With so many industries in pandemic-related distress, it can be difficult to feel anything more than a begrudging respect for the ones that are not only alive and kicking, but thriving from everyone’s shared misery. Cleaning services, obviously, are among these, but the story of Spic & Span and its CEO and founder Benjamin Chua isn’t one of seized opportunity, but of persistent magnanimity.
Blazer and pocket square from Dunhill
Chua founded his housekeeping and cleaning business, Spic & Span, in 2017, with the aim to give jobs to disadvantaged and marginalized Singaporeans, such as ex-offenders, single parents, victims of abuse, persons with disabilities, and the homeless. "We started by hiring a group of retrenched, mature housekeepers, so it seemed natural to start the journey by using their existing skill sets," says Chua.
Not wanting his growing team to be performing the same tasks for the next 10 years, Chua decided (presciently, as it turned out) to also focus on research and development, leading to the creation of the proprietary Speco cleaning solution in 2019. Speco was developed as an antimicrobial protection that would be effective against 99.9 per cent of bacteria, mould, and viruses — and it arrived just in time to battle COVID-19.
On the onset of the coronavirus, demand for Spic & Span’s general cleaning services took a hit once people started working from home, negating the need for office cleaning. Thankfully, pivoting early and swiftly into cleantech turned out to be the right move. Speco users now include organizations like Singapore Airlines, DBS, Wildlife Reserves Singapore, Eton House, and more. The company was also awarded the IPOS Innovation for Humanity and B Corp Accreditation in 2020, and a new Speco Experience Centre showroom opened its doors in 2021, with the occasion marked by the attendance of President Halimah Yacob.
(Related: Eric Leong on finding the perfect solution for Mlion Corporation)
President Halimah Yacob and Chua at the Speco Experience Centre showroom
Speco was developed as an antimicrobial protection that would be effective against 99.9 per cent of bacteria, mould, and viruses — and it arrived just in time to battle COVID-19
But none of these accolades distracted Chua from his humanitarian intentions. "As there was a shift in growth engines, we had to reorganize the company," he admits. "Thankfully, most of our operational staff have already transitioned to their specialist roles. We have a smaller team of under 50 people now, with about 60 to 70 per cent of them coming from vulnerable communities." Spic & Span also carries out pro bono disinfection work at nursing homes and SMEs facing tough times.
This compassion was rooted in the 33-year-old long before Spic & Span was ideated. Chua had been volunteering for various organizations from the moment he graduated from the State University of New York with a degree in International Business. And his real work — which included roles in operations support and asset management — never got in the way of his social work. “Social responsibility grows on you. I felt that what I was doing was making an impact and so this value increased over time, like compounding interest."
After all, starting a seven-person housekeeping business is not a leap many are willing to make from a cushy job in the public service. "We started from zero and did our sales the organic way; the hard way. It started with canvassing, pitching and asking for referrals," he recalls. It’s far from a thrilling startup story, but Chua has always been far more interested in the stories of those he can help.
"I have a worker in his fifties who was diagnosed with anxiety and depression, and has had a history of gambling and alcohol addiction. He was so afraid of losing his job that he would always ask me not to fire him every time I visited the premises, despite my assurances." These exchanges occurred almost weekly and carried on for a whole year until the worker suddenly called Chua and asked to speak with him privately. "He handed me a letter and I half expected it to be his resignation, but it was actually a letter from HDB. He thanked me and said that he had been staying in a rental flat for more than 10 years, but now he was finally able to afford his own. That incident hit home for me."
And yet, even the most wholesome of endeavors isn’t without its challenges, and Chua’s greatest enemy had always been doubt. "We faced it on all fronts. Internally, there was skepticism on how the company would be able to transition to into a cleantech one, and how Speco technology would benefit the workers. Externally, there were those who questioned how a local, social enterprise would be able to develop a new cutting-edge technology."
Fortunately, Chua is just as adept at managing people as he is at helping them. "I’m thankful for good bosses and mentors who taught me how to ask the right questions and trust the right people." He is committed to growth in that regard. "A recent catchup with one of them led to a 30-minute discussion about understanding a person’s background, motivations, and interests. Things don’t usually fall apart because the other party is a bad person, but because it was likely a case of different expectations, priorities, and interests." For Chua, the right person is someone who, like him, has more than just financial objectives.
(Related: Calvin Lo — listening to do good)
"It was never my dream to build an empire or leave a legacy. I think I just want to be remembered as being someone who thinks big, but starts small, walks the talk, and believes that people are innately good."
But Chua knows that the title of social entrepreneur is still a relatively new one, and the "social enterprise" label is often a double-edged sword as people are constantly questioning either his bottom line or his intentions. "We have to be twice as clear on our vision and work twice as hard to hit our goals. But my friends have told me that if Spic & Span doesn’t work out, I could start Spice & Pans because I like being in the kitchen trying out new recipes," he quips.
Right now though, the only recipes he’s truly invested in are new iterations for Speco. There are currently four different Speco products that range from heavy-duty disinfectants to its recently launched Speco 24 hand sanitizer. "We started as a Company for Good that created a Technology for Good. The next step would be to make Speco a Public Good."
It’s a noble ambition, but as expected from a serial do-gooder, Chua is not particularly interested in the spotlight. "It was never my dream to build an empire or leave a legacy. I think I just want to be remembered as being someone who thinks big, but starts small, walks the talk, and believes that people are innately good."
For more information on Speco, click here