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Businessman George Goh on how sincerity, hard work earned him millions

Well known for bringing Harvey Norman to Singapore, George Goh is also a presidential hopeful.

Potential presidential candidate George Goh greets supporters at the Elections Department in Singapore.
Potential presidential candidate and businessman George Goh greets supporters at the Elections Department in Singapore. (PHOTO: REUTERS/Edgar Su) (Edgar Su / reuters)

SINGAPORE – He may be a multi-millionaire but Ossia International chairman and presidential hopeful George Goh still drives himself – and his family – around.

The 63-year-old relishes the time he gets to spend talking with his children when he fetches them from point to point.

"The other day, my daughter went to Korea at 5am. I sent her to the airport," he recalled, during a recent interview with Yahoo Finance Singapore. "Other times, I pick them up from school. I have even brought them to meeting points to deliver items they sold on Carousell!" Goh wants to connect with them, and build strong and lasting connections.

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"No driver. I want to engage with my children. They will talk to me and tell me lots of things that they may not otherwise share," Goh, who has four children, shared.

It is this sincerity to forge a human connection that he believes has in part made him a successful entrepreneur.

He recalled the time when he was trying to win a contract to represent Italian brand Benetton in the region. Goh had travelled to Italy to meet with the Benetton family and he recalled that they didn't quiz him on technicalities or specifics of his business plan, but they had a "conversation".

"It is not about how smart you are. It's about sincerity and convincing them that you would treat their intellectual property well, that you are sincere in helping them," Goh said. "They must trust you."

The Benetton family ended up awarding him distribution rights to six territories in the region including Singapore, Malaysia, China and Indonesia.

Goh is the chairman of Ossia International, an SGX-listed company with a market capitalisation of about S$46 million. In Singapore, he is best known as the founder of Harvey Norman Ossia, which operates retail outlets distributing consumer electronics and furniture under the Australian brand. Goh is also the founder and chairman ITG International, which was listed on the mainboard SGX in 2000. According to his personal website, one of ITG's main projects is a property development investment in China, which has a gross developmental value of S$1 billion. He was also the founder of VGO Corporation, known for the World of Sports brand.

On 4 August – when he submitted his eligibility papers for the Presidential Election – Goh divulged that his group of five companies, which he declined to name, has a combined shareholders' equity of over S$1.5 billion over three years.

Value of working hard

Besides being sincere, Goh said hard work is still vital. It wasn't an easy road to success for Goh, who at 16 years old had to drop out of school to work as a sweeper in a shoe-manufacturing factory to support his family. He learnt how how to make shoes – "I was good at making the bottom part," he shared – and at 22, founded his own small shoe factory for S$5,000, which he cobbled together with his siblings and a partner.

"We did pre-orders. When we received orders for 20 or 30 pairs, we would have the money to buy the materials to produce the shoes. After we delivered our orders, we would get more orders, and so on," Goh recalled. "We didn't take a salary at first and worked 16 to 18 hours a day."

Goh and his partners carried on and thanks to their growing networks, business savviness and some luck, they managed to pivot their business by 1987 to one that traded and distributed imported designer shoes from Italy and Spain. These included famous brands such as Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. And eventually, the business expanded to include sporting goods, luxury fashion, and sports and outdoor products.

Nothing beats hard work. From Warren Buffett, Jack Ma, Li Ka Shing and George Goh, (we are) same type of people. (We) put in 16 to 18 hours every day.George Goh

Goh has said that over the past four decades, he has owned more than 100 companies, including five which he listed on the stock exchanges of Singapore and the United Kingdom. Along with two other companies he acquired which were also publicly listed, they have a collective market capitalisation value of S$3.15 billion, he said.

Checks by Singapore publication Today show that Goh currently holds 57 directorships and other positions in companies registered in Singapore.

Importance of diversity and talent

Besides knowing how to pivot and strategise well, Goh emphasised the importance of knowing one's weaknesses and bringing in partners and talented staff to strengthen the company overall.

"Bring in a partner who can help you in the areas that you're not strong in. Don't go it alone. What you know is only a part of what it takes to be successful. If you're not equipped on your own, get a partner," he advised. "Without diverse talent, you cannot do it."

He shared that when he started making shoes, his partner "made the top part of the shoe" and "we sold many pairs that way; he making the top and I, the bottom".

A young George Goh (left) at his shoe shop, which distributed and sold well known luxury brands. (PHOTO: George Goh Media Team)
A young George Goh (left) at his shoe shop, which distributed and sold well known luxury brands. (PHOTO: George Goh Media Team)

The savvy businessman has also been known to reward his people well.

Goh recalled a managing director he had in Hong Kong, where he bought over and ran a company for 10 years. "We gave her 20 per cent equity and when we sold the company for S$600 million, her share was S$120 million," Goh shared, adding that he was more than satisfied with his resulting share.

Giving back to Singapore

While Goh has certainly met people of diverse backgrounds and abilities in his decades-long career, he shared that, like the management of a company, everyone needs to know and play their part in the growth of a country like Singapore.

"In a company, you have the management set (for instance, the CEO or managing director), maybe the shareholders are part of it. And then you have the executive and independent directors on the board," Goh said. "In our country, we have the judiciary, executive and the President. All these functions have their roles and together, we build a good foundation for our country."

Ultimately, especially for aspiring entrepreneurs, "nothing beats hard work", Goh advised. "From Warren Buffett, Jack Ma, Li Ka Shing and George Goh, (we are) same type of people. (We) put in 16 to 18 hours every day."

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