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New Success Stories - TAN CHIN HWEE

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From Regional Financial Controller to Business Advisor for Fast-Growing Companies

Few Singaporean professionals have had the opportunities and exposure that Tan Chin Hwee has had. In the span of a 36-year career in the manufacturing and aerospace industries, this senior finance executive has worked with Fortune 100 companies, such as General Electric and Honeywell and has managed their financial operations across the Asia Pacific with turnovers of over US$1billion.

Fresh out of university at age 24, Chin Hwee’s joined General Electric Singapore as a cost specialist. Five years later, he was transferred to General Electric’s Aviation division where he performed outstandingly and became the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of the aviation plant at the relatively young age of 31. However, the work was strenuous. “Those were the days before computerization really took off. We had a very lean finance department to run a US$200 million business”, said Chin Hwee. The shortage of resources forced Chin Hwee to work smart and continually find novel ways, such as Six Sigma solutions, to increase productivity, reduce costs and generate cash for the business. Over the years, he became well versed with every aspect of the business, from manufacturing to servicing, regulatory requirements and human resources.

Although headhunters regularly knocked on his door, Chin Hwee chose to stay with General Electric for a good 23 years before further developing his career at another company. Even then, it was only because his former boss and mentor, who was then with Honeywell, asked him to go over to help. Chin Hwee was appointed CFO of the operations in Singapore where he quickly achieved productivity gains by streamlining the finance operations. At 49, Chin Hwee was promoted to become Honeywell’s Regional Financial Controller for the Asia Pacific covering 15 plants and more than 60 finance staff in China, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Australia.

Facing a career and life crossroad 
When he turned 60 , Chin Hwee was asked if he would consider moving to Shanghai to continue with his regional financial control responsibilities. Although he was grateful that the company continued to value his contributions, Chin Hwee did not want to uproot to another country. However, as his company was moving most of its regional operations out of Singapore, there was no alternative role for him. “This became a major turning point in my career as well as my life,” he shared. “I had worked for almost 40 years and that was what I knew. I had learnt so much in business finance all these years and I felt that I had a lot of experience to share and to help others in their businesses. Chin Hwee also had to deal with the prospect that he would go from a healthy regular salary to no income. “Even though I had built up a nest egg for retirement, I was not prepared to dip into it yet. I still wanted to be productive and draw an income”.

The idea of retiring was quickly discarded. Instead, Chin Hwee started making preparations even before he left Honeywell. He signed up for courses at the Singapore Institute of Directors to learn about how to be an independent member of a board of directors. He networked with executives he met at his courses to understand what kind of financial advisory services small and medium enterprise companies were in need of. A friend also introduced him to Silver Spring.

Advisor to younger business owners 
After leaving his company, Chin Hwee found it difficult to secure an independent directorship appointment, which he had hoped for. Instead of feeling despondent, he took up an offer that Silver Spring identified for him, to work part-time as the CFO for a start-up technology company and consultancy. Two months into the role, he had made such a good impression on the company that word spread. Silver Spring also put Chin Hwee in touch with another SME that needed finance consultancy work and he clinched a project to be their business advisor in transforming their finance system.

Today, at 61, Chin Hwee, works 3 to 4 days a week and spends the rest of his time with his family and hobbies. “This is an ideal arrangement for me”, he explains. “Having worked with big companies all my life, I am enjoying the refreshing change of flexible hours and working with smaller businesses in an advisory capacity. It is very fulfilling to be able to use what I have picked up in my nearly 40-year career to help these start-ups avoid unnecessary mistakes and also achieve more by working smart. At the same time, I am constantly updating myself in the finance industry”. His encouragement to mature PMEs is to keep their craft relevant by continually learning and be willing to try working in environments that may be different from what they have been used to.

 “I had not realized that there are different opportunities for me to continue working until Silver Spring introduced me to these businesses. When others see that you can add value, they will respond positively”, Chin Hwee concludes.

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Guest Sunday, 19 September 2021
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