How 4 Business Owners kept the lights on when a crisis struck


Updated on 13 May, 2021 | 9 min read


How 4 Business Owners kept the lights on when a crisis struck

How 4 Business Owners kept the lights on when a crisis struck

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How 4 Business Owners kept the lights on when a crisis struck

Hear from Nicholas Lim from Treedots, Clara Lee from Innosenze, Kelvin Sng from Kelvin Sng Productions, and Ismail Seif El Nasr from Intermoda Group on how they overcame difficult crises in their business.


When a crisis comes, we have to immediately have to switch gears to keep businesses running in an unfamiliar landscape. To seasoned of business owners, difficult times have come and gone, yet they’ve always found a way to survive.

We spoke to business owners from different industries to learn about their stories of overcoming a crisis. Here are 4 lessons you can learn from their stories:

Lesson 1: Big mistakes hurt, but learning from them makes you stronger

Our only vendor for poultry products back then played us out! …It was horrible. I had to call each of them up to apologize to them, and had to brace for the sudden drop in sales…

Nicholas Lim is the CCO of Treedots, a food distribution startup that tackles Singapore’s food loss problem. He shares his experience dealing abrupt cancellations of delivery during a pivotal time in his business:

1. Tell us about a time you encountered a business crisis that was out of your hand. What difficult decisions you had to make?

As we operated a platform for vendors to sell their products, things are usually out of our hand majority of the time. This is because vendors are supposed to be the ones ensuring the consistency and quality of the products.

One time, we experienced a shortage of poultry products in the industry due to mass buying from other neighbouring countries at higher prices, resulting in lesser stocks for Singapore.

We did not have as many vendors as we do now, and when this happened, only vendor for poultry products back then played us out! We had no supplies for a few weeks, and we were only informed at the very last minute: the day before Deepavali!

Normally this wouldn’t be that bad. But because we were serving businesses who depended on our products to run their stalls at Deepavali, it was horrible. I had to call each of them up to apologise, and then brace for the sudden drop in sales due to the loss of confidence from all of our buyers.

2. During this difficult situation time, what were the steps you took to make the best out of a tough decision?

We realized that we can’t just depend on one vendor for each product, and we needed bigger vendors. So we went around and focused on on-boarding more vendors on our platform to create more reliability before reaching back out to our buyers. By doing so, we actually secured a good network of supportive vendors whom have now become our preferred vendors to this day!

3. For businesses struggling today over Covid-19 and other industry-wide problems, what advice would you like to share to them?

Tough times don’t last, but tough people do! Always be willing to adapt to whatever new opportunities (or challenges) are being presented. If possible, give others a helping hand during this period. You’ll never know what could happen!

Lesson 2: Think outside of the box as much as you can, and keep trying

Many of our vendors were panicking. We all had to be on the same page: What do we tell our customers? What teams need to do to bridge the gap and manage expectations?

Clara Lee was the CEO of Innosenze, and has over 25 years of experience in IT and logistics. She’s worked in listed multinational enterprises such as Johnson Controls, DSM, and Lafarge. When one of the manufacturing plants under her care suddenly failed, the impact rippled across many departments and customers across the region:

1. Tell us about a time you encountered a business crisis that was out of your hand. What difficult decisions you had to make?

When I was managing the supply chain function, one of the core machinery for manufacturing construction materials suddenly broke. It was impossible to salvage. As a leader covering the purchasing function, I had to quickly find a new shipment to replace the machine. But this machine was very specialized, and weighed many hundreds of kilos.

At the time, only a very small number of companies made this equipment, and they could only be found in Europe. Because of its weight, it was usually transported by ships, and must clear customs at the capital city and then transported by land slowly to the plant’s location 2,500km away. In other words, there seemed to be no way to replace this machine quickly. In fact, this whole process could have taken months.

2. During this difficult situation time, what were the steps you took to make the best out of a tough decision?

Since we were the only supplier of building materials in that region, many of our customers were panicking. In the construction industry, things have to move on as quickly as possible. So when committed supplies don’t arrive, lots of problems cascade down quickly to construction projects on-site. In order not to disrupt the market, I had to go think of all kinds of crazy solutions:

  1. Sending the machine by parts via a plane and reassembling them on site.
  2. Setting up pre-agreements for these machinery to be cleared in all the cities that the new machine would have needed to pass through.
  3. Tapping into all partners and friends that can help move things forward.
  4. Sourcing competitor’s supply or even semi-finished goods to tide through the shortage of our supplies.

Many internal departments had to be managed as well. We all had to be on the same page: What do we tell our customers? What do different teams need to bridge the gap and manage expectations? I split this problem into smaller tasks based on how teams were impacted, and prioritized accordingly.

Eventually while many projects were impacted, most were able to resume work and we retained most of our customers.

3. For businesses struggling today over Covid-19 and other industry-wide problems, what advice would you like to share to them?

Keep your mind open to new ideas, and communicate actively with your stakeholders. Run through your cost structures and find saving opportunities. Negotiate with your suppliers for delay payments, and if you have been a reliable payee, they will reciprocate. Problems like this often rely a lot from the collective experience of people from different departments to solve. Strong relationships with partners and colleagues will kick in heavily during times like this. You may even have to ask for difficult favours! And in turn in the future, they will need your help too. Finally, train and prepare your staff to bounce forward when this pandemic is over. Together, difficult problems can be overcome.

Singapore streets and businesses before the covid-19 crisis hit

Singapore streets and businesses before the covid-19 crisis hit

Lesson 3: A crisis can become your next big break

When that happened, many of my investors backed out. Instead of the 1.5Million I had to raise, I was only able to raise 100k. I was devastated.

Kelvin Sng is the director of Kelvin Sng Productions Pte Ltd. His company specialises in production, education and training for corporate organisations. One of the most critical moments in his business became a springboard for his company’s growth:

1. Tell us about a time you encountered a business crisis that was out of your hand. What difficult decisions you had to make?

1 year into my current business, I was raising money to produce my new feature film. Every film that hopes to get screened in Singapore needs support and approval from the government. I wanted to make a respectable representation of Singapore’s gangster scene and criminal history. I was getting traction with funding, hiring people and setting up many things to get this movie started. However that all stopped when the government decided not to fund this film.

When that happened, instead of the 1.5Million I had to raise, I was only able to raise 100k. I was devastated. There were several decisions I considered during this time, such as: shut things down, switch my customer base, or make a film of a different genre.

2. During this difficult situation time, what were the steps you took to make the best out of a tough decision?

I spoke with a lot of people. Friends, family members etc, trying to get some ideas on what I needed to do next. One of my friends gave me the idea that: instead of a full feature film, why not do a short film instead and make it into a good portfolio piece? And after consideration, this made a lot of sense. Raising more money at this stage was very difficult, and stretching 100k to a full movie would not make a very good one.

I proceeded to make the short film. It was during this time that I am most grateful to my long-time friends and family. They gave a lot of support to make this project work. I also had to negotiate with my actors and film crew on prices and salaries.

It was a very vulnerable, humbling time, and I learnt who among my peers were truly standing up for me.

On hindsight, this crisis was a blessing in disguise. I screened this film at several film festivals and the now defunct independent cinema Sinema Old School. This became an opportunity to meet lots of good people in this industry, who then opened the doors for me later on.

3. For businesses struggling today over Covid-19 and other industry-wide problems, what advice would you like to share to them?

If you ever feel lost in times like this, go back to why you started this business in the first place. Take the vision you had on where you wanted your business to be, and find new ways to fulfil that vision. It might be very uncomfortable, but if you are successful, this new change will empower you and make you stronger. Staying closed to new ideas will only guarantee failure.

Lesson 4: Stay calm. Realize that tough times will pass, and make sure your team feels safe

Instead of looking at the current situation today, I looked to what the situation would look like 30 days later. 90 days later. How would things change? Can all my employees be safe during and after this blows over?

Ismail Seif El Nasr is the chairman and CEO of Intermoda Group and its subsidary fashion brands such as Dockland and Polar Bear. Having 30 years in the textile industry, he recounted the time Egypt completely shut down:

1. Tell us about a time you encountered a business crisis that was out of your hand. What difficult decisions you had to make?

During the Egypt Revolution in Jan 2011, there was a lot of unrest and violence. Many places shut down for about 1.5 months, and the future was incredibly uncertain. During this time banks closed abruptly, and we had to act quickly during this period in order for our business to stay alive. Even if we had the money, we couldn’t access it, and at the time we didn’t know how long this lockdown would go on. In fact, that time was rather similar to the current covid-19 outbreak in many ways.

As you can imagine, business essentially grounded to a halt. We had many immediate concerns to address:

  1. what operations we could maintain that could tide us over this lockdown
  2. how to find cash to pay our staff, so that we can fire as little people as possible
  3. finding financial means to maintain our suppliers and vendors so that we would be ready when the country reopens.

2. During this difficult situation time, what were the steps you took to make the best out of a tough decision?

We began to look outward for other ways to ensure we could pay our staff and our vendors. But the main thing that helped was staying focused and calm. Instead of looking at the current situation today, I looked to what the situation would look like 30 days later. 90 days later. How would things change? Can all my employees be safe during and after this blows over?

By working alongside our team, we fortunately succeeded to find payments for everything: vendors, staff, rent, etc. In fact during this time our business culture of staying calm helped us work together, and be resourceful with the limited options we had.

This experience also helped us to combat today’s Covid-19 crisis. Even though we are a retail business and thus our sales are down considerably, we managed to shift quickly into a remote-heavy setup, and use annual leave whenever possible. My key focus was to make sure I can support my team, and not have to let them go during this time when we are most vulnerable.

3. For businesses struggling today over Covid-19 and other industry-wide problems, what advice would you like to share to them?

During a crisis, there are two things we should focus on:

1. Making sure our teams feel safe financially. Whenever possible, try to find all ways to keep them. Reassure them that this situation is only temporary, and we will survive together. If we can take care of our staff, then they can take care of the business.

2. Start being innovative in the way you run your business. People will continue to spend, but how and what they will spend on will change. Every crisis is an absolutely new opportunity to reach and win customers over. It gives us many problems, but also breathing room to look into innovation and creative solutions.

Always remember that even this pandemic today will soon become history and life will go on. This is how we should respond to our circumstances.

Final Thoughts

We hope their lessons can inspire you to stay strong in these covid-19 headwinds. Let us not lose hope during a crisis, and emerge stronger than ever when all of this ends.


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