Tommy Phun of Eng Hup Shipping says that the company’s objective is to become the top regional maritime solutions provider focusing on the latest technology.
Tommy Phun, the scion of the family-owned marine service company Eng Hup Shipping, recalls the time he spent on ships as a kid, being taken to the engine and wheelhouse rooms by the long-serving captain. This instilled in him a passion for the maritime. Incorporating into the business when completing his degree in business management at Singapore Management University was a natural progression.
“My grandfather was a boatman so I grew up hearing many stories of him at sea, and I spent most of my childhood onboard vessels… running along ports and rivers with my sister. It was like our playground. I was inspired very early to be part of the maritime industry.”
He began his journey in the industry before many of his colleagues. In the days of his military service and onwards, he was working on a proposal to the company to buy an existing shipyard. This venture continued until the time he graduated from university. “The company wanted to buy a shipyard to have our own base, especially for seafarers onboard our vessels. I was assigned to the project. It was very challenging and stressful because I knew nothing about how to do a business plan, how even to do modeling and speak to partners, clients and vendors. It took me a long time to learn the ropes, but I was fortunate to have the right team as well. We had to present our proposal to the directors of EDB, JTC and at that time Spring Singapore.”
The idea was realized by acquiring Bee Sin Shipyard in 2012. “Bee Sin means a lot to me, because I played quite a big role in it from the beginning.”
Phun Director of Eng Hup Shipping and Bee Sin Shipyard. Eng Hup counts its origin in the 1950s. However, it was founded in 1986 by Thomas Phun, his father. Thomas Phun, who is the director of management. Phun’s mother, Justina Lim, is the director, and his younger sister Lyn is the head of corporate services. At present, Phun drives the group’s efforts in three main areas likely to be transformational – automation, digitalization, and decarbonisation. One of the most critical aspects of the third is the electrification of vessels.
Initiatives in these regions are poised to cause waves throughout the marine industry that is usually static and nestled in the past and are expected to increase Singapore’s competitive edge on the global maritime stage.
“We’re at the stage of strategic transformation. Our goal over the next 5 to 10 years is to become a leading regional maritime solutions provider powered by innovation. Maritime has been transforming over the last couple of years. With the support of government agencies, many companies like ours are turning to technology to increase the efficiency of our operations and processes. Many of our systems used to be manually intensive, but digitisation has helped us to reduce time and effort on simple tasks.”
Eng Hup’s work is gaining recognition. The Maritime Port Authority recently named phun as a digitalization ambassador. He will share the top practices regarding what technology can be leveraged to benefit the industry. In 2017, Eng Hup also joined an alliance led by Keppel Offshore and Marine to assist in accelerating the electrification of the maritime sector. The company is currently retrofitting its existing passenger ferry to be completely electric powered as part of an initiative to build Singapore’s first electric vessel supply chain before 2025.
Eng Hup’s path in the direction of sustainability and digitalization isn’t without its challenges. For instance, in digitalization, Phun says the company’s goal was to create an all-encompassing control screen that would show all of the fleets at a glance and display the status of maintenance and give directions as well as other instructions.
“But the system didn’t work, because we made the mistake of biting off more than we could chew. This taught us a very valuable lesson. Instead of attempting to create a whole new digital system from scratch, which would be costly and time-consuming, we changed our approach to tackle low-hanging fruit and take it one small step at a time.”
The low-hanging fruit is the procedure of booking vessels that can now be completed electronically using an application. Checking in passengers on ferry boats is now also done with facial scanners instead of manually recording the passenger’s details. Also, there is predictive maintenance, which allows it to predict breakdowns.
“Behind the many successful digitalisation stories that we hear, there are many companies who start the process but give up along the way. Companies need to understand that digitalisation is not a magic wand. It’s a long-term process which requires patience and perseverance before we can reap the benefits.”
The electrification of maritime vessels also comes with issues. In contrast to electric vehicles that are already in commercial use and are in use, we are still new in the search for electrification in the maritime industry. Infrastructure for charging and energy storage and strategies for lengthy sea trips are just a few issues to be tackled. “We have a fleet of over 70 vessels. Not all can be electrified; we’ll need to do this in stages… The supply chain must be ready for it.”
Electrification begins its journey in pleasure craft designed for passengers and leisure ferries for short trips. “For the waters, the charging infrastructure is an issue everyone is trying to solve. As an extreme example, container ships that sail for the US or Japan – there is no way to electrify them because the energy requirement is so huge … That’s why we start with a passenger ferry as a way for us to develop competencies and a track record, and to allow clients to see a workable solution.”
The company is one of the early participants in the LowCarbonSG program, which offers tools and advice on the measurement and monitoring carbon emissions. It also works with its R&D partners to create methods to electrify its fleet. “We’re hoping to build a wider Singapore ecosystem to cater to the increasing demand for green shipping solutions.”
Its search for sustainable development and ever-growing levels of digitalization is proving to be a part of the firm’s foundation, particularly its mission. Both goals are helping to bridge the traditional divide between mature and younger employees, For instance. Sustainability is becoming an attractive option for young people who want careers with an impact. “Young people are very good with technology, and mature employees have 20 to 30 years of experience, which is invaluable. It’s interesting when we can bring the two groups together.”
“The younger generation believe very strongly in the green movement. Those in university and polytechnic want to feel they’re making a difference; they want to save the environment. (Sustainability) gives them a bigger vision and that’s what we aim for in a company.”
The group is anticipating the return of economic activity following the COVID pandemic. While fighting Covid, the group had several projects shut down. The company, however, did not reduce its workforce to more than 200. The focus on digitalization came as the silver lining. Work on repairs. For example, it was completed remotely through video calls. “Covid required us to adjust and evolve and improved the productivity of our staff and forced them to acquire new abilities. It helped us get into an advantage.”
Phun is looking at his grandfather’s death as a role model. Phun Boon Yan came from Jinmen, an island in the middle of Taiwan. He sailed across the South China Sea to Singapore and was a boatman along the Singapore River. He tells a tale that his mother told him of Phun, who decided to remain on his unsheltered wooden tongkang in Singapore, seated with the help of a plastic sheet over items of his customers to ensure that the things were safe. “What I have learned from these stories is that he had an indomitable spirit against all odds and unwavering dedication to his work. This inspires me to push the boundaries with resilience continuously.”
Eng Hup promotes fundamental values like respect, responsibility, trust, and determination. In addition, Phun layers other dimensions. “I believe strongly in incorporating traditional values into the company, such as grit and the perseverance always to move forward, and humility to always remain teachable. And to have a purpose far larger than ourselves. I believe this will guide us to do business in the right way and will leave a lasting legacy for future generations.”