THE LAST time Nelson Loh and Terence Loh were on stage was at last year’s high-profile Education Benefit Gala charity fund raiser featuring former US President Barack Obama. The event was sponsored by the Novenal Global Lifecare Group that the two cousins co-founded a decade ago.
While such events will be a rarity for a while to come, the two investors have risen fast with some shrewd investments in consumer technology and healthcare. Novena Global Lifecare Group is an integrated medical healthcare and aesthetic platform with over 250 locations worldwide.
While expanding the business, the Lohs are actively engaged in social causes.
They give a low-down on how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected their business and industry.
STORM-ASIA: What are your contingency plans for business disruption?
TERENCE LOH: Our business was founded 10 years ago on disruption. We saw how aesthetics was delivered in an inefficient way, and lacking in transparency. Today, with over 2,000 staff globally and as one of Asia’s largest medical healthcare groups, we continue to look at ways of disrupting ourselves. We have always been forward thinking as an organisation and looked at many ways of innovating whether it is in the Internet of Things (IoT) or in Robotics and Artificial Intelligence. We were probably the first in our industry to combine analytics and social media to assist our frontline staffers in their conversion of customers on our own operating system.
STORM-ASIA: Were you prepared for something as widespread as COVID-19?
NELSON: I don’t believe anyone in hindsight would have foreseen a pandemic. No businesses are really spared from the impact in this situation, but the important thing to do is to stay positive and be nimble so that business can be quick to respond to any changes. In pockets of our businesses where its more human dependent, this pandemic brought about some changes faster as our people had to adapt to new ways of conducting business and accelerated their digitisation learning curve.
STORM-ASIA: Are you able to continue your business?
TERENCE : Any non-essential medical business in parts of the world where we operate were not encouraged or had to cease operations. We saw a slowdown in health screening and specialty service areas like basic dental care and aesthetics. However, our day surgery centres were able to stay open for much needed procedures for our sick patients.
We also had to shift our frontline staff where operations were affected to focus on e-commerce and supply logistics. There was also pick up in teleconsultations which had a slower adoption rate in the past by some of our medical professionals.
STORM-ASIA: How long can you maintain your business activities while countries are under lockdown?
TERENCE: The good news is this is not the first lockdown we are experiencing as an organisation. The experience we gained in China allowed us to better prepare for the subsequent circuit breaker which we are currently experiencing.
Since January, we shifted our thinking to focus on what is mission critical to keep our company strong and what is good to have and once we figured that out, then it was just down to execution.
Where services were affected, we switched our focus to products and dramatically changed the way we sell and incentivise for selling.
Our medical supplies business, which in the past mostly supplied internally, is now a supplier to governments, hospitals and large organisations worldwide.
STORM-ASIA: What adjustments will you have to make to your business when restrictions are lifted?
TERENCE: Whether or not restrictions are lifted, adjustments have already been made. A leaner and more productive organisation has emerged out of this pandemic and this will be one of the guiding principles that will carry us through to the next phase of our organisation’s growth. At Novena we always embrace technology and in the foreseeable low-touch economy and less-trusting society, technology will have an even bigger role in our organisation.
STORM-ASIA: Do you think all your suppliers would still be in business?
NELSON: I would wish everyone to still be in business. It’s not an easy time and businesses are struggling. Whether as businesses or individuals, mindsets have to change to continue being relevant. Quality is even more important as safety needs to meet a higher bar of standard to stay in business.
STORM-ASIA: Do you expect operating costs to rise?
NELSON: It is highly likely that a lot of business plans are completely redundant and the effects of the pandemic will have a paralyzing impact. I think it’s even more important than ever to reduce any unnecessary operating costs.
Focus on cash conversion cycles and reducing inventories to free up cash. Improve ways to deliver product or services and billing cycles.
Focus only on what is profitable and remove what is non-core if its contribution does not justify its existence. Labour efficiency will be the next to look at as well, to ensure healthier margins. Given the remote paradigm we are faced with currently, we should be focused on our priorities and this will give us a good indication of how we can better manage the business as we reopen.
STORM-ASIA: Do you think your customer base would be smaller, be the same, or grow after restrictions are lifted?
TERENCE: My favourite line growing up is “He who doesn’t grow, grows smaller.” We are not waiting till the restrictions are lifted to grow our customer base. On the contrary we have taken an offensive approach at this time, to grow our database despite the restrictions, by looking for new ways to market and position ourselves. We have taken this period to strengthen B2B partnerships while also creating new products and services to be launched for a previously untapped market.
STORM-ASIA: How long will it take for your industry to normalise?
NELSON: What we have been talking about is getting ready for a new normal. Until there is clarity of how to deal with this invisible enemy, it is hard to imagine anything being the same. Even essential services need to adapt to new methods of delivering their services and products, much less the non-essentials.
All businesses need to rethink the way things are being done now instead of waiting for things to normalise, by then there may be no business to speak of.
STORM-ASIA: How will you prepare your business should another pandemic occur?
TERENCE: Not everyone has the right mindset to deal with a pandemic — a lot suffer from hubris, are a one-trick pony, or become the deer in the headlights. We need to make sure we have even more of the right people and we will be ready, come what may.
STORM-ASIA: What has been the most significant lesson you have learnt from this pandemic?
NELSON: I think this situation will hopefully make everyone realise the world is one and we are more connected to each other than we can ever imagine. This is a global problem and will require all stakeholders (governments, institutional bodies, corporates and every single human being) to come together and work as one.
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