Hubert Burda Media

Twenty/20 Vision

Ezra Holdings’ LIONEL LEE has steered a proudly Singaporean firm into one of the world’s largest integrated offshore service providers.

Although holding company Ezra and its operating brand Emas were founded by KS Lee, your father, I’m sure you could have chosen to do anything professionally. Why join him?
He founded the company in 1992, when I was still at university studying International Business. Never did I once think I would join him but ended up doing so anyway after graduation in 1995. I grew up watching him at work. I could see things that I felt could become more efficient operationally as well as financially. So I proposed a couple of ideas to him and he said: “That’s quite interesting. Why don’t you go give it a try?” That’s how I started. Looking back, given the same opportunity, I wouldn’t have done anything different.
What is it like working with family, a father, particularly?
You will have your own views on work and he, having been in the industry for 45 years, is obviously going to think, no, you are not going to teach me how to run the company. But between working for your parents and working for somebody else professionally, I think parents are more willing to live with a lot of faults that you have. But I grew up learning the business from one of the best, so that was the advantage I had.
Did you use to follow him to work as a child?
As a kid, every weekend, there’d be barbeques on a ship, so we’d spend hours on board with the crew. The guys spend so much time at sea with nobody to talk to, so the first person they see, they will want to talk to you and tell you everything about the ship. Maybe it’s part of the European culture; they’ll tell you, this is the bow thruster, this is how I manoeuvre the ship, this is for what we do offshore…some 20 years later, whatever they told me all those years ago actually started making sense.
What were the sort of challenges faced by the company in its early days?
Number one, you couldn’t get good talent. Everyone had to wear maybe three hats and basically do everything yourself. I was the operations manager, technical manager, conversion manager, business development manager…the whole lot. Whatever you could think of. So at certain points, you become inefficient because you are unable to attract the right talent, unable to bring in the right capital and so on. But being small as a company, you are very nimble. You can survive things a lot easier.
In your acceptance speech, you also mentioned that you faced difficulty in finding financing, until, of course, DBS came along.
I remember in 1999, when we were putting together the first deal for Lewek Falcon (Emas’s first vessel which signalled its transformation into a ship-owner and operator) and I must have visited 20-30 banks and we just couldn’t get financing, until finally we did. It was tough when we started out. It wasn’t a bed of roses. That’s why we feel that the local banks ought to help local companies grow overseas. If it weren’t for our bank partners, we would never have been able to have the kind of global footprint we have today. It is also through the determination of our Asian values and our senior management that made us grow to where we are.
Ezra posted record revenue of US$1.5 billion. Your current order book is about $2.5 billion and Emas Offshore Limited now is secondary listed on the SGX. What still drives you? What is your dream?
I think we have built the company to a size we can be happy with. So now, we are in the process of driving efficiency because typically, when you grow to a certain size, you become a little bit complacent in how you do things. By becoming more efficient, we will also be able to pass on savings to our clients and that will help us to win more work. So going forward, we not only want to be more efficient in operating our assets, we want to become more efficient in engineering and we will improve these in the next two to three years.
So the dream isn’t necessarily to, say, become the number one subsea player in the world?
I think what we want to do is deliver good returns to our shareholders — that’s what’s important. Being number one and not making money doesn’t actually get you anywhere!
After being in business for so long, what would you say are the necessary traits a leader and entrepreneur needs to have?
What these 20 years have taught me is that you need to take smart, calculated risks. You cannot hope and pray that luck is going to come along and carry you through because that will not happen. If you are not the sort to push the envelope to the next level, it’ll be very difficult for you. But you must be ready to tell yourself that if you fail, you will need to start all over again. And that’s the difficult step for some people to take.
And what are you like as a leader to your colleagues and staff?
Again, as a leader you need to be willing to take risks. You’re the only one who will be able to give a final yes or no. So I think the issue that I constantly face is getting in the right people who may one day be able to replace me. I’ve told my team many times that if there is anybody who’s better than me, this job is theirs. I don’t have to be the one to lead the team — the best person for the job should do the job.
Do you actively mentor people?
We did initially when the company was smaller and I had more time. A few of them are still with us and they understand how the company thinks and operates, and don’t stray from our norms. That was good but as the company grew, we didn’t have enough time to groom the secondary managers. So that is one of my heartaches.
When you do find that successor, what exactly will you go off and do?
Well, we’ve always had ambitions in other areas. We’ll still be in oil and gas; I don’t think we’ll depart from where we come from. And I just feel that we have many other areas where we can spend more time on and develop new things for the company again.