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Prime Structures Engineering: Changing Asian city skylines

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Engineering firm evolves from contractor to leading builder of iconic façades

Home-grown Prime Structures Engineering is a rising star in Asia’s construction industry. After helping to build some of Singapore’s most iconic structures — including the Marina Bay Sands SkyPark and Changi Airport Terminal 3 — the firm has grown its international footprint. It has completed numerous projects across Southeast Asia, including Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines.

As impressive as this portfolio may seem, the firm started from scratch as a small subcontractor of subcontractors. In 1995, after working for 10 years as a civil engineer, Managing Director Sonny Bensily decided to strike out on his own and founded Prime Structures. For the first few years of the business, it took on mostly small subcontract work to build steel structures.

A project worth S$100,000 or S$200,000 was a big deal for the firm back then, according to Executive Director Julia Bensily. Ms Bensily joined her father in the business as a site coordinator during her last year in university in 2012.

“We were quite low in the value chain,” she says.

To move up the chain, the firm aimed to build iconic structures and become known as “the company that changes skylines.” It realised it had a niche in building façades and envelopes – the ‘skin’ of buildings, including outer structures. The firm started to build a reputation as the ‘go-to’ company for turning architects’ most intricate designs into imposing façades.

Turning point

The firm’s big break came in 2008 when it won the megaproject to clad the Marina Bay Sands SkyPark and its canopies. The design that the architects supplied was so complex that Prime Structures had to work from a platform 57 storeys from the ground — there was no scaffolding.

“It was challenging, to say the least. So much so, in fact, that I consider the project’s completion an engineering feat,” says Mr Bensily.

The project catapulted Prime Structures to prominence in building high-profile façades. Since then, more property owners and architects have trusted the firm to manage the complexities of implementing solutions for building envelopes. It has also been able to successfully register with Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority to tender for façade projects of unlimited value.

Most importantly, perhaps, the success of the SkyPark project has laid the foundation for the firm’s overseas expansion.

Being able to complete a megaproject ahead of schedule gave us the confidence to go overseas.

MS BENSILY

Soon, the firm was scooping up major contracts all over Asia. One of its first overseas wins was a S$21 million contract to construct the façade of The Brunei Cancer Centre. It also built the security façade of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia. More recently, the firm worked on a US$30 million project to build an imposing 106-metre-diametre glass dome for a casino resort in Manila, Philippines.

Diversifying into manufacturing

Looking ahead, Prime Structures is now seeking to grow substantially in Sri Lanka. In addition to façade work there, the company’s Sri Lankan subsidiary has ventured into sustainable brick manufacturing.

“We expect these new areas to help us grow our recurring income,” Mr Bensily explains.

If successful in brick manufacturing, the firm plans to bring its technology to other markets such as India.

Adopting sustainable practices

The idea to produce sustainable bricks came to Ms Bensily when she went to Borneo as part of HSBC Private Banking’s Sustainability Leadership Programme. The programme aims to engage future business leaders in sustainability and climate change issues.

“It was a life-changing trip,” she recalls. “It completely changed the way we want to move our business forward.”

The firm plans to eventually build sustainability into its entire operations.

Working with a reliable partner

Prime Structures has partnered with HSBC to support its expansion. HSBC’s wide network of business banking and international expertise have helped the firm move up the value chain and engage in mega projects across Asia, according to Alan Turner, Head of Commercial Banking at HSBC Singapore.

“We understand what businesses like Prime Structures need and offer our capabilities to help them expand their horizons throughout Asia,” says Mr Turner.

While some local banks hesitate to back construction businesses that are going into new markets, HSBC readily lends a hand, according to Mr Bensily.

HSBC has helped us see our overseas projects through to the end. We’ve reached this far in part because of its capability to back us.

MR BENSILY

Ms Bensily says HSBC has been very supportive of Prime Structures’ overseas forays and offered the firm many international banking opportunities.

“In Sri Lanka, for example, HSBC was there when we were validating project opportunities and visiting sites.”

In a sign of its strong relationship with HSBC, Prime Structures considers the bank’s views when making important decisions, adds Ms Bensily.

The firm plans to continue working with HSBC as it strives to reach an ambitious target of S$250 million in annual turnover by 2026 – compared to around S$42 million today.

“We’ve set a higher goal for our business, and we need a reliable partner to support us in achieving that,” she says.