”My dream is to make my coffee auntie a millionaire”

Patrick Liew is a true maverick and innovator when it comes to people management, and has turned his HR function on its head.
By: | October 9, 2019

Many business leaders talk about putting people first, but they don’t always practice what they preach, or do it as a one-off. Then there are people like Patrick Liew, executive chairman of Singapore-based GEX Ventures, an investment and property company. He says: ‘’We are like a charity organisation that pretends to be a business. A hugely profitable business.’’ And having met Dr Liew and his staff, it’s hard to argue with this description.

GEX Ventures picked up a handful of awards at the recent Singapore HR Awards, and is one of the fastest-growing companies to win the Enterprise 50 Awards. Putting people first is a mantra close to his chest. For example, the majority of Liew’s key managers (13 out of 16) came up through GEX Venture’s mentorship programme. ‘’We do a project together, maybe some charity work and in the process they might say ‘we like your culture and philosophy’. And if we like them too, we will hire them without a job.’’

This is an innovative recruitment policy reminiscent of the TV series The Apprentice in which the winning candidate gets a job with a high-profile tycoon and the chance to launch their own venture. ‘’Everybody in the company is an entrepreneur, a mentor and a trainer. It’s like having 40 freelancers. We are building a nice team of people now who are helping create more mentees and businesses.’’

Liew is a successful entrepreneur and businessman himself, having listed three separate companies. He has also set up six charities in Singapore helping everyone from migrant workers and young people through to the elderly. It may come as no surprise that he started out in his career training to become a social worker before he fell into the business world.

His passion for helping people is evident. Even the GEX Ventures’ company logo includes the Chinese symbol for heart. ‘’We want to come in with a heart, but not just for our people but our partners and customers. We see everybody as a stakeholder. My job is to make sure I help my people reach their potential,’’ he added.

His desire is to list the company soon on the local stock market. ‘’If we list the company, everybody will co-own shares. My dream is to make my coffee auntie a millionaire. Then if I work upwards from there, then everyone will be a millionaire. We are on track to do that.’’

Building a new HR model

GEX Ventures wants to turn the HR function on its head, starting with destroying the idea of a career path. ‘’We think a career path is very toxic. It is about winning and losing, about one guy being promoted and already someone loses. In such an environment you create unhealthy competition, envy and unnecessary comparisons. We decided to have a growth journey instead – the most successful employees and leaders are growth focused’’.

At 62 years of age, Liew is still full of energy and keen on disrupting the business world where he sees the opportunity. ‘’I decided to close our HR department, then outsource it for a while to an HR consultancy firm. But then we decided we can do a much better job internally’’. But GEX Ventures’ two HR practitioners also market their services externally. ‘’They spend two days with us, and then 3 days they are consultants, marketing their HR services as an entrepreneurial and profit-making service’’.

Having trained up his driver to launch his own photography and media business, Liew definitely practices what he preaches. Coincidentally, his wife is a pastor.