Rachel Wong’s successful turnaround of her indebted engineering firm proves that perseverance is key to achieving lasting success.
The head of an engineering business is commonly presumed to be the domain of men. Rachel Wong’s high heels and indomitable drive however showed what it takes to break stereotypical glass ceilings. As the managing director of Marunda Utama Engineering, a local firm that provides marine and industrial sectors with equipment, maintenance, ship husbandry and repair services, Rachel oversees all aspects of the company, which counts the US Navy as one of its main clients.
Born into an impoverished family, her climb to the top was far from granted. But Rachel’s story is a powerful reminder that in the face of adversity, one is usually faced with two options – give up or keep going. While giving up may be the easier option, defying the odds teaches an invaluable lesson in resilience.
A Rough Start
The youngest of three siblings, life began on a rocky note for Rachel and her family. To make ends meet, her mother worked as an amah at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH), washing and ironing doctors’ uniforms. Their home was a rented room above a coffeeshop. Describing the less than ideal circumstances of their lodging, Rachel shares, “Our landlord would shut off electricity by 8pm. We often had our dinner in candlelight. Rats would be running around everywhere.”
Eventually, the family moved into a small unit in the TTSH staff quarters where their neighbours were all fellow amahs at the hospital. “This was the kind of environment I grew up in. Mum had to make a living and could not be around us all the time. So we learnt how to be independent,” she says matter-of-factly.
But even at a tender age, Rachel’s enterprising spirit was evident. Determined to contribute to the family income, she made ice popsicles which she sold to friends and neighbours. “We collected only a few cents but we were so happy,” she recalls, as the meagre collections afforded Rachel and her siblings meals in school, instead of the leftover bread they packed from home.
As the managing director of an engineering firm, Rachel (far right) has proven what it takes to break stereotypical glass ceilings.
From Hairdressing To Engineering
With the family struggling to put food on the table, Rachel was determined to enter the workforce straight after completing her O-levels. “In our teenage years, we all have our own hopes and dreams. Everyone wants to be ‘somebody’. I wanted to be ‘somebody’ too, although I did not know exactly what that ‘somebody’ was,” she shares.
At the beginning of her career, Rachel dabbled in modelling and worked as a hairdresser for six years. “Those days, hairdressing was considered a glamorous job. I loved it because I got to meet new people every day,” she says. But despite her love for the job, Rachel soon realised that change was imminent. “I earned only a couple hundred dollars. How could I survive? It was too little for me to provide for my mum and siblings,” she shares.
Opportunity eventually came knocking in 1984 when an Indonesian friend mentioned that her father was looking for a Singaporean partner to set up an engineering firm here. With no expectations, Rachel met him. “When he interviewed me, I did not think that I would join the business. I knew nothing about engineering and was not a very good student. But I said to myself, there are many opportunities for learning besides going to school. What did I have to lose? I may or may not succeed, but if I seize this opportunity, it could be a valuable experience.”
The decision paid off. Marunda Utama Engineering was established in 1985 and at just 21, Rachel was named director and co-founder of the company. Her role consisted of translating documents for the founder who spoke very little English, driving him around for meetings and sending telexes. But soon enough, her duties expanded to that of negotiator, dealer and purchaser.
The world of engineering was all very new to Rachel. “We were dealing with power-pump engine generators. I had no idea what that was,” she laughs. “But I was very determined to learn. I would either flip through books or manuals, talk to people, or do my own research. My business partner also taught me everything step by step,” she shares.
Eventually, engineering terms came to Rachel at the snap of her fingers. But it was not long until everything came crashing down.
Mountain Of Debt
An over-ambitious leadership had led to many decisions that were detrimental to the company, and it soon became evident that finances were in bad shape. Concerned about appearances, Rachel’s business partner rented a massive 30,000 sq ft warehouse in Jurong to serve as the company’s office. “The office had over 100 parking lots, when total staff headcount amounted to only around 20. Rental was a killer,” Rachel sighs. “He also ordered a huge amount of stocks from our principals that we could not pay for on time. We managed to scrape by for a few years but I soon realised that the business model was just not sustainable.”
The company was soon saddled with SG$1.5 million in debt. Her partner took off, leaving Rachel to deal with the repercussions. Yet, she bears no grudges. “I do not blame him. He was not a conman. It was just a series of bad decisions that did not work out,” she insists.
Rachel was at a pivotal crossroad in her career. Now that she was alone, with no assets and hardly any money, she could take the easy way out and shut down the company, or face up to crushing debt. “Creditors were knocking on my doors, asking me to pay up. How could I throw in the towel? I am not that kind of person. My parents always taught me to earn a decent living, to never cheat or lie. I did not want to disappoint them. I had allowed myself to be in that situation, so I had to face the music.”
One by one, Rachel met with all her creditors face-to-face, asking them to give her a chance. “I think they saw my sincerity,” she says. “I wanted to walk down the street with my head held high. I may have been poor, but I had integrity. I let them know that I would make sure the debt gets paid, however long it would take.”
Determined to save her company, Rachel began searching for revolutionary products to represent that could give Marunda an edge. The company’s big break came when the firm landed a contract to represent Fairbanks Morse, a well-known US-based manufacturer of engines, which was looking to create a beachhead in the Asian market.
But Rachel’s stars were aligned. That same year, Singapore’s Ministry of Environment was looking to upgrade its sewage treatment plants. After tendering for the project through big contractors, Marunda managed to sell 11 units of Fairbanks Morse engines to the agency. “The sale was worth a sizeable sum and I slowly began to pay off the creditors. They saw that money was coming in and continued giving me a lifeline. On my end, I continued to honour my payments.”
It took Rachel 12 years to clear the company’s debt. Those 12 years were some of the darkest in Rachel’s life. “I was so young with nobody to help me,” she looks back. “But I worked very hard. There were no nights and no days.” The Fairbanks Morse contract continued to deliver good fortune, eventually introducing the US Navy as a client. Today, Marunda provides the US Navy with a full suite of services, including supply of equipment and on-board maintenance and repairs.
“I managed to save an abandoned ship and pulled it to shore,” Rachel says with pride. “Today, the ship is shining with glory and sailing the open seas. Given my education and background, this is my proudest achievement.”
Today, Marunda Utama Engineering provides the US Navy with a full suite of repair and maintenance services.
A Man’s World
After overseeing the successful turnaround of her company, Rachel is continuing to blaze trails in a male-dominated industry. But not without her own share of discrimination. “My frame is quite petite,” she says with a laugh. “I once had a marketing manager who was quite big and burly. When I went for a meeting with him, our clients thought I was his secretary!”
Rachel is quick to point out that such situations never deterred her. “When someone looks at a woman at the helm of an engineering company, moments of doubt are not uncommon. But when you speak with confidence about your products and services, your knowledge of the trade speaks for itself. You have to prove your substance in order for people to respect you,” she believes.
While some managers choose to lead their team from the comfort of their plush offices, Rachel is not one to shy away from her industry’s harsh environment. The hands-on boss is often seen with the team on board their client’s ships, complete with hard hat and safety boots. She also believes in fostering a close bond amongst her employees. “I talk to my staff as though they are my friends and family members. I dine with them and joke with them. But when it comes to business, they know I am serious. I am very disciplined in grooming my staff to be competent.”
A recognition of her achievements, Rachel was named Pulsar Category Overall Winner at the 2018 Women Entrepreneur Awards.
Rachel’s inspiring story has not gone unnoticed in the business world. In 2018, she was awarded the Women Entrepreneur Award for her excellence in business development. As the current president of non-profit organisation, Spirit of Enterprise, she now hopes to use her entrepreneurial experience to inspire ambitious youths.
All of Rachel’s achievements could not have been possible if she had not been given a second chance – a chance to escape from poverty; to switch career paths and ultimately a chance to save a failing company. Rachel shares that she was also given a second chance to live. In 1992, she boarded the Royal Pacific cruise ship in celebration of her birthday, which was later hit by a fishing trawler in the Malacca Strait. The resulting gaping hole led to the ship sinking. Rachel and her friends managed to escape on a lifeboat, but others were not as lucky.
“This tragedy made me realise that life is so precious. I was given a chance to live, and I told myself that I would not let it go to waste. I will continue on my journey with positivity,” she adds. Despite weathering a financial storm, and even surviving a deadly tragedy, Rachel is far from defeated by the curve balls life has thrown at her. “If you are willing to rise above challenges, work hard and dream big, nothing is impossible,” she stresses.
This article was first published in the MillionaireAsia Issue 52 - June 2019