When the landscape architect working on an exterior renovation of the World Bank headquarters in Washington, D.C., showed Sina Seng ’92 a napkin sketch for security barriers at the site and asked if Seng could make them, he didn’t hesitate before saying yes.
Never mind that he had no shop to manufacture the steel and stainless bollards, which would weigh nearly a million pounds and cost more than $2 million. Or that even his Grand Rapids office was borrowed space.
“I never thought to decline it,” Seng said. “I just leaped right in.”
Though without facilities, he was not without experience. Before launching Conceptual Site Furnishings in 2003, Seng spent almost 10 years working for Landscape Forms, the largest outdoor furnishings and exterior landscaping products company in North America.
Still, it was a daunting project. By its end, Seng had his own shop and the kind of experienced knowledge won by meeting a challenge. He also had created buzz among landscape architects in the region. Soon he was fabricating huge aluminum panels featuring a laser-cut frieze of Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion map of the world, which would be mounted on the exterior of American University’s new School of International Service building, also in Washington, D.C.
“Custom projects like that are really fun,” Seng said. “As an engineer I like collaborating with a designer to get them the look they want for the best price.”
When not working on a custom project, he’s designing Conceptual Site Furnishing’s own line of outdoor furniture: benches, tables with and without chairs and umbrellas, trash cans, planters and bike racks. A unique design he’s perfecting is a hybrid bench-bike rack (see sidebar image above).
“I love coming up with innovative designs for ordinary products,” Seng said, “or finding innovative ways to use materials. That’s how we came up with Recor.”
Recor is a solid surface material that Seng devised by recycling byproducts of the process used to manufacture what most people know as Corian. It has the same properties as the DuPont product and so can be made into benches and tabletops, rather than being dumped in a landfill.
Though the company got off to a robust start with big projects in Washington and other East Coast cities, the recent recession hit Conceptual Site Furnishings hard.
“All our projects were put on hold,” Seng said. “I’m not sure how we survived. But now we’re booming.”
The sector that’s got the company humming now is mass transit. Seng recently won a contract to install new benches for The Rapid, Grand Rapids’ bus system, and he has bids in the pipeline for bus shelters in other cities.
Neither boom nor bust keeps Seng awake nights, though.
“I remember having nothing more than a pair of shorts,” he said. “God has always seen me through. I believe and trust that.”
Orphaned by Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, Seng and his four siblings escaped to Thailand, then were brought to Grand Rapids and sponsored by the Christian Reformed Church in 1980. He attributes his lifelong wish to own a business not only to his mother, a successful businesswoman in Cambodia, but also to the businessman he calls his adopted dad and mentor, Wally Boelkins ex’53.
“I sit here in my office and think, ‘This is unreal that I’m here. It’s a miracle.’ How can I be bitter about what happened to me or upset about tough business times? It’s all a blessing. Now I have the opportunity to give back.”