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Healthy business outlook for 2019, two surveys find

The Straits Times by NG JUN SEN

Business is on a high for companies across the corporate landscape, with smaller firms keen to expand overseas while the big players reap ever higher profits.

The rosy picture was outlined in two reports, released on Tuesday, that point to a healthy business outlook for this year, despite an expected slowdown owing to global economic uncertainties.

There was one worrying sign, however, with one of the studies showing that smaller firms are reluctant to digitalise.

A survey of small-and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) found that 38 per cent said they expect to expand their businesses this year.

Around half of them intend to venture overseas, many for the first time. These tend to be small firms with revenues below $1 million and fewer than 50 employees, said QBE Insurance, which conducted the poll of 491 SMEs.

The findings illustrate the growing appetite of smaller firms to seek opportunities abroad, even though they may lack experience of foreign markets and the resources of bigger companies.

"It indicates their ambition and desire to reach new customers beyond Singapore, where they may find growth more challenging," said QBE chief executive Karl Hamann.

Encouraging firms to internationalise is a key objective of the Government's wide-ranging industry transformation efforts.

While smaller firms are developing a spirit of adventure, their larger cousins are happily rolling in money, another survey showed.

It found that the 1,000 Singapore companies with the largest turnover posted a combined profit of $210.7 billion from June 2017 to May last year, a 15.3 per cent year-on-year rise.

Combined turnover was $3.15 trillion, a 13 per cent annual increase, the study by DP Info and EY found.

This was the largest combined profit and turnover in the 32-year history of the Singapore 1,000 ranking produced by both firms, which looked at audited financial data.

In particular, the services, information and communications, and finance sectors experienced strong growth in their combined turnover in the past five years.

Mr James Gothard, general manager of credit services and strategy at consumer credit reporting agency Experian, said the record profit and turnover would continue to provide opportunities for companies to grow and to tap regional opportunities.

DP Info is part of Experian.

Mr Max Loh, EY managing partner for Asean and Singapore, said it is important for companies to focus on creating new business models and improving customer experience, going beyond just identifying technologies to improve traditional processes.

QBE's survey of SMEs, however, found firms are still lagging behind the digital wave.

While 65 per cent of companies polled said they were aware of the Government's support in helping businesses digitalise, only 30 per cent have used it. This highlights a disconnect between awareness and uptake, said QBE.

Around 40 per cent cited the high cost of investment as the primary obstacle to digitalisation.

Mr Hamann said: "While many still show hesitancy towards digitalisation, they should tap resources available to help smoothen their transition to the digital economy."