the millionaire underdog with no fear or self pity

The latchkey boy who knocked on factory doors for work now runs a $40m business.  

There are three taps dispensing cold foamy Asahi beer, in the amc!asia office in Jalan Klapa, in the Arab Street district.  Converted from two three-storey shophouse units, the groovily decked-out office also boasts a larder filled with Twisties, Koka cup noodles, Tim Tam biscuits and other munchies. 

The staff pantry on the ground floor is done up like an American-style diner; the chill-out lounge on the third floor, which leads out to a rooftop garden, is furnished with bean bags and hammocks.

It is all part of amc founder Bernard Oh's game plan to keep his staff happy.

"Happy people are the new productivity," the sturdily built 48-year-old pronounces. "Our value system is client-centric innovation driven by happy, productive people."

The entrepreneurial buzzwords are not exactly the most original but he says them with an engaging sincerity.

He knows what it feels like to be deeply unhappy at work. In fact, it was the feeling of being overworked and under-appreciated at his last workplace that prompted him to turn his life around in 1995.

With just $3,000 in his pocket, he started amc (Audience Motivation Company), which specialises in events and marketing. Less than five years later, the company was raking in $10 million a year. Today, it has seven overseas offices and an annual revenue of more than $40 million.

There is a stoic quality about Mr Oh.

"Maybe it's the Ah Beng in me," he says, using the local term for uncouth Chinese men. "The walls may crumble but I won't wail, I just get on with it."

The toughness was probably cultivated during his childhood, which was troubled and unsettling.

He is the youngest of three children of a Malaysian English language teacher who worked in Johor and his homemaker wife who lived with the children in Singapore.

Home was a wooden house in an Upper Bukit Timah kampung with a less-than-adequate sanitation system. "We had night soil carriers until my teens," he recalls with a laugh.

The family lived from hand to mouth, and Christmases were sometimes very bleak affairs for the Catholic family.

The poverty made the tempestuous relationship between his parents even more rocky. When he hit his early teens, his mother walked out. His parents divorced not long after.

"My dad was left to pull the family together. He tried his best but because of immigration issues, he could only come back once or twice a month," he says.

With his elder sister married and elder brother in the army, the young Mr Oh was pretty much left on his own. "I felt abandoned. I had to cook, wash and clean the house myself. There were weeks on end when I would not see anyone. Luckily, my sister helped out," he says, eyes reddening.

Although traumatised, he refused to wallow in self-pity. "Pity wouldn't get me anywhere. I just had to get on with it."

He attended Assumption English School and during school holidays would go around Princess Elizabeth estate - then an industrial area - knocking on the doors of paper and sauce factories to find work as a factory hand. There were also frequent stints as a banquet waiter at Mandarin Hotel.

His studies suffered. "I tried but it's not easy juggling part-time work and studies. And there was no money for tuition," says Mr Oh, who ended up at the now-defunct Woodsville Pre-University Centre after completing his O levels.

One good thing came out of his gigs as a waiter. "I was exposed to the world of dinner and dances (D&Ds), and mobile disco. It was the age of Larry Lai and Moby Dick," he says, referring to the former radio announcer who pioneered the local mobile disco scene by setting up Moby Dick in 1970 with fellow radio personality Mike Ellery.

His keen interest led him to join Tres Jolly, a mobile disco business, while he was in Woodsville.

"I found that I really enjoyed organising parties and putting together events. I was only 17 but I learnt a lot, knocking on the doors of corporations, pitching for deals to organise their D&Ds," he says, adding that he also picked up a lot about running a business.

The money was lucrative. "I could earn $2,000 a month. But it affected my studies. I failed and it took me four years to complete my A levels instead of three," he says.

He freelanced for other mobile disco outfits too. Tres Jolly ran aground after a couple of years.

"We spent more than we made. We were so fascinated by equipment that we kept buying. There were also ego clashes," he says, shaking his head.

His love for the events industry, however, did not waver. After completing national service, he joined events organiser Tradition.

A couple of years later, he left to join another outfit and became a minority shareholder not long after.

Frustration soon set in.

"The shareholders had the same salary but I was doing the bulk of the work. I was also often belittled, and there were a lot of things I wanted to push through but the two major partners said no," recalls Mr Oh, who by then had married a teacher and had a four-month-old baby.

Things came to a head when his infant son came down with a bad case of salmonella poisoning.

"He had to be warded in the intensive care unit. It was really painful seeing a four-month-old attached to all those tubes," he says.

What hurt even more was that he could not take time away from his work as he was overseeing a major project.

"I had to crawl every night to the hospital after work, and I felt really awful and guilty because I was not giving him enough. I wasn't spending enough time with him, I wasn't caring enough for him, and I could not afford him the best medical care. I was miserable."

He decided it was time to change his life by taking stock. He asked himself: "Why should I go through all this s**t when I could be doing this on my own terms and getting paid a lot better?"

After his son recovered, he handed in his resignation. He had just $3,000 in his bank account, and another child on the way.

"My wife asked if I could make it with just $3,000. I said, 'You got to have faith in me.' She did," he recalls.

He set up amc!asia in a small office in Tudor Court and immediately started plugging into his network of contacts.

"I just went out to chiong," he says, using the Hokkien word to suggest aggression and determination. "Luckily, I knew many vendors who had faith in me and were willing to give me IOUs."

He saw his business as motivating audiences, hence the name of his company.

"My tagline is to excite, impress and inspire. I was not going to organise events and conferences where audiences sat there subjected to death by Powerpoint. I wanted to create theatrical experiences," he says.

Clients - from banks and hotels to tech companies - saw his passion and hunger, and warmed to his enthusiastic ways.

"I always try to find a way to say yes. I want to make it a win-win situation for both sides," he says.

In three months, he was in the black. In six months, he had five people working for him.

In 18 months, revenue hit $1 million. This vaulted to $10 million by 1999.

"In 2000, we were doing so well that I gave 12 months' bonuses to my staff. After all, they were the reason why we were doing so well."

It was then the height of the era and the air was rich with the smell of promise and money.

"Some of these companies would spend $1 million just to entertain 50 of their best customers," he recalls.

His company organised lavish beach parties in Waikiki, Hawaii, for 3,000 people. It pitched an air-conditioned marquee in the middle of rice fields in Ubud, Bali, where telco chief executives dined on gourmet food and took in a performance by international jazz star Laura Fygi.

As the reputation of amc!asia grew, so did its network. It counts Hewlett-Packard and several Fortune 500 companies as clients, and today has offices in Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Shanghai, Beijing, Seoul, Hong Kong and Abu Dhabi.

Mr Oh has also set up other businesses. The Methodology Works offers digital and strategic marketing services; Activate Asia specialises in retail marketing.

Another arm runs high-end bars. It opened its first Nip & Dram bar in Jakarta last year.

"We broke even in eight months. We are now looking to set up one here in Singapore, as well as in Dubai and New Delhi," says the father of five children, aged between seven and 20.

The entrepreneur says he is entirely self-taught.

He has not touched any fiction since he was 25 but has read tons of self-help books by management gurus such as Jim Collins.

"I love his Good To Great," he says, referring to a bestseller by the American business consultant and lecturer on company sustainability and growth.

His approach to leadership is simple.

"Empower your people, manage them democratically, but know when to be authoritarian also," he says.

And always put your employees first.

"The money will always come when you have happy, productive people," says Mr Ong, who gave a 25 per cent share in the business to Ms Pearline Chua, the first person he hired. She is now the company's chief operating officer.

Giving back is also big on his agenda.

The company is a staunch champion of Arc Children's Centre, a charity for children suffering from cancer and other life-threatening illnesses, as well as Family Care Cambodia, which rescues children from the sex trade.

"Children are our future. Sometimes they are given the short end of the stick," says Mr Oh, who also goes with his staff to some of the poorest areas in Singapore to distribute hongbao every Chinese New Year.

Another pet cause involves underdogs.

"I know what it is like to be an underdog. I started out with $3,000 and no fear in my heart," he says.

One such underdog is Mr Kelvin Quah, an Institute of Technical Education graduate who founded fitness company Iron Fitness, to whom Mr Oh has loaned $40,000.

"He does not have much of an education but he is this ex-special forces soldier who has a hairy, audacious goal and an amazing fitness concept," he says.

His unhappy childhood has made him one involved and hands-on father.

"I told myself that I would never bring up a family the way my parents did," says Mr Oh whose father is now remarried and lives with his brother. His mother lives with his sister.

Life is good for the amiable businessman who lives in a bungalow in Bournemouth Road in the East Coast and has made very smart investments in several properties.

But he is not about to cash it all in and take it easy.

"It's all about the journey. I'm a dynamo. If I stop spinning, I will die."


bernard oh

amcasia! ceo


amc asia! singapore

18 Jalan Klapa, Singapore 199330

+65 6735 0785