Me&MyMoney

Finally, the sweet taste of success with bubble tea

Despite losing money in the stock market and F&B industry, this musician-turned-entrepreneur finds a winner in Each-A-Cup franchise

The founder of bubble tea business Each-A-Cup, Mr Michael Chua, is rather like his drinks - colourful and offering a varied experience.

Having picked up the guitar at 13, he lived like a rock star in his youth, managing 11 bands and performing overseas with big names.

He even worked with the late Taiwanese songbird Teresa Teng.

As a bandboy, he toured Vietnam with her for three months in early 1971 during the war there.

Now 65, Mr Chua says there was good money to be earned back then, when five-figure tips were sometimes given.

HARD-WON LESSONS

I used to think that as long as I worked hard and had the funds, I wouldn't do badly, but that's not entirely true.

MR MICHAEL CHUA, founder of bubble tea business Each-A-Cup

Having amassed a small fortune, he decided to leave his musical career in 1974 to pursue another dream - business.

Mr Chua had developed a taste for the food and beverage industry.

"I embarked on the entrepreneurial route in my early 20s when I operated an ice cream business."

The ice cream business in Taiwan wasn't doing well, but his friends' foresight led him to sell bubble tea, which is almost a Taiwanese staple.

"My good friends saw how badly I was doing and told me to change business, saying they would become my partners in selling bubble tea," Mr Chua recalls.

"I was lucky that I listened to them. I found that the Singapore market was good and brought the business home under the Each-A-Cup name."

  • Worst and best bets

  • Q What has been your biggest investing mistake?

    A There was an F&B business I opened in Taiwan that was like American-style diner Billy Bombers. I lost $500,000 in six months. Business is not easy.

    Luckily, someone wanted to take over the location and even gave me $30,000 for it, so I cut my losses.

    Q And what has been your best investment move?

    A Investing in properties like a coffee shop and units at Lucky Plaza that I rented out but eventually sold to help recover losses I made in business.

In between, he opened the ice cream chain Gelare and ran it for nine years.

However, business was weak and he gave it up.

He also brought in a Taiwanese beef noodle business to Singapore, which he ran for two years.

"I had to sell my properties one after another to settle the payments so that I would have no debt.

"Things were tough," recalls Mr Chua, who also had his fingers burned in the stock market at that time.

Each-A-Cup is doing well enough, he says, but has been hit by manpower issues in recent years, with the number of outlets falling from 50 to 33.

But that is part of his plans.

"I'm holding off opening new outlets. In these two years, some of the contracts expired and I didn't recontract them.

"I'm considered lucky."

He is married to housewife Yew Kwee Eng, 65.

His son Ivan, 37, is heading the branding, marketing and research and development section of the business, while his daughter Jacqueline, 39, is a teacher.

Mr Chua feels it is difficult for newcomers to start from scratch in the F&B industry these days.

But Each-A-Cup has been around for over 17 years, thanks to innovation and quality control, he says.

"When there was a bubble tea craze which later saw many shops go bust, I found that their drinks tasted like water because the staff were not trained well.

"But today, professionals are running such businesses as they have more experience, and popular brands have also come into Singapore."

If anyone wants to open a new drinks concept store now, they have to ensure their products are good or risk being wiped out in months, adds Mr Chua.

"We are constantly opening and closing shops as contracts expire. That's normal for us.

"But new shops don't have the luxury as they need to make sure they have the capital, and the standard of their drinks has to be there.

"If not, how will they compete with others?"

Q Moneywise, what were your growing-up years like?

A I didn't come from a rich family.

In the old days, my family used to live in an attap house in Hougang, which always leaked when it rained.

However, the situation didn't hinder me from working hard which brought me to where I am today.

Q How did you get interested in investing?

A In my 20s, I saved a lot from the good times as a musician, but I decided not to continue being one.

I had always wanted to do business but no one really guided me.

My father was a contractor and I asked him to teach me about the industry, but he said it wasn't good. He didn't consider the future then.

I missed out on that line, and started doing all kinds of business.

You may not believe it, but I lost money in business between the ages of 29 to 48.

Q Describe your investing strategy.

A I used to be a high-risk taker, but that has changed after many years of experience.

I used to have stocks, but am no longer involved in the stock market now.

I now make calculated risks, which I compare to the gains when making decisions.

I used to think that as long as I worked hard and had the funds, I wouldn't do badly, but that's not entirely true.

These days, I review the business based on my experience and historical data or current trends.

In times of doubt, I engage reputable advisers for recommendations or an industry survey.

When it comes to business, I don't mind franchising.

If you try to do everything yourself, you'll be very stretched. Half of the outlets here are still mine, and the other half are franchised.

But I have come to like franchising less.

Some franchisees just treat the business like a venture that ends at 8pm every day when they collect money, and leave everything to the staff.

Franchisees should play a more hands-on role and monitor the quality of the products, which will be good for them.

Because if you find good staff, it's great. But if they resign, you'll have to look for someone again, and they might not be as good.

Q What's in your portfolio?

A I no longer invest without discretion.

I realised that the brand name is important, so most of the investments go to the business. I have seen a healthy return from it.

I believe that R&D is very important in this business, so the company invests greatly in this area.

Other than that, I'm not expanding the business too much, and I'm taking a break.

The manpower quota is one of the reasons and it's not easy to find good local staff.

I would do it myself, but I can work only in one outlet at a time.

Although I have fewer outlets, business is still good and I'll wait for a good time to open new outlets.

Other than the business, I have several fixed deposit accounts in banks.

Q What does money mean to you?

A Money used to control me. What I had, I would finish spending.

But after losing huge amounts twice due to failed business ventures, I now control money.

In the past, if I sold a property and got $500,000, it would be finished in six months because I didn't know how to control it. You have to learn how to treasure money.

Q What has been one of your biggest regrets when it comes to investing?

A So far, I've not regretted anything.

Perhaps it's because I issue cheques for my investments and you don't see the actual cash, so you tend not to feel as much for it.

Even if I lose or make money, not seeing the cash allows me to sleep at night.

Q What are your immediate investment plans?

A I'll just grow Each-A-Cup and take care of various aspects of the business. If I don't, the drinks could go haywire due to human error.

With bubble tea, you have to watch things closely because once you change staff, the drinks could taste different.

Q How are you planning for retirement?

A I wanted to retire at 60, but I couldn't as I wanted to look after the business. I've told Ivan that he can take over any time.

Q Home is now...

A A semi-detached house in Kovan where I've lived for 15 years.

Q I drive...

A A Toyota Corolla Altis.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 11, 2015, with the headline 'Finally, the sweet taste of success with bubble tea'. Print Edition | Subscribe