Rouleur Classic

Eyewitness: Shimano in Malaysia and Singapore

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Photographs: Shimano

For those in Pekan Nanas – aka ‘Pineapple Town’ – who seek a career, rather than an existence, Shimano must be the only game in town: the modern outpost of a multinational corporation offering the chance of progression and escape.
Follow the road from the bridge linking Singapore to Malaysia, past dense groves and settlements comprised of scruffy houses and scruffier shops, and within an hour you will reach SCM – Shimano Components Malaysia.
Malaysia has been an economic success story in recent years, with manufacturing playing a significant role in its growth, but towns like Pekan Nanas are evidence that it still has a way to go before reaching European standards of development. That said, Shimano’s gleaming facility is modern, even by the standards of its Japanese counterparts, and workers here have the chance to train and to learn new skills.
At SCM, the emphasis is on low to mid-end components – disc brakes, cranks, wheels and pedals – produced in high volume. Dura-Ace wheels, made in a ‘branch office’ ten minutes from the factory, are the surprising exception. Shimonoseki’s monthly output of 100,000 XT mountain bike cranks is dwarfed by the 700,000 chainsets, including Sora and Alivio, produced here each month.
It is hot in Malaysia, just three degrees north of the equator; uniformly so. The rains, heavy and often, offer the only meteorological deviation from cloying temperatures, but this is surely preferable to the biting cold we left behind in Japan on this whistle stop tour of Shimano’s Asian operations.
SCM is a significantly larger operation than its Singapore neighbour. Just over 3,000 staff work here, of which nearly a third are women, employed for their dexterity, if the observations of a brief tour can be trusted.

It is host to some heavy industrial processes – hot and cold forging, CNC machining, stamping, and the manufacture of hoses and brake pads – but there is packaging and assembly too: cleaner, lighter duties that include Shimano’s fishing products as well as its cycling components.
Labour cost is one tool used by Shimano to control the cost of its product. The average GDP per capita in Malaysia is just over US $12,000. For the workers on the factory floor, the tasks are simple and repetitive, and while this is true of most manufacturing facilities, in SCM it seems especially so.
A young woman uses tweezers to load tiny bearings into a fishing reel with astonishing speed and dexterity, but her skill must offer little solace in the face of such wearying repetition. That said, her working conditions, and those of her colleagues, are excellent; almost like a laboratory.
Staff work a 44-hour week, 10 per cent less than the permitted maximum, and turnover is comparatively low, with most staying for between three and five years, and some for as many as 20. The factory floor work rosters give a clue to the ethnic mix: significant numbers of Bangladeshi and Nepalese as well as Malaysian. SCM is a place to which people are prepared to travel.
SCM offers its staff something of a bridge to employment beyond Malaysia’s borders. Incorporated to Shimano’s global operation in 1990, SCM is a good example of how staff there can progress; indeed, SCM’s first managing director now oversees Shimano’s operations in Shenzhen, China, we were told.
Trading Places
The heat in Singapore is relentless and especially so inside Shimano’s factory.
Its open sides seem only to let in more of the cloying humidity, and the rain, which comes with a frequency and intensity startling to a European, offers no respite.
Walk past the giant furnaces, which take two to three days to cool and two or three more to reheat during their annual shutdown for Chinese new year, and the ever-present clamminess is replaced by a heat still more intense.

The 43-year-old factory is home to large and noisy machines and the heavy industrial processes of forging and stamping, yet the components produced here are small and delicate. As a further contrast, the Singapore facility is also home to Shimano’s sales and marketing operation for Southeast Asia.
It’s a juxtaposition that might be taken as a metaphor for Singapore, which is by turns opulent and indolent, moneyed and industrious. It is the self-styled ‘Switzerland of the East’, but with a Colonial past and a multicultural population.
Shimano’s facility on the west of this island city-state is noisy and dedicated to the mass production of low-end products – the derailleurs, brake levers and shifters of the Sora groupset, for instance. To that degree, it might be described as inferior to the ultra modern Sakai City headquarters in Japan, which is dedicated to low volume, ‘job production’ of the flagship Dura-Ace and Ultegra road groups and XTR and XT mountain bike components.
But the Singapore outpost – one of Shimano’s smallest, with just 580 staff, and the first established outside of Japan – has one of the most skilled workforces, and its own R&D facility and tooling centre. A self-styled “talent pool” for its Japanese parent, Shimano Singapore is responsible for 40 subsidiaries and has a sales and marketing function covering a South East Asian market 600 million strong.
Assistant manager Aaron Wong and his colleague Rachelle Koh, who chose Shimano for her first permanent role after gaining a masters degree, are both examples of young Singapore’s brightest and best: friendly, capable and multilingual.
Within the microcosm of the factory, they might be seen as exceptional: the average age of staff here is 42. Eugene Koh, Assistant Director in Singapore, puts the average length of service at 20 years: a term increasingly unheard of in Europe. He says that only Germany has a more advanced industrial base. Singapore’s historic strength – that it is a cultural melting pot, serving as a global, multilingual trading point – remains its USP.

“We are among the highest in the world in terms of academic results and most of us can speak a few languages. Going to China is no issue because I speak their language,” he says. “It’s applicable to any industry that wants to use Singapore as a springboard for regional expansion: we don’t have a culture shock.”
The factory floor lends credence to Koh’s claims. Unlike the other factories we visit on our whistle stop tour of Shimano’s major facilities in Asia, the presentations at the various work stations are made by the staff who work there, rather than a guide.
And while the majority of floor space is occupied by machines of a scale and ugliness to put one in mind of Hieronymus Bosch, the storage area is a masterpiece of automation, with robots scurrying across the shop floor bearing various cargoes.
Koh ascribes his staff’s impressive service record to a family atmosphere, and while the work is hot and the constant exhortations to safety keenly felt, there is a sense of a group of people pulling in the same direction.
Twenty kilometres or so from Shimano’s factory lie the gleaming towers of international finance and a plethora of air conditioned malls and hotels. Singapore’s diminutive scale magnifies the contrast between opulence and industry.
When we pedal through the city early the next morning, past the relentlessly modern and occasionally bizarre architecture, and through the magnificently green parks, it is as a tiny minority. The car is king here, as in any other city, despite efforts by the government to control its use through hefty import duties.
Koh says Shimano is committed to promoting a cycling culture in Singapore, and the first rate Shimano World attraction at the Singapore Sports Hub is a good example, but judged by the ratio of cars to bicycles on our ride, there is still some way to go.
Hearts and Minds
Shimano’s endeavour in transporting a score of European journalists halfway around the world to demonstrate nothing more than its working methods is to be applauded; far from a hard sell, we were shown no new product at all. Shimano’s purpose was nothing greater than to offer a brief immersion into its culture and practices, and the chance to meet its people; to put smiling faces to names often unpronounceable to this shamefully monoglot Brit.
The technical rigour came as little surprise; even Shimano’s harshest critics cannot fault the performance of its products. The worst that can be said of cycling’s biggest player is that it often seems a little remote; faceless, even. Perhaps it should celebrate more people like its charismatic global marketing manager Manabu Tatekawa, or the charming Aaron Wong and Rachelle Koh, its bright young things in Singapore. The men and women on the various factory floors were unfailingly courteous too.
It’s common in this line of work to refer to the ‘big three’ component manufacturers, but in truth, Shimano is of a completely different scale to Campagnolo and SRAM. With a market position now approaching monopoly, Shimano may find it has to work harder if it is to win hearts as well as customers. Our visit was an excellent start.

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