Perfect Solution

by Anton D. Javier
Photography by Chino Sardea, assisted by Tracey Nguyen
Styling by CK Koo
Grooming by Nikki Fu using Shu Uemura and Amos Professional
20 Jan 2021

Eric Leong, Managing Director and co-founder of Mlion Corporation and winner of EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2020 - Industrial Solutions, is on a mission to reinvigorate the steel industry by breaking away from a one-size-fits-all approach

Before he found success in the steel industry, Eric Leong’s journey as an entrepreneur started on two wheels — literally. The 35-year-old Managing Director and co-founder of Mlion Corporation Pte Ltd, a foundation steel solution provider, is an avid cyclist and spotted an opportunity in the underserved BMX bicycle market a few years ago.

(Lead photo: Eric wears shirt, tie, blazer, and trousers from Brunello Cucinelli)

Eric wears T-shirt, jacket, and trousers from Z Zegna

“I started my first business while still in university. Being a cyclist myself, I found that there were very few shops servicing riders in Singapore and much of the gear and merchandise were overpriced,” Leong shares. “Together with a fellow rider, we contacted brands across Europe and the US, and imported them into Singapore.”

Whether it was inexperience or an overeagerness that clouded his vision, things unfortunately did not go as planned at the start. He admits, “We initially had no clue on logistics and freight forwarding. I remember when the first container of goods arrived, we didn’t even have a warehouse! I had no choice but to fill my home with bicycle gear.” Thankfully, this misstep turned out to be a valuable lesson that would soon be followed by success. “We sold the products online and also distributed them to shops. The traction was good and we were even running the local BMX competition for the Singapore Sports Council. I saw this opportunity as a valuable experience in terms of how retail should be done, in addition to managing cash flow. In the end, however, my university workload was starting to take its toll, so we found a suitable buyer and sold the business after two good years of running it.”    

(Related: Kenneth Goi's life lessons)


Steely Determination

You could say that rookie mistakes are now a thing of the past for Leong. Seasoned, confident, and focused, he is now in charge of providing strategic direction for Mlion, in addition to ensuring operation excellence across their offices throughout Southeast Asia.

“The company was established in 2011 and today, I manage a team of 40 staff and oversee expansion into new markets and product lines for the group. Being in a solutions company in an ever-changing market landscape, my role is to spot new niches in our market and find solutions for it. We undertake projects, such as construction of ports, jetties, bulk terminals, bridges, tunnels, and basement works. My experience has also allowed me to speak at conferences to share about our products and unique solutions, as well as educating engineers on how to implement them.”

While most bright 30-somethings would dabble in sexier fields like finance and tech, or take a leap of faith and dip their feet into the start-up life, life had other plans for Leong. “After graduating as a mechanical engineer, I knew doing pure engineering work was not exactly my forte. I took a completely different path and joined McDonald’s as a management associate and learned all about running a restaurant chain. One day, a family friend who was working in a steel company had a vacant sales position and asked if I was interested to join. I thought to myself, ‘If I can sell burgers, I could sell steel as well!’”

“I felt that there could be a different approach to selling steel, which was what prompted me to start Mlion Corporation.”

In that role, Leong learned the tricks of the trade, but his vision of how a company should be run did not align with the management ideals of the company he was in. Instead of leaving, calling it a day, and returning to something more to his liking, he decided to take matters into his own hands. “I felt that there could be a different approach to selling steel, which was what prompted me to start Mlion Corporation.”

Leong explains that steel is a traditional industry, “one which has never innovated in the past 40 years.” Therefore, his foray into the industry dominated by MNCs and starting a new company at the age of 26 was something very much unheard of.

“Many warned me of the risks. However, what I saw was that there were not enough young people coming into the industry and giving conglomerates a run for their money. I believed Mlion could add value to the market with a different concept and approach to selling. Instead of the market practice of stocking many items and keeping a large inventory, I believed that the future was in customization and by providing a solution for customers. I figured that if I could work with project owners and their consultants on their requirements for a project, I would be able to provide them with something that was tailored to their needs. That way, I could derive better margins than that of a typical ‘supermarket’ concept. Another aspect that sets us apart from our counterparts is that we work very closely with government organizations across the region. We educate and train engineers in using our products and how to effectively implement it for flood control or port upgrading.”

While Mlion is enjoying steady growth (the company grew from US$2 million revenue in the first year to US$64 million in 2018), Leong looks back at key challenges that have helped them get to where they are.

“I’m someone who loves a challenge and when someone tells me something is impossible, all the more I’d try to prove them wrong,” he reveals. “I remember undertaking a pioneer project in Hong Kong where we had to fabricate steel pipes with a special interlock for a tunneling project. The contractor underestimated the complexity and extreme accuracy required in order to make the installation work. After the initial delivery, which met the tender specification, we found that the method of installation required our pipes within a tolerance of 2mm over a distance of 30 meters long. Such accuracy is akin to watch making in terms of the scale of the endeavor. We had to scrap our entire delivery and re-fabricate the pipes all over again. I had to personally fly to Hong Kong and inspect the pipes and sit down with the contractors on figuring out the best solution. We eventually succeeded and the project was a success. This experience taught me many lessons. Customer service and trust is paramount in any business. By being present on site and addressing the problem with the customers, that gave the client the confidence to know that were partners in the project and will find a solution to solve the problem with them. Because of this experience, we learned how to fabricate more accurately. When Land Transport Authority wanted to embark on similar projects in Singapore, we were able to win six packages using similar technology and we were regarded as a specialist in this field.”


Up Close and Personal with Eric Leong

Eric wears shirt from Loro Piana and trousers from Z Zegna

Productivity Secrets
“I try to be on time and as organized as possible. Prior to COVID-19, I was traveling weekly and I found that the easiest way to save time is to sleep on flights. I seldom fly day flights as that would mean I would land in the afternoon and most of my day will be wasted. I prefer taking the overnight or red eye flights so that I can get a full day of work done and minimize time loss. I also try to nap on car rides so that I would feel more refreshed at my next meeting. When I am on the road, I also try to squeeze in a quick gym session to keep my energy levels high.”

Inspiration, Recuperation
“I draw inspiration from other industries like FMCG and other commodities that have innovated over the years. I try to learn from their ideas and see if we can apply that to our steel industry and in particular, Mlion. Over the years, the company has gone through many stressful periods. When that happens, I usually go for a long run to clear my mind and re-strategize to solve the problem.”

On Winning the EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2020 - Industrial Solutions
“Winning the award validates the hard work I’ve put into growing the company to where it is today. Often, people don’t realize the amount of hours and sleepless nights entrepreneurs sacrifice to help their company grow. Starting the business back then was no easy feat with the limited funds we had. We had to put in all our lifesavings in order for us to have the paid up capital to start. With the limited cash, we had to do everything ourselves. I remember my co-founder, Sean, and myself having to fly to our factories, inspect the steel, make sure they get loaded up onto trucks, and even get the customers to sign of the delivery slips. We had to learn and pick up financial terms and jargons on the fly. I was never brilliant in school, but I suppose that pushed me to work even harder. Having won the award, I hope I can inspire others to take the road less travelled, not give up, and to try their hands at entrepreneurship.”

Outside of Work
“I am happily married and a father of two amazing kids — an energetic 7-year-old boy and a sweet 5-year-old girl. On weekends, I enjoy running, a game of golf, or tennis. As an engineer, I also appreciate the mechanics of cars and motorbikes, and enjoy taking them out for a spin.”