Divide and conquer: Rob Wall, MD of partition experts JEB International, sees things differently
As an ambitious 18-year-old, Rob Wall was already clear about a few things. In particular, he wanted a career which allowed him to work hard, call the shots, and not feel hemmed in by unnecessary rules and hierarchies.
So, nine years later, when the chance came to be part of a management buyout and then run the business, the challenge may have seemed daunting, but he definitely wasn’t going to pass it up.
“I didn’t have a problem with authority, but with misdirected authority in a rigid environment where people were telling me what to do when I thought it wasn’t right,” says the managing director of JEB International. “I always felt I looked at things a bit differently.”
The company he now leads specialises in office partition systems and glass walls, while also representing a number of iconic furniture brands. It has a growing network of offices and distributorships around Asia, is pushing into new markets in East Africa and Europe, and has expanded into exteriors and manufacturing its own range of designs.
Wall’s current role gives him scope to be entrepreneurial and have hands-on management involvement, guiding others and keeping the business firmly on track. It is a combination which suits him down to the ground, making full use of his training, experience, creativity streak and underlying determination to make things happen.
“When still at school, I worked on building sites and for landscape architects, which was something physical and tangible and gave me a steady income,” says Wall.
On graduating in 1992, initial interviews made it plain a regular finance job was not for him. Fortuitously, though, Wall grew up in Perth and, shortly after graduating with a degree in finance, accounting and business law from the University of Western Australia, he met a businessman who was then starting JEB Asia Group. Without hesitation, he accepted an offer to be Singapore market rep with a brief to increase sales of Australia-manufactured lightweight concrete blocks.
He began a few months before his 21st birthday, had some basic training at the factory, and then simply had to jump in at the deep end.
“At first, I would tag along to appointments with the local distributor; I wanted to go home, but pride wouldn’t let me,” he says. “Soon, though, I found I liked talking to clients, explaining the advantages of lightweight construction, for high-rise buildings, and I had confidence in the product.”
Landing a couple of big contracts for Singapore’s Inland Revenue Tower and with a Housing and Development Board developer was a major coup. But when the latter planned to take the factory’s full export quota and to negotiate directly, change was inevitable.
Changes came in the form of a switch in emphasis to interior partitions, a 1996 decision to move to Hong Kong and, three years later, a buyout of JEB Asia, in tandem with a business partner. “When I got to Hong Kong, I was chomping at the bit. I could really get out and go for it, make the city my own. Then, at 27, I was suddenly an owner of the business.”
A good understanding of practical construction methods and the chutzpah to make cold calls to leading architects and interior designers obviously helped. But even with little direct competition in supplying items like glass walls and aluminium frames, success was by no means guaranteed.
“At the start, we had to scrape, beg and borrow, but we never went to the banks,” Wall says. “We didn’t have a credit line or safety net. It was our money, so we couldn’t blow a big amount or act irresponsibly.”
Another challenge early on was getting good recruits. “When your business is small, people inherently feel there is more risk and they are less psychologically secure. If I could go back, I would have hired better people earlier, but now, with 100-plus employees, we are an attractive proposition and an interesting organisation to work for.”
Noting that preferences for office design tend to ebb and flow, Wall believes in the principle of flexibility and “horses for courses”. “Open plan works for some businesses, but you must provide enough places to work as a team and areas where people can find solace and focus on the task at hand.”
Branching out further, he has started another company doing exterior work, including balustrades and facades for retail outlets.
There are evolving opportunities to work with hotels, restaurants and universities. And with new architectural finishes, such as vinyl which looks like steel and can be wrapped around a column, or rose petals, grass and wheat used as wall panelling, there is ample scope for innovation.
“I see a new product and ask myself how to use it,” Wall says. “That is an exciting part of the business. I also like creating a corporate culture where individuals feel happy in their jobs and show others respect. I don’t believe in hierarchies or politics, but think that good people like to do business with other good people.
Always keen on sports, Wall now surfs, paddles a surf ski around Deep Water Bay, and makes time for regular gym and yoga sessions.
“I feel good when I’m fit and I operate a lot better,” he says. “I’m in a good spot personally right now. I have enough control of my time to work when I need to and can put all my creative and problem-solving ability into the business. At the moment, that means giving thought and design energy to developing a completely soundproof interior sliding door.”
Rob Wall’s advice to entrepreneurs.
Ace your accounts “You must be financially responsible. That means controlling costs, taking care of the top line, driving sales and ensuring the books balance.”
Bend to the bottom line “If an enterprise is not profitable, it is not worth anything and doesn’t make sense.”
Spread the news “Momentum is really important, so don’t get bogged down wondering what to do. Get out and tell people what you are doing.”
Lead consistently “Always make sure you show up for an appointment and for work. People need to know they can rely on you; trust is such a big part of getting any business off the ground.”
Tap into your network “Whenever I felt stuck, I would pull out five to 10 business cards and call each person. It always sparked ideas and new momentum.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Divide and conquer.