Fall 2013

Ong Tze Boon: Rethinking the Business of Design

Ong Tze Boon
Ong Tze Boon Enlarge [+]

For Ong Tze Boon failure is not an option. This belief has clearly played a part in the growth of his firm, Ong&Ong, which evolved from a purely architectural practice of 62 people when Ong Tze Boon stepped up to lead the firm in 1999, to its present position as a thriving holistic design practice comprised of 900 individuals working out of 11 offices across the Asia-Pacific, including Vietnam, China, the US, and India.

But beyond his dogged pursuit of success lies something even more powerful — a passion for business innovation.

Founded in 1972 by his parents — the late Mr.Ong Teng Cheong, Singapore’s first elected president, and Mrs. Ong Siew May — to date Ong&Ong has completed more than 1,000 built projects around the world and is currently managing projects in 18 countries across three continents.

What differentiates Ong&Ong however is an approach to growth that takes the practice of architecture out of isolation and brings back the joy and beauty of the entire design process. Ong Tze Boon has achieved this by creating an integrated cross-disciplinary practice that encompasses virtually all aspects of design, including urban planning, landscape, interiors, branding, engineering, and project management, with a desire to expand even further into product and industrial design, and furniture. This 360° design solution strategy — initiated in 2003 and comprising over a third of the firm’s business — strives to deliver a complete experience that anticipates the needs of clients.

CT Hub
CT Hub—industrial building—Singapore, 2013 Enlarge [+]
Quincy Hotel
Quincy—hotel—Singapore, 2008 Enlarge [+]

It is Ong Tze Boon’s intense thirst for learning that is the fuel that ignites ideas like these. “Figuring out the nuts and bolts of how to bring the firm to its next stage of growth is exciting,” he explains. “What I really find intriguing is learning from other industries — how are they innovating to keep their businesses relevant, what are they doing that we are not? How can we adapt lessons learnt from firms in other industries and apply them to the design profession? These are the questions that I enjoy pondering and the answers I arrive at are usually far more out of the box than if I were to look at my immediate competition.”

Ong Tze Boon doesn’t just give lip service to education. Having earned an undergraduate architectural degree from UC Berkeley and a master’s degree from Rice University by 1994, and returned to practice in Singapore, he experienced the intense pressure of running an already well-respected firm. To strengthen his ability to lead the firm, he returned back to the US and over the course of three summer terms from 2001 to 2003, attended a program at MIT designed to help entrepreneurs drive their companies forward. Concurrently, he enrolled in a short finance program at the University of Michigan.

JKC2—private residence—Singapore, 2013 Enlarge [+]
Greenwood Mews
Greenwood Mews—low-rise residential—Singapore, 2015 Enlarge [+]

Moreover, education grounds much of Ong&Ong’s extensive philanthropic efforts. Inspired by his experience at Berkeley, where he was awarded the Gadsby Trudgett Award, Ong Tze Boon created the Ong&Ong Internship at Berkeley with the aim of helping individual students broaden their horizons. Each year, one to two recipients from CED are given the opportunity to work collaboratively in the Ong&Ong Singapore office for an entire year to understand the practicalities of running an actual project while being encouraged to experience the built environment through independent travel. “Singapore is a springboard to the rest of Asia, offering the opportunity to travel to many surrounding countries, from Bali to Cambodia, Hong Kong to Shanghai. These travel experiences can never be replicated in the classroom environment,” explains Mr. Ong.

Asked to summarize the impact of his CED education on his current success, Ong Tze Boon pointed to two gifts: word and craft. The participatory nature of the classroom environment at Berkeley inspired him to speak up, leading to a more confident person who gained more from each lesson. Of greater importance though was the craftsmanship encouraged by the program. “To this day I make it a point to show my clients or stakeholders what I am thinking, instead of merely talking. This almost always convinces beyond words.”

Audi Centre
Audi Centre Singapore—commercial building—Singapore, 2012 Enlarge [+]
Boulevard Vue
Boulevard Vue—high-rise residential building—Singapore, 2014 Enlarge [+]