Feature

The man behind Singapore’s Supertrees

Von Lee remembers the help he got from NTU and his friends during his days as an undergraduate. The successful entrepreneur, who went from nothing to building some of Singapore’s most recognisable landmarks, now wants to pay it forward by helping needy NTU students

By Derek Rodriguez
Photo: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Permission Required For Reproduction

If you’re a student seeking an inspirational figure, look no further than NTU alumnus Von Lee. A little more than 20 years ago, this campus rookie was scrambling from classes to his part-time jobs to fund his way through university.

Today, he’s the founder and Chairman of the multimillion-dollar Expand Group of companies, which are responsible for some of Singapore’s most iconic structures such as the Supertrees at Gardens by the Bay, the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum and the Marina Bay Waterfront Promenade.

In July, Von, 46, made a $1 million gift to NTU to start the Von Lee Yong Miang Bursary Fund to help needy students. The sum was matched by the government, bringing the endowment to $2.5 million. The bursary will support up to 10 engineering undergraduates per academic year, with each receiving $10,000.

Says the award-winning developer: “I received financial help from NTU during my university days. Now, as an NTU alumnus, I’m motivated to help my juniors in a similar situation, so they can focus on their studies and go on to contribute and serve society.”

Despite his success, he has kept his feet on the ground, and, other than having the resources to take care of his loved ones, says he hasn’t changed much since his days as a civil engineering student.

“I lived on campus throughout my four years in NTU. Some nights, my friends and I would squeeze into a car and drive to Fong Seng Nasi Lemak in Clementi to have supper. It’s still my all-time favourite nasi lemak,” he reminisces.

Von cut his teeth on various committees in school. “I was the social secretary and treasurer for the school club, and helped to organise the Union ball and Union camp. Many of the friendships I made then have lasted till today.”

He also has fond memories of burning the midnight oil in his dorm, and searching for his examination results on notice boards.

From signage to mega structures

After graduating in 1995, Von worked at the Housing and Development Board for three years. Although life was comfortable, he wanted to help his eldest brother, who was then struggling with his signage business.

“I thought that if I could do well in the private sector, my brother and I could enjoy a steady income together,” he explains, adding that his life philosophy is to “be good and kind” to benefit other people.

Together, the two-man team turned the business around in just a year.

Buoyed by this success, Von founded Expand Construction in 2000. It has grown manifold since then, and is now on top of the pile in Singapore’s construction sector, with more than 590 employees and a slew of award-winning developments that include factories, offices, condominiums and public housing projects. Last year, it was reported the company achieved aggregate revenue of $1 billion.

“My education in NTU gave me the technical knowledge required in this field and taught me the soft skills that I could apply directly to my business,” he says. “With sound engineering know-how and project management skills, I could successfully steer the company in the construction industry.”

He might be a shining example that big, bold dreams do come true. But his advice to those with similar ambitions is to take it step by step.

“I encourage all graduates entering the workforce, especially those with an entrepreneurial spirit, to pursue their passions. Focus on excelling in the little things first and, naturally, bigger achievements will come.”

“As for freshmen, you’re going to have a great education at NTU. If you face difficulties, always know that help is close at hand.”

“I received financial help from NTU during my university days. Now, as an NTU alumnus, I’m motivated to help my juniors in a similar situation, so they can focus on their studies and go on to contribute and serve society.”
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