how his father cut his teeth in the business in the 1970’s, “stuffing a bunch of material into a briefcase and going door-to-door” representing security services Ademco, growing the business to the stage where he could buy over the Asian subsidiary from the U.S. parent company in 1985. Learning from his father’s success, Koh thought, “there’s nothing like the practical lessons of doing it firsthand” and dealt with the inevitable rejections that came his way.

“It was a baptism of fire, and after a couple of months I tried to re-strategise: Hit the top and work my way down instead of going through the receptionist and trying to get through the door,” Koh tells Perspectives@SMU. “There was an SGX-listed property developer that I was eyeing and I thought I’d try to talk to the CEO. I tried calling – I got blocked by the secretary. I tried sending letters and emails – they all got blocked.”

“So I sent a letter in a plain envelope without any letterhead, and I wrote on it ‘Private and Confidential’ hoping it’d get to him. After that, his secretary called me acknowledging receipt of the letter but that ‘we’ll contact you when we’re ready’. It was basically a push-off.”

Encouraged that his letter had not been binned, Koh decided to wait outside his target’s office building early one morning. “When his driver dropped him off,” Koh recalls, “I approached him immediately. ‘Oh, you are the guy who sent that letter!’ he said. I thought, ‘So he remembers the letter!’ I asked for five minutes of his time but he was rushing for a meeting.”

Instead of giving up, Koh decided to wait at the reception until the CEO emerged for lunch. Impressed by the determination of the “persistent little fella”, he promised Koh the requested five minutes if he was still there after lunch.

“I waited till three o’clock – I’d been there since eight in the morning – till he got back from lunch,” Koh recalls with a smile. “He gave me the five minutes and then personally called the head of the property that I was talking about to come to the lobby. ‘You have to talk to Toby,’ he told his subordinate before adding, ‘I want to see his proposal.’

“We got the project and became the incumbent [security firm] for the organisation.”

Lessons from towkays

Today, Koh is the Group Managing Director of Ademco Security Group and counts among his customers Fortune 500 companies such as 3M, FedEx, and IBM. Together with sister Audrey Koh, he has expanded Ademco’s reach to six other countries across Asia including regional behemoths China and India. Both siblings came into contact with the family business as children – “We’d go to my dad’s office and do little things like stuffing mailers into envelopes” – and Koh knew he’d be part of Ademco eventually. But he wanted a taste of the real world first.

“I wanted to go out get a ‘real job’, so to speak,” referring to the banking job he secured upon graduating from the University of San Francisco. “I did about ten days of branch banking operations, cutting cheques, verifying the signatures and all that. After two weeks I said to myself, ‘I can’t do this! It’s way too monotonous and I’m not learning anything.’”

In a foreshadowing of the entrepreneurial risk-taking spirit that drove his ‘Private and Confidential’ letter episode, Koh approached (in his own words, “ambushed”) the bank’s head of corporate banking “because that’s where the excitement is with the big loans and big deals”. On his third ‘ambush’ he got his wish.

“For a junior fresh-out-of-school person to get into corporate banking is quite unusual,” says Koh. “The good thing was that even though I was so junior I would be talking to the business owners of successful SMEs and corporate executives, CEOs and GMs. The exposure was invaluable.

“More importantly, as a banker I gained full insights into my clients’ business practices, processes, targets, ways to get business etc.; it was enlightening. I learnt a lot being around these towkays. I guess being as young as I was, the towkays were very happy to teach and share, and I was very appreciative. Until today I am still in contact with these ex-customers of mine.”

He adds: “The learning process from a financial and banking point of view, I gained a lot from that role. Eventually I said, ‘It’s time for me to go into the family business and contribute.’”

Guarding the industry

In the 22 years that he has been at Ademco, Koh has seen the security services industry evolve as technology brought changes aplenty including biometric access systems and the Cloud technology, which appears to have fundamentally changed the industry landscape.

Yet one facet of the industry remains largely unaltered: the role of human security guards.

“It’s very upsetting when I see guards doing the same old thing that they’ve been doing for a hundred years…such as patrolling, walking around and around, and we know that a lot of our security officers are elderly,” Koh laments while pointing out a tongue-in-cheek video he commissioned to highlight what he feels to be an outdated perception of the profession. “I believe that the optimal way for security to be effective is to reduce the manpower [requirement] by bringing in technology. While we still need men on the ground, there is always the danger of human error, whereas systems are more reliable and they work 24/7.”

He adds: “We’re big on managed systems now. We tell our clients, ‘Do you even believe your guard at the condo or office building is watching the CCTV system all the time?’ It’s not possible. I can’t watch a bank of monitors for 12 hours a day and focus. We’re really working our security officers a little too much.”

“With our remote command centre, we have teams that monitor the screens regularly and also have smart systems in place that flags up possible security breaches such as intrusion and even suspicious characters loitering around.

“We believe that having a remote management system together with guards on the ground is the optimal solution.”

Planning for success…and a successor

At 47, the second-generation leader of Ademco is now the towkay looking to plant the seeds of future success.

“We believe that security is a megatrend,” asserts Koh. “In today’s globalised economy, there is no denying the political and socio-economic triggers that can have a far-reaching impact on security risks and issues. With this comes the need to recognise that investing in security is now an important necessity.”

“We’re also trying to grow our footprint through strategic partnerships (joint ventures, acquisitions etc.,) which gives us the local strength that we can build on. We have projects in countries where we don’t have an office but it’s always exciting to go into a new country either to set up a new team or search for like-minded partners to work with. That’s something I enjoy doing.”

What about keeping the business within family? And how does he train his staff to get them up to speed to ensure the smooth running of the company after he retires?

“I would want them to come talk to me if they have doubts,” explains Koh on his practice of letting his staff to learn through mistakes so long as it does not threaten the company’s viability. “If they choose to do something despite my advice against it, and if there isn’t too much risk involved, I’d let them go ahead and try.

“The important objective is building trust. I want my team to understand, ‘Ok, I’m prepared to take a gamble and I’m gonna trust your decision.’ If a person succeeds, he’ll say, ‘Toby trusted me even though he wasn’t for the idea.’ If he fails, he’ll say, ‘Toby trusted me, and even though I failed he isn’t disappointed.’ I say to him, ‘I still trust you, but now you’re better for the experience.’ That’s how I build my relationship with my team.”

With regard to succession: “The Asian part of my mind would love it if one of my kids or one of my nieces and nephews wanted to be in the business. Whether that person has the right talent or interest to lead the business is a separate thing altogether. At this point in time, none of them are interested.

“As far as succession planning was concerned, my father’s view was, ‘It will go to one of my children.’ His style was, ‘Get this thing done.’ I’m more consultative and having people come along with me, agreeing on a strategy and going for it.

“When dealing with millennials, the approach towards managing them is different and evolving. It’s something I’m also trying to develop, making sure I’m on top of my game on that front, engaging people born in 90’s and 2000’s and taking the effort to work closely with them. Communication is key and learning is a two-way process.”  


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Last updated on 30 Nov 2017 .


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