Mr Chen Kaitong's retail career began more than three decades ago, with a makeshift stall on a mountainous road in Anxi county in China's Fujian province.
The founder of Singapore-listed Chinese department store operator Zhongmin Baihui, who was born to farming parents, started selling socks, slippers and scarves to make ends meet when he was 16.
"Life in the village was very hard, growing mushrooms and fungi. We had no money to buy land, clothes or build a house. So I decided to become a street vendor," the 50-year-old recalled in Mandarin.
Two years later, he rented a small counter in a shopping centre in Anxi selling apparel and textiles, before moving to a larger storefront selling daily necessities, ranging from recorders and earphones to lighters and hairdryers.
"Those items were seen as trendy and fashionable in a rapidly urbanising city, as China was transitioning to an industrial economy from an agricultural one," said Mr Chen, 50.
BOON, NOT BANE
If you have five people sharing a cake, and two pull out, one person will get a double share. Right now, we're benefiting from the downcycle in the property market. It's easier to lease space, and rents are falling.
MR CHEN KAITONG, founder of Singapore-listed Chinese department store operator Zhongmin Baihui, on finding opportunities in China's slowdown
Between 1993 and 1996, his retail outlets expanded and moved to air-conditioned shopping malls.
In 1997, together with executive chairman Lee Swee Keng, Mr Chen opened the first Zhongmin Baihui outlet in Quanzhou, Fujian province. Zhongmin refers to China and the Min region, as Fujian was called in the early days.
Baihui means a store with multiple product lines.
"We were seeking a good location, and when this opportunity came up in Quanzhou, we took it," said Mr Chen, who was appointed chief executive of Zhongmin Baihui in December 2008.
"At that time, no one wanted it, but it turned out to be a very profitable store. Such are the peculiarities of the marketplace."
TARGETING THE MIDDLE-INCOME
Zhongmin Baihui now owns eight department store-cum-supermarkets and manages another four, mostly in Fujian province.
The group has a total gross floor area of more than 2 million sq ft, equivalent to the size of 35 football fields. It derives revenue from direct sales, commission from concessionaire sales, as well as income from rentals and managed rentals.
With a wide variety of goods, including fresh produce in its supermarkets and lifestyle merchandise, the group caters mainly to middle-income consumers.
Zhongmin Baihui listed on the Catalist board of the Singapore Exchange in January 2011, and transferred to the main board in September 2013. With a market capitalisation of about S$345 million, the department store operator has average annual revenues of 391 million yuan (S$85 million) between 2009 and 2014.
It has been profitable in four of the six years, posting earnings of between 10 million yuan and 32 million yuan during the period.
The stock is also a component of the FTSE ST China Index and the FTSE ST China Top Index.
Its peers in the sector include Shenzhen-listed New Huadu Supercentre, with a market capitalisation of about 3.5 billion yuan, and Shanghai-listed Yonghui Superstores, which has a market capitalisation of 33 billion yuan.
Zhongmin Baihui will ride on Fujian province's accelerating economic growth and its dense population to expand over the medium term, Mr Chen said.
The province, located in China's south-eastern coast, registered gross domestic product (GDP) of US$392 billion (S$560.5 billion) in 2014, and has a population of close to 38 million.
The Minnan Golden Triangle, which includes the prefectures of Xiamen, Quanzhou and Zhangzhou, accounts for about 40 per cent of Fujian's GDP.
Most of Zhongmin Baihui's stores are in the three prefectures, which registered per capita GDP of between US$8,000 and US$14,000 in 2014.
This compares with China's overall per capita GDP of around US$7,500 in the same year.
READING TRENDS RIGHT
Said Mr Chen: "While consumption patterns in Fujian are similar to those in Beijing and Shanghai, purchasing power in Fujian is just beginning to take off."
As the province is in the early stages of urbanisation, its consumer psyche is still evolving, with the younger generation willing to spend more, he said.
But as China's economy continues to slow down, Zhongmin Baihui will whittle down its operating costs and tweak its business models to achieve greater efficiency.
The group has reduced layers in the organisation to cap labour costs and boost productivity.
It has also cut the number of sales staff in its retail outlets to optimise its manpower.
It is also shrinking store sizes - opening outlets of between 1,000 sq m and 3,000 sq m, compared with premises of 6,000 sq m to 33,000 sq m previously.
These smaller branches, which sell basic necessities, also require lower investment and construction costs and rentals, resulting in significant savings for the group.
Mr Chen said a slowing economy is more of a boon than a bane for well-managed companies in China, as it provides a slew of opportunities.
"If you have five people sharing a cake, and two pull out, one person will get a double share," he said.
"Right now, we're benefiting from the downcycle in the property market. It's easier to lease space, and rents are falling."
Looking ahead, he plans to maintain the group's focus on Fujian and Nanjing, where its stores are located.
"Fujian's GDP growth is expected to double in the next five years, and its population will probably grow by 30 per cent," he said.
The demographics bode well for Zhongmin Baihui's longer-term outlook. "There are many people knocking on our doors, and we're always looking at opportunities," he said.
"That's because we're cash-rich and have a strong brand name, and there's a lot of confidence in our geographic location."
Zhongmin Baihui had cash and cash equivalents of 241.3 million yuan as at Sept 30 last year.
It is all about managing choices and risks, Mr Chen added.
He pointed to the Chinese word for crisis - weiji - a combination of characters that mean danger and opportunity.
"We need to understand where to find the best opportunities and how to handle these circumstances when they arise.
"This is basically a test of management's foresight and judgment."
When he is not at work, Mr Chen, who describes himself as a man of simple needs, finds solace in nature. "I enjoy walking in parks and trekking in hills and across streams," he said with a smile.
Ethics are also important to him.
Mr Chen hopes to pass on the values of good judgment, honesty and uprightness to his two daughters and son, who are between 21 and 30 years old.
"In society, they must do good and no harm, regardless of the work they do, whether small or big," Mr Chen said.
"That's the most basic principle.
"My children must also respect the elderly.
"Loving babies and kids is easy, but it is harder to show concern and care for the older generation. But the more difficult it is, the more they need to practise it."
- This interview is an excerpt from the Singapore Exchange's Kopi-C: The Company Brew column that features C-level executives of firms listed on SGX. A longer version can be found on SGX's My Gateway website, www.sgx.com/mygateway