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EXCLUSIVE: Howie Lau, NCS, Managing Partner, Corporate Development and Partnerships, on Driving Growth and Transformation Regionally and Globally

Already well established in the region, Singapore is looking to become a global innovation hub. One of the organisations spearheading this thrust is NCS.

About a month ago, NCS made a triple acquisition in Singapore, Hong Kong and Australia to boost digital capabilities and fuel growth across the region. With this move, ClayOPS, Velocity Business Solutions and Riley strengthen NCS’ data analytics and cloud capabilities. Following this triple acquisition, NCS last week acquired a majority stake in Eighty20 Solutions in Australia, giving them an added edge as they embark on regional growth and expansion to a global market.

OpenGov Asia had the pleasure of speaking to Mr Howie Lau, NCS’ Managing Partner, Corporate Development and Partnerships, to speak about his journey in NCS and learn more about their plans to propel Singapore into a global innovation hub.

A giant in the tech industry, Howie joined NCS about 4 months ago, bringing with him a wealth of experience and knowledge in various fields of marketing, corporate development and business leadership.

Before joining NCS, Howie was at the Infocomm Media Development Authority for three years, where he was involved in talent development across the technology and media sector. Howie’s past work experience also includes serving as the Chief Marketing Officer and Head of Consumer Business at StarHub. As Vice President of Corporate Development at Lenovo, he was mostly involved in the ASEAN and South Korea markets.

Despite his illustrious career, Howie is a down-to-earth man with an incisive understanding of the role of IT in the public and private sector, and a heart for community impact – something he sees clearly in NCS. He looks forward to the opportunity to work with governments and enterprises to advance communities, using technology to bridge the digital divide and create a vibrant, inclusive society.

Since its beginning in 1981, NCS has grown and expanded to 15 countries and is a leading technology services firm in Southeast Asia. Currently, it plans to expand into the larger Asia-Pacific region, as well as Greater China and Australia as well as other markets where it is less present. It will leverage the expertise and capabilities it has in partnering with governments to collaborate with other enterprises. Further, its service organisation, NCS NEXT, offers its clients customised digital transformation plans and solutions in cloud computing, cyber security, AI and other areas.

When articulating the direction that NCS will be taking, Howie revealed that there are three levers of transformation that NCS is currently focusing on 1) Moving into larger APAC, including Greater China and Australia, 2) expanding NCS’ expertise with the government into other enterprises and 3) deepening their capabilities in its NEXT services such as AI, cloud, data, UI/UX and design journey.

“Increasingly, customers’ transformation are requiring new digital capabilities and solutions. They are now no longer requiring us to simply look after their bread-and-butter cybersecurity, engineering and infrastructure needs. They are looking at, for example, the next generation of AI bots to have their customer service done in a better way, or looking for us to integrate new solutions into their existing data systems.”

While they might appear as separate, Howie notes that the three levers are not discrete and divergent, but highly complementary. In fact, all three levers of growth – organic growth, growth through partnerships and potential inorganic levers – have to be engaged. Digital transformation calls for changes in conducive policies and strategies that address all three levers of growth and knowing which to use in the respective business environments in other countries.

Partnerships, Howie firmly believes, will be effective when they build on mutual successes and work synergistically. The intention should be to ‘grow the pie’ together so that everyone benefits. A sure way to obtain new clients is to deliver credible successes in the markets that NCS is less present in while serving existing ones. Existing successes demonstrate the ability to deliver for potential clients in the wider region.

Howie says he cannot overstate the importance of staying relevant. In the sector, things change constantly and quickly from a technical standpoint. Added to this, related policies evolve regionally and globally as governments try to better ensure sovereignty, safety and equity. Keeping up with all of this requires agility.

The key is staying in touch with what is relevant, deciphering the complexity of new technologies before clients do and making sense of things within context. Ultimately, it is about helping clients chart a path to delivering their outcomes and output, tweaking technology and solutions to match specific requirements.

“In the short-term, we are focused on our clients and our talent. On the clients’ side, we want to make sure we are able to deliver credible successes in the markets where we are less present, to demonstrate our spectrum of capabilities in the larger region. We also want to ensure we are attracting interesting capabilities from others in the industry, to join us on this journey, as we do great work for our clients that is also bringing a positive impact to the wider communities.”

To expand its digital ecosystem NCS will always rely on the core of the business: talent and expertise. While the company has a huge talent pool, it is constantly looking to attract fresh talent to join the ranks in doing groundbreaking work with a wide range of clients and bringing impact to the communities.

For Howie, Singapore’s conducive business environment positions the nation well to spearhead the building of an APAC digital ecosystem. The Singapore brand is powerful because it is seen as neutral with credible implementation. It has strong infrastructure, financial stability and sound policies that foster growth.

Moreover, the Singapore government has put in place FTAs that facilitate expansion, collaboration and progress regionally. The nation is recognised as a good place for startups to grow with many top tech companies headquartered in Singapore, offering opportunities for collaboration and expansion.

When asked about the role of the government vis-a-vis the private sector when it came to growth, Howie takes the view that everyone plays a role in the ecosystem to help to grow the vibrancy of the sector ensuring a safe, equitable environment – creating and maintaining standards of operation, putting in place policy and infrastructure, developing capacity and capability and attracting local and international talent.

Within NCS, strategies to attract talent include a Management Associate programme in which suitably qualified graduates are offered a 2-3 year traineeship with the company. They are trained and mentored, with a clear pathway to transitioning to full-time staff. Furthermore, the company also grows its talent pool through acquisitions of other companies; the latest examples being Riley and Eighty20 Solutions from Australia. When such companies are acquired, NCS often retains key staff as they are talented and familiar with the operations.

Howie segued into the importance of ‘heart’ in business. It has been said that culture eats strategy for breakfast, meaning that despite the best business plans charted by companies, the cultural context in which they operate can get in the way.

To establish a conducive culture, rather than change behaviour, Howie believes it is critical to work on belief and motivation. The passion for transformation and growth requires getting people within the organisation to see possibilities and to imagine the overall vision coming to life. Imparting vision and helping the team understand and relate to it, will create and foster the right culture.

Within the company, they use an in-house acronym  – AEIOU – to more easily help people remember what NCS is all about. Adventure, Excellence, Integrity, Ownership, Unity (AEIOU) is a set of cultural values that guides everyone at NCS. Having common values is vital in ensuring that the consistency of mindsets is maintained.

Driving for excellence, Howie is convinced, involves establishing a form of balance – weaving in systems of care for employees. Ultimately, the people who make up an organisation drive the growth. This was epitomised when NCS refreshed its brand on 7th July 2021.

He had a profound realisation that it was not just about a change in the company logo. What struck him at the time, was the sense of pride and excitement among the staff as they embarked on this journey of regional expansion to become a dominant player in the global ICT industry.

Howie adds that leaders who can walk the talk are important in the equation for growth because they cast a long shadow.

Looking ahead, Howie is excited about nurturing mutually beneficial partnerships to make a significant, positive impact wherever they operate, be it in terms of the ease of access to citizen services, education, healthcare, wealth or job creation. At the end of the day, he wants NCS to be known as a company that makes a difference in the world by serving its partners and communities.

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