“I don’t watch Korean drama any longer. Instead, I watch Ministers Lawrence Wong and Gan Kim Yong doing media conferences and interviews on Covid-19 on TV. They are my new idols!” says Irene Ang. She punctuates these statements with exuberant laughter.
Even amid the pandemic, while she puts out fires each day to ensure her various businesses – a talent management agency and F&B outlets – stay afloat, the businesswoman and entertainer manages to inject mirth into every conversation.
Singaporeans know Irene best for playing the iconic role of Rosie Phua in the long-running local sitcom, Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd from 1997 to 2007. She has won numerous acting awards including the Asian Television Award for Best Comedy Performance twice.
Her acting prowess has always been intrinsically augmented by a lofty vision for the Asian entertainment industry. She wanted to ensure fair representation for talent and take them to the global stage, so she exercised her tenacity and business acumen in 1999 to start FLY Entertainment, a talent management agency, with just S$2,000 in savings. FLY Entertainment has grown to become Singapore’s leading talent agency with over 57 local & regional artistes, and award-winning divisions in event management and marketing.
Today, among other businesses, Irene also owns Club 95 Pte Ltd which comprises Fry Rooftop Bistro & Bar and Bar Naked.
All these entities have undoubtedly been hit by the pandemic.
Beneath Irene’s largely cheerful veneer, lies anxiety. However, it’s clear that she’s intent on channelling it towards productive pursuits. She seems busier than ever, collaborating with her team to come up with creative solutions to problems brought on by the crisis.
FOLLOW THE “COVID-19 PROGRAMME”
“Every day, I check government websites to make sure I know all about grants and assistance schemes like the Jobs Support Scheme and absentee payroll subsidies for employees who are sent for training. These are helping us save our employees’ jobs.”
At her F&B business, the bar staff have joined the bistro staff in helping with food deliveries and marketing. Some of them even help look into and apply for government grants.
“Anyone who thinks their job scope remains the same is not following the “Covid-19 Programme.” I’ve had to do many things that I’m not used to as well. For example, I’m not normally interested in government grants, but now, I study them every day.”
Her employees, business associates and friends now refer to her as the “Grant Doctor.”
She admits that the food delivery business is “less lucrative” than the dine-in model, but “it gives the people something to do.”
“I’m seeing strength in unity. With the bistro staff sharing their sales and workload with the bar staff, it’s the epitome of true teamwork.”
SETTING AN EXAMPLE
In regard to FLY Entertainment, Covid-19 has put a stop to events and to some extent, content creation. As a result, her artistes have fewer engagements.
But she’s creating new platforms for them to remain relevant. They are doing more online engagements including collaborating on public service content with government agencies and others.
She and her team have also created a suite of online courses on various subjects, from video presentation skills to fitness tips. They are in the process of packaging courses for corporates.
In addition, she feels the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA)’s initiatives to strengthen efforts to support the media sector during this period are helpful. Based on information on IMDA’s website, it is providing opportunities and funding “to develop strong and relatable content during this period, creating opportunities for local companies and freelancers to develop a pipeline of projects, and strengthening the media ecosystem.”
Irene says with conviction that if people stopped to look, they would realise that there are solutions to the problems we are facing during this crisis.
However, she concedes that she’s on a steep learning curve.
“As CEO, I have to set an example and be involved in everything. I’ve been forced to learn a lot of technical things like doing virtual meetings. I’m also challenging my people to think of the assets we have, rather than the problems we have. So when we thought about our “assets” – our artistes and their talents – it wasn’t too long before we came up with ways to help them continue working through webinars and online courses.”
For now, she’s also intent on staying strong for her team.
“As a boss, you have to be prepared for everybody to come to you. If you’re not strong, it just won’t work.”
Irene sets aside at least ten minutes daily to spend “alone time in the sun.”
“Each day, I make sure I do the following: check in on the various businesses, learn something new, and go under the sun in my balcony to do some stretches.”
She needs the break to remain fortified.
She also makes sure she orders local food via delivery each day. “Supporting local” is important to her.
To inspire her employees, she dedicates an hour to a coffee session daily.
“We talk about how we are doing, feeling before starting the day. I’m very grateful for video chats too because at least I get to see them and sense how they are feeling in terms of morale.”
IMBUING A SENSE OF SECURITY
Through it all, she claims making her staff feel secure is vital.
“When this first began, I called a meeting to assure all staff. I explained that in the last 20 years, I’ve been through several crises and each one seemed like the worst thing ever at the time. Each one seemed like the end of the world. But we’ve learnt methodically from each one: 9/11, SARS, the Global Financial Crisis. And because we have learnt lessons, this time we are better prepared to change our services to cater to different demands. For example, we were more prepared this time to re-focus our attentions to creating online video content.”
Her resolve is unmistakable.
“While there have been some pay cuts, we’ve never had to let staff go during past crises and we don’t intend to now.”
“The training grants are really useful to us. They are heavily subsidised, provide absentee payroll and also help our staff learn skills that ensure when they come back, they will be able to serve customers better.”
Staff in her F&B business have been taking up courses such as professional cocktail mixing.
READY FOR THE FUTURE
“Bosses who refuse to change, who don’t want to put in the effort to look into grants and reliefs, will not survive,” she says.
She’s focused on being “post-Covid-ready.”
“For example, push your people to the new normal with better skills, make them future-ready, digitise your business.”
She believes that this is also a good time to see who amongst your workforce understands and is aligned with empowering the business.
“You can see who is supportive, willing to step up and do more than their job scope.”
Among her team, some have indeed risen to the occasion. She has discovered new competencies and skills among them and is already looking into how to develop them further.
“I’ve been discovering a lot of hidden talents!” she says enthusiastically.
“DO NOT END YOUR STORY HERE”
Her message to those who feel they’re in the doldrums might sound like a cliche, but will hopefully raise spirits.
“Always remember that the sun will come out tomorrow. No matter how bad the situation is, we mustn’t give up because this will blow over. Don’t sit there and lament, complain about your boss and the government. Don’t waste time on that. No boss wants to retrench people or close the company.”
“In the event that happens, instead of looking at what we cannot control, let’s look at what we can control – look at government reliefs, how you can adjust your budget, what you can learn in order to land another job. Edify yourself and others. Don’t waste time on negativity.”
No doubt, her difficult childhood with a gambler father and drug addict mother has strengthened her resilience and resolve. She considered suicide at least 3 times in her youth.
Once, in secondary school when her parents got divorced and she was failing in school. The second time was after a breakup in her late teens. The third time was in her 20s when her grandmother was about to pass away. She was very close to her and the thought of losing her was devastating.
“I also wasn’t doing well at work at the time and I had credit card debt. But I realised killing yourself requires a lot of courage.”
She decided to channel that courage into trying to live instead.
“If anyone feels like it’s the end of the world, do not end your story here. It’s more exciting if you continue to fight. Getting past Covid will make you stronger.”
Her recipe for getting through this crisis includes being courageous enough to ask for help.
“Find mentors and support. Find subject matter mentors. People around me are now discovering that Irene Ang doesn’t know a lot of things. What really touches me is that these people are very happy to be part of my solution. My clients and I have gotten close because of this. Look for positive, selfless and kind people.”
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
As she looks to the future and the new normal, she feels this crisis will be transformative.
“In the past decade, “globalisation” has been the buzzword. I think Covid-19 might make us look at “localisation” more closely instead. We might have to look at self-sufficiency in many areas including food production in our local farms because we’ve seen how a crisis can be so disruptive to production and supply chains. Countries must look into using their assets to improve their own sustainability. Also, we might travel less because this period has proven that we can do more things remotely. Even for my artistes, I’ve told them to be prepared to do auditions remotely. Right now, I’m making sure they have their own cameras and lights. Businesses need to focus on equipping their staff with the tools to do all these things.”
In spite of being consumed with fighting fires during this period, it’s clear that Irene Ang is being fuelled by her vision of a more empowered future.
To find out more about FLY Entertainment’s initiatives to pivot and bring value to clients during this crisis, click here: https://flyentertains.myshopify.com/