He gatecrashed weddings to build Indian market

Mr Koh Seng Choon, founder of Christopher Benjamin Consultancy Services and social enterprise Dignity Kitchen.
Mr Koh Seng Choon, founder of Christopher Benjamin Consultancy Services and social enterprise Dignity Kitchen.

"I gatecrashed weddings," said Mr Koh Seng Choon, founder of Christopher Benjamin Consultancy Services, when asked about how he built his consumer base in India.

The 57-year-old, best known for his social enterpise, Dignity Kitchen, also runs a management consultancy firm advising businesses on entering the Chinese and Indian markets.

He first built up his own network in these countries .

Mr Koh told The Straits Times that he turned his sights to India during the economic downturn in the early 2000s.

On his first visit to India, he stayed in a three-star hotel and was kept waiting by his client for an hour. On his second visit, he stayed at the five-star Taj Hotel in Delhi and had his meeting on time.

"I realised the business culture of the country," he said. "Would you consult someone from Singapore who could afford only a three-star hotel?"

"(In India, doing business) has to do with status, caste and 'face'," he added. Even then, the networking process was slow. Mr Koh needed a second networking breakthrough.

This came when he was "hanging around in the hotel one evening" where, coincidentally, an Indian wedding was being held.

Indian weddings were "gatherings for business associates of the family from all over India, which meant that I had a complete coverage of Indian contacts in that one evening", he said.

He walked into the reception and gave out all his namecards.

Since then, Mr Koh has attended Indian weddings whether he has been invited or not.

"I also became very selective and attended weddings only where they were held in stadiums, large farmhouses and in top hotels," he quipped.

He says he has not spent the $10,000 he had budgeted for his internationalisation venture by virtue of such prudent networking methods. He now has an Indian consumer base of 13,000 companies that covers all industries.

"One thing I've learnt is to never start from wanting to sell something. Build relationships... make friends... You cannot use Singaporean business understanding to do business in India," he said.

Tan Fong Han

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 13, 2016, with the headline 'He gatecrashed weddings to build Indian market'. Print Edition | Subscribe