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Tasting sweet success overseas: Singapore F&B company Tai Sei Hei

Tai Sei Hei's management staff comprising (from left) Mr Max Yeow, Ms Esther Yan, Mr Ken Li and Mr Terrence Hong. Mr Yeow credits IE Singapore for steering the company - which produces soya beancurd under the brand Lao Ban - towards Vietnam. It has a
Tai Sei Hei's management staff comprising (from left) Mr Max Yeow, Ms Esther Yan, Mr Ken Li and Mr Terrence Hong. Mr Yeow credits IE Singapore for steering the company - which produces soya beancurd under the brand Lao Ban - towards Vietnam. It has a cafe called Xiao Ban in Ho Chi Minh City.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Local company Tai Sei Hei enjoyed the sweet taste of success when a strategic move into the overseas market paid off. Fiona Liaw learns how the company took the plunge and took its soya bean snack into Vietnam.

A Singaporean eating in a small cafe called Xiao Ban in Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City would find something surprising on the menu: soya beancurd. The migration of the Singapore hawker snack all the way to Vietnam is no coincidence.

Xiao Ban is the brainchild of Singapore company Tai Sei Hei, which produces soya beancurd under the brand Lao Ban. Although the product was doing well in Singapore, the company began looking outward for further expansion.

As Tai Sei Hei director Max Yeow explained, the firm predicted the Singapore market would stagnate in the future, and so thought it essential to diversify its revenue stream by entering different countries.

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This forward-looking attitude is what drove Tai Sei Hei's growth in the first place. The company began in 2007 as Lao Ban, a small stall at Old Airport Road Food Centre. Boasting a special recipe that gave its soya beancurd a smoother, more pudding-like texture, the stall grew rapidly in popularity. In just five years, it had expanded to 21 outlets across the island.

The management's desire for continued growth inspired it to experiment with different business models. In 2011, noting that the cafe trend in Singapore was picking up, Tai Sei Hei opened Xiao Ban, a cafe offering drinks, waffles and gelato - but with a signature soya twist added to each item. In the same year, Tang Zai, a Taiwanese- style dessert store, was also set up, integrating the use of soya with popular grass-jelly desserts.

However, noting that manpower restrictions and rental prices in Singapore were rising, Mr Yeow grew concerned about the future here. In 2013, he began dabbling with the idea of venturing into regional markets. "It is important to plan ahead. When the domestic market is stable, that's when it's time to look overseas - not wait until you're in a position where you have no choice."

But he added that back then, although he knew he wanted to focus on Asia, he was uncertain which market would be the most suitable.

 
 
 

He credits IE Singapore for steering the firm towards Vietnam. Once or twice a year, he said, the agency organises in-market iAdvisory workshops to give firms the opportunity to learn more about a selected market. Besides briefings about the overall market situation, Mr Yeow attended sharing sessions from existing business owners and spoke with consultants about different market insights.

Learning about the cafe culture in Vietnam piqued his interest in the country as a suitable place for Xiao Ban to take off. He was even more encouraged when he found out that the market for coffee was growing rapidly. By adding soya bean milk to coffee, Tai Sei Hei would have a unique selling point.

But as Mr Yeow was unfamiliar with Vietnamese culture, he faced challenges deciding on a location for the cafe. He also struggled with different labour and import laws in the country.

IE Singapore stepped in again at this stage, helping Tai Sei Hei network with mall owners to identify a suitable rental space. The agency also connected the firm with legal experts in the country to aid in its decision-making.

Mr Yeow is grateful that, because of the agency, what could have been a risky move has paid off for Tai Sei Hei. Since opening at Ho Chi Minh's SC VivoCity in November last year, the firm has seen a 10 per cent monthly growth in revenue and is looking to open two more outlets in the city. In fact, the "problem" now is that the popular dishes are selling out too fast.

Looking back at the journey that the firm has taken, Mr Yeow said: "Without IE Singapore, we would not have been able to do this so fast. It would have taken us much longer to figure out how to set up overseas and the learning curve would have been steeper.

"IE Singapore's help really removed a lot of pain for us. We are very fortunate to have its help."


Find out more about other companies that have transformed their business overseas and how IE can help – http://www.iesingapore.gov.sg/Assistance

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 04, 2016, with the headline 'Tasting sweet success overseas'. Print Edition | Subscribe