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Co-operator Newsletter: March 2019 issue

From Selling Fire Extinguishers to Building a $15 Million Safety and Security Business


“There is a bunch of people here who are passionate about this cause. We would go all the way to pursue it. If at first we don’t succeed, we try again - a different approach, another way, anything it takes to make it happen.” - Jackson Lim, one of the founding members of COSEM.

Cosem Anthony Jackson Tony
From left: Anthony Pek, Jackson Lim and Tony Lim

The Co-Operative of SCDF Employees (COSEM) was established in 2005. It was the culmination of the efforts of Jackson and his co-labourers, who since 2001, had sought for a solution to a pressing issue - finding jobs for those retired from the Singapore Civil Defence Force.

The retirement age for uniformed staff then was 60 and 55 years for senior and junior officers respectively, and in a subsequent policy revision, it was reduced further to 55 and 50.

“Many of the retirees want to continue working and are fit to do so. They have the skills and experience gained in the course of employment which can be channelled to the safety and security industry. The question is how to provide an avenue to re-employ them,” said Jackson, former SCDF Deputy Commissioner.

That question set in motion the quest to find a solution. The journey turned out to be a challenging one, and at times, meandering.

“SCDF, a government agency, is not allowed to own a company. Someone pointed us to try the co-operative route instead,” Jackson said. This was a humbling experience for the team, as they had to start from virtually zero knowledge about setting up a co-operative. They read up, and checked things out with those who had taken the route. They navigated the paperwork trail; one part of it was still fresh in Jackson’s mind: “We were asked to put forth a business plan. That baffled us for a while. We only knew that we wanted to provide jobs to our retired staff, but a business plan, we hadn’t a clue. In the end, we said we would sell fire extinguishers!”

Special efforts were made to reach out to staff, seeking their support to join the Co-operative. A very high rate of positive responses was received, which helped raise $300,000 in a seed funding collectively. Then came the test of perseverance. Just when they thought a solution was in hand, a realisation set in. The formation of the co-operative was only half the battle won.

“We aren’t quite done yet, we realised. How are we going to create the jobs to absorb the staff? So began another cycle of enquiring, researching and navigating the application rigmarole. Our expertise in areas like civil defence, fire safety and rescue could be marketed to international clients, which in turn could create jobs for our people. Hence, COSEM-owned company, COSEM Safety and Security Services Pte Ltd was formed in 2006,” Jackson added.

Cosem Firemen GlovesThe Co-operative has since evolved to adapt to the needs of members. In addition to retirees from SCDF, COSEM also employs former full time National Servicemen (NSF) firefighters. In response to new opportunities and challenges to strengthen itself, COSEM’s core business includes Consultancy for Civil Defence Systems and Fire Safety; Training Services; and Consultancy & Supply of Safety & Security Products. While the expanded clientele is instrumental in diversifying its revenue base, its intent remains unchanged, i.e. to keep personnel with expertise and to contribute to the safety of Singapore.

“We are the exclusive service provider to National Environment Agency in terrain decontamination, which involves cleaning up areas that have been affected by hazardous materials. We also serve Changi Airport and the oil and gas industry - our firefighters are on standby for activation as needed,” said Anthony Pek, General Manager of COSEM Safety and Security Services.

“In recent years, we receive an increasing number of invitations from foreign government agencies to provide consultancy services in the setting up of safety SOPs. We also help SCDF to promote the courses they conduct, to enrol the participants and arrange the accommodation for foreign delegates. The SCDF’s search and rescue capability is recognised by the United Nations, which helps explain the popularity of this programme amongst governments in Southeast Asia and the Middle East,” Anthony, a former staff of SCDF, continued.

cosem fire extinguisher workshop 2

Judging by its strength and stature, COSEM has come a long way since its days of selling fire extinguishers out of a small rented facility in the Central Fire Station. COSEM Group registers an annual revenue of about $15 million and employs about 280 staff.

The story of COSEM continues to be written as they join forces to take advantage of new opportunities on the horizon. As we pause to look back at the path it had trekked, this question needs to be asked: in extending the Co-operative to include a business outfit, and bringing in industry professionals who may not be members of the Co-operative to run it, will the co-operative ethos be diluted? Jackson, who is now the Deputy CEO of Aetos, a security service provider, and Anthony provided some food for thought:

  1. Be conscious of the Co-operative’s objective to serve members and be financially viable - this is the first order goal.
  2. Be professional, tapping into the Co-operative’s business acumen to maximise returns - this is the second order goal.
  3. Monitor the first order goal. SCDF maintains oversight of the Co-operative and requires the Co-operative to meet certain hiring target. The percentage of ex-SCDF uniformed staff employed should constitute at least 75 per cent of the total staff.

As of the last update, COSEM has achieved 78 per cent, a sign that the Co-operative’s mission is alive as it tastes the fruits of business success. 


Learning Tips

  • Committed and motivated employees can create a winning co-operative/organisation
  • Passion and belief bring success
  • Stay true to your social mission


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