For years, Certis was known just for its auxiliary police and security guards, keeping a wary eye on crowds at public events. However, in line with how markets change, Certis has broadened its range of services from just physical security to also include facilities management, concierge and command and control systems for major properties. All these new offerings, dubbed “Security+”, are underpinned by more extensive and smarter use of technology so that better efficiencies can be enjoyed.

Early adopters of the expanded offerings, such as Jewel at Changi Airport, were sold on the idea of being lean and effective despite a shortage of manpower, and growing wage cost and digitalisation.

So, for property owners, instead of parcelling out different contracts for security, command and control systems, facilities management and concierge, Certis has the technology, the manpower and the capabilities to handle them all. “You give me these four wallets, and I will definitely give you back meaningful change — not just five, 10 cents,” says president and group CEO Paul Chong, in an interview with The Edge Singapore. At Jewel, for example, at any point in time, there are merely tens of people running this huge property.

Besides Jewel, many other large organisations — property owners — have taken to this concept as well. Chong can’t name all these clients, but he says: “All these companies... are run by really, really smart people. They have share prices to protect. They have to explain their profitability. Why would they do something if it doesn’t make financial sense?”

Chong explains that there are a couple of underlying trends in Certis’ favour for such a strategy. For one, the government is going ahead with rolling out the next stage of the progressive wage model come January 2021. In addition, there is pressure, political or otherwise, to put a brake on the number of foreign workers in Singapore. “The only way to go about this is to reinvent how work is done,” Chong says.

Cybersecurity and AI

On top of its domain knowledge in security, the company, which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Temasek Holdings, is constantly adding expertise in customer services and in facilities management as well.

More critically, it has been beefing up its technological capabilities too. Unbeknownst to many people, Certis leads in the number of patents filed in the IT and electronics domain, especially in sensing and tracking — more than most tech companies one might normally associate these patents with. It is not merely about having technological capabilities because it is fashionable. The data collected is analysed and used in facilities management and security. “We are now very much a technology company — everything we do revolves around the deployment of technology,” says Chong.

Two key areas figure prominently in Certis’ expansion of its technological capabilities. First, cybersecurity. As just about every other device is connected, the need for cybersecurity is now a given, the same way all cars come with air-conditioners, which are no longer extra add-ons.

Second, AI helps drive efficiency in such an environment overwhelmed with data of all kinds. For example, Certis has developed an algorithm for its video surveillance system which flags would-be smokers trying to lit up at non-smoking areas.

In another example, Certis has a system to help identify Aedes mosquitoes — as part of a bid to curb the spread of dengue — much more quickly than “the human’s Mark II eyeballs” can, says Chong.

However, Certis, as Chong describes, is a different kind of technology company. Others, such as the system integrators, are akin to construction companies. They take the specifications required by the clients and help them build the systems needed, often using readily available gear bought from other vendors.

In contrast, Certis builds too — but with a difference: it provides the domain knowledge of what will be the most efficient way to help manage a client’s property. Certis conducts partnership workshops and walks the clients through the design-thinking process before confirming the exact, customised specifications needed.

In a sense, this is in Certis’ own interest too: for it is the operator actually managing the premises — and each premise is different from the others. “We are not one-size-fits all; we are a bespoke, operation-design-first kind of technology company,” says Chong. “That’s what we did for Jewel, that’s how we differentiate ourselves in the market.”

Chong is optimistic about Certis’ appeal to property owners. The Covid-19 outbreak has made many people take a long hard look at their existing processes and if the challenges of labour and rising labour costs continue unabated, then this year may no longer remain just as a simmering stage but as an inflexion point upwards. “There’s an impetus to really think about reinventing work,” he says.

High-level rethink Certis’ proposition sounds logical, but Chong readily admits there still are challenges. He is up against traditional mindsets and industry norms. Facilities management is one distinct area, and security is another and IT, yet another. Each of these functions are run by managers with their own budgets and headcount. By making do with fewer people for the same tasks, managers may feel they have less power.

Often, it takes a more senior management layer — the CFOs or CEOs — to be convinced of the efficiency of economising all these functions with one single service provider. “It requires a very high-level rethink of how budgets and responsibilities should be cut,” says Chong.

There are silos at the individual level as well. The security guard needs to patrol, the maintenance technician needs to make his rounds. An individual cross-trained and certified in both can obviously command higher wages.

However, Chong acknowledges that not everyone would want to go for further training, especially in a different field. He expects a transition period, as newer, better-trained people join the industry as a different class of operators. “You have many people doing different roles when one guy can do all of these things, and that’s where we do value-creation,” says Chong.

The other big challenge, according to him, is to train and find the right people, without which the technology, no matter how sophisticated, cannot be fully deployed. To institutionalise training and education for not just its own people but also for the wider industry, Certis has spent $10 million to launch the Certis Corporate University, offering a range of courses ranging from degree to post-graduate certifications for both management and non-management tracks. “We are very tech-centric. Our main difference is that we operate systems, and in order to operate systems, you still need manpower,” Chong explains.

Covid-19 crunch

The Covid-19 outbreak has driven home Chong’s point on manpower quite forcefully. When Malaysia closed its borders on March 18 with just days’ notice, hundreds of thousands of workers who make the daily commute between Singapore and Malaysia were affected.

Certis, which has a sizeable proportion of its security officers from Malaysia, had around 1,000 who remained in Singapore and could continue working. On the other hand, there were another 1,000 who remained in Malaysia and thus could not work.

Yet, Certis was mobilised to help the government deal with the pandemic here. Under terms of a contract it signed with the Ministry of Health (MOH) a few years back, Certis was to help set up a command centre, along with a stipulated headcount and capacity, for MOH to handle responses to the pandemic.

However, Chong says the sheer number of facilities, at around 100, set up or rejigged to deal with the pandemic, was more than expected. And all these facilities needed security. To cope with the demand surge, Chong says he was fortunate to be able to tap on a network of other security firms to provide the manpower needed. “That really helped us...we managed to deliver all the government has asked us to,” he says.

The new Certis

By most measures, Certis, as an organisation, has transformed tremendously. It was founded in 1958 as part of the police force, became a statutory board later, and was corporatised in 2005, providing mainly auxiliary policing services.

When more players were allowed, Certis no longer enjoyed a monopoly and had to quickly beef up its range of services — leading eventually to what it is today. “For us, it has always been a journey of change and transformation; in a way, we are quite used to it by now,” says Chong.

Chong, who joined the organisation in 2004, was instrumental in leading this journey of diversification and change along with what the market needs. A former Singapore Armed Forces Overseas Scholar, Chong led Certis to garner a breakthrough contract to provide security at Changi Airport in 2006. In FY2020, the company generated revenue of some $1 billion.

While the bulk of its operations are in Singapore, it has made inroads in overseas markets such as Hong Kong and Australia, where it is also marketing its multi-service offerings to clients there. Chong knows that capturing much bigger pieces of the overseas markets is easier said than done, but Certis is building up a track record. “I would dare say: most of the time, we lead the change, and we shape it. Fundamentally, what drives us remains the same: staying ahead to survive, while focusing on how we deliver value to people. This is the new Certis,” he says.