WHILE many of his course mates in London went backpacking during the summer holidays, teenager Sam C.S. Tan would return to Malaysia to work as an apprentice in some construction companies.
His aim was to get first-hand experience and learn the ins and outs of the construction sector. Tan, who later graduated in civil engineering from the University College London, is proud to have had a foretaste of the industry when he managed to work with a few well-established firms which were involved in the development of Putrajaya.
Now executive director of the Ken Holdings Bhd group, Tan reminisces about the menial tasks he had to endure then – from being an errand boy to doing site inspections – while his friends were having a good time.
His sacrifices have paid off handsomely as the practical experience he had gained is worth more than the textbook theories in his civil engineering course.
“I have no regrets coming back to Malaysia to work while my friends were enjoying themselves in Europe as the experience is invaluable and practical.
“I got to learn the ropes from the very grassroot level of the construction business,” he said in an interview. One-and-a-half years after returning to Malaysia, Tan, 26, is now responsible for the day-to-day planning and running of the Ken Holdings group, a property development and construction group set up by his father.
The elder Tan ensured that his son gained as much exposure as possible in the industry at a young age. Recalling his summer holiday work experience, Tan said he had learned the differing work culture of the companies he had worked with.
“Not only did I get first-hand experience in the construction industry, I also progressed quickly from the complex art of negotiation to drafting a contract,” he beamed.
Tan treasured the experience that he said could not be traded for anything in the world. However, one of the most important traits he learned was to be independent and decisive.
“I have done it all by looking after myself in London. I did almost everything, from washing dishes to other household chores, while ensuring that I excelled in my studies in London,” he added.
In the cosmopolitan city, Tan had wasted no time in gathering knowledge and learning about an entirely different culture. Looking back, however, Tan said he was glad to have made a conscious decision to come back to Malaysia to be with his family and friends.
“Malaysians generally put in more hours to their jobs compared to their Western counterparts.
“Back home, people usually make sure that the work is done, regardless of the hours spent. I find that Westerners tend to be clock-watchers and most would leave the office at 5pm sharp. It's a different culture altogether,” he added.
After graduation, one of his first jobs in London was with Arup Consulting Engineers, a member of the consortium that built the £5.6bil Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL), and laid the new high-speed railway tracks for the Eurostar in Britain.
“Arup is one of the top engineering consultants in the world and I am fortunate to have worked with some of the best minds in the industry.
“While working on the CTRL, we constructed an 8-metre diameter tunnel underneath the houses and buildings in the city.
“We even navigated the existing subway tunnels in Central London. We had to ensure that our calculations were spot on and that work progressed smoothly so that the city folks living 30 metres above us could sleep without interruption while we worked throughout the night,” he said.
Tan said it was an unforgettable experience because the project involved lots of detailed planning and contingency plans before it was implemented. It also gave him the best grounding a civil engineer could acquire, such as designing, structural and geo-technical calculations, modelling of tunnels, project management and contract implementation.
While working with Arup, Tan spent his evenings attending law classes. With a diploma in law in hand now, he feels it will come in good stead in his job at Ken Holdings.