Me&MyMoney

Spotting a good catch in exotic frozen seafood

Mr Chew Kim Koon's company distributes exotic seafood like lobster, scallop and Chilean sea bass. He obtains supplies from countries like Chile, Argentina and Australia, and exports mainly to South-east Asia and Asia.
Mr Chew Kim Koon's company distributes exotic seafood like lobster, scallop and Chilean sea bass. He obtains supplies from countries like Chile, Argentina and Australia, and exports mainly to South-east Asia and Asia.ST PHOTO: AZMI ATHNI

Chew Kim Koon, who dropped out of school at 16 and later married his school sweetheart, has transformed his family's seafood business

When Mr Chew Kim Koon was 10 and growing up near Yishun, he would row out to a nearby river in a sampan in the dead of night to catch prawns to supplement his family income.

Today, as managing director of his family business, Lam Kee Fisheries, the 52-year-old oversees the distribution of frozen seafood from Alaska and Chile.

In 1980, Mr Chew dropped out of school when he was 16 to join the business, thinking that working there was more lucrative than studying. He has been there ever since.

In the 80s and 90s, he spent his days loading live fish on trucks and driving them to customers.

Along the way, he married his secondary school sweetheart.

  • Worst and best bets

  • Q What has been your biggest mistake?

    A I invested about $300,000 in structured deposits in 2012.

    They were recommended by my banker. I think the product pays 8 per cent interest per annum on its market price, which is related to the income of casino operators like MGM Resorts and Melco Crown Entertainment.

    I am not exactly sure how returns on this product are calculated, and I relied on the banker.

    In the first two years, I was very happy as I got good returns from interest, but after the anti-corruption drive in China, problems came. All the casino businesses were down, especially in Macau.

    The product is still paying interest, but this is not sufficient to compensate for the severe fall in market price.

    Today, the market value of the investment is only about a third of the initial investment.

    The moral of the story is to only invest in the things that you understand.

    Q And what has been your best investment move?

    A Restructuring the business from one that distributes fresh seafood to one that distributes exotic frozen seafood.

    In 2002, I saw that with incomes rising, high-income people in Singapore and the region will demand more exotic fish from colder regions.

    Manila and Jakarta are big markets. Although they are not so developed, based on their population size, they have many more wealthy people than in Singapore. There is less competition in this business area too.

    Restructuring took place from 2002 to 2005 and cost the company about $3 million to $4 million.

    In 2002, 10 per cent of our revenue came from frozen.

    Now, the business mainly distributes exotic frozen seafood.

They now have a 22-year-old son and a 16-year-old daughter.

Mr Chew never thought of leaving the business.

He said: "I wasn't familiar with other kinds of work.

"Second, I didn't study much, what other line could I switch to?"

The business faced stiff competition around 1990.

He suggested the move from distributing live fish to delivering fresh fish - fish that had been killed recently. The risks in delivering live fish were greater. It had to be delivered within a shorter period as it could die and lose its value.

"Every day we were rushing (to deliver the fish)," Mr Chew recalled. We had this Hokkien saying, 'People can die but the fish must not die.'"

So the firm changed its business model and revenue grew.

The contribution of fresh fish to revenue grew from zero around the late 80s to about 50 per cent in the early 90s. Mr Chew's idea and his involvement in its implementation gained him credibility among family members. He was made managing director in 2002.

He then further transformed the business into one of frozen seafood distribution, which yielded higher profits. Annual net profit grew from about $550,000 in 2002 to about $3 million in the 2015 financial year.

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

A I grew up in a poor family with six brothers and three sisters.

I was the youngest.

I lived in a single-storey wooden house with a zinc roof near Yishun.

My dad was a fish farmer and my mother was a housewife.

My dad's monthly income was about $100 to $150 a month.

My pocket money was 10 cents a day, which could buy me a bread with white cream on top and a concentrated syrup drink for lunch.

Meat was a luxury in those days.

To supplement my family's income, I became a fisherman when I was 10 and in school.

I would usually go out alone in the middle of the night at low tide in my sampan to catch prawns and fish.

The prawns I caught during the week would be sold at a wet market stall owned by a friend of my father on weekends.

I would buy food for a steamboat meal for my family, to provide them with a good dinner. Steamboat was then considered a luxury. This continued till Secondary 4.

BREAKING NEW GROUNDS

One key strategy I employed was to travel to places like Cape Town in South Africa and China to look for new products and new customers, and identify trends that might impact the Singapore market. ''

MR CHEW KIM KOON, managing director of Lam Kee Fisheries, who oversees the distribution of frozen seafood from Alaska and Chile.

Sometimes, when low tide was around 3am, I would not be able to concentrate in school.

Q How did you get interested in investing?

A My first investment was in conglomerate Pan-Electric Industries around 1985. I invested around $12,000, my life savings at that time, into the stock.

I heard from army friends, the television and the radio that this stock was good. However, within one year, the stock plummeted as the company had committed to a lot of loans that it was not able to pay.

I pulled out before the company went into receivership but I lost about $8,400.

Q Describe your investing strategy.

A When I took over as managing director, I bought shares from family members who could not see a future in the business, and I now have more than 50 per cent of the shares.

One key strategy I employed was to travel to places like Cape Town in South Africa and China to look for new products and new customers, and identify trends that might impact the Singapore market.

I saw that companies abroad were starting to differentiate themselves by offering fish in the form of fillet or portions to suit customer needs. I also saw that higher-income consumers were starting to demand more exotic seafood.

As a result, we have started to offer higher value-added products too. I now supply fillets to in-flight caterer Sats and they use my products for business class.

Now, my business mainly distributes exotic seafood like lobster, scallop and Chilean sea bass.

I obtain supplies from countries all over the world like Chile, Argentina and Australia, but export mainly to South-east Asia and Asia. Today, between 40 per cent and 60 per cent of our firm's annual revenue is from overseas. Back in 2002, about 5 per cent was from overseas.

I also invest in real estate.

The location of a property is very important for me.

I will not invest in a property that is not in a very good location simply because the price is lower, as I may have difficulty finding a tenant.

I also get market information like supply and rental yield from the Urban Redevelopment Authority, Housing Board and JTC Corporation websites.

I have friends, some of whom are retired, who are very passionate about the real estate markets, and I discuss trends with them.

From such sources, I know that offices and factories are in oversupply and it is difficult to find tenants.

Rents are also dropping.

For shophouses in and around the city area, the rental yield is still good and there is no oversupply yet.

I also invest in local blue chips as they are of lower risk. I like bank stocks. For many years, they have not run into crisis. Their dividends are also not bad. The Monetary Authority of Singapore has good safeguards to make sure banks can meet their obligations even if some borrowers have issues.

Q What's in your portfolio?

A Of my current portfolio, 60 per cent is in the stocks of my company.

Real estate, excluding where I live, takes up 35 per cent of my portfolio, while stocks take up 5 per cent.

I bought an HDB flat in Hougang for $390,000 in 2008.

It is now worth around $600,000 and I am renting it out for about $2,800 a month.

I also purchased a 2,100 sq ft condominium unit in East Coast for about $1.6 million in 2007.

Its current market value is around $2.5 million and I am renting it out for about $5,000 a month.

The blue chips return about 3 to 4 per cent a year, including dividends on average for the last five years.

Examples of stocks I own are Singapore Press Holdings and OCBC.

Q What does money mean to you?

A Coming from a family that was not well-to-do, money is very important to me.

However, I still believe that family and health are top priorities.

Q What's the most extravagant thing you have done?

A The most extravagant thing I did was take my family for a holiday in Europe around 2012.

We went to places like Switzerland, Italy and France and spent about $60,000 in a two-week trip.

This was mainly because I bought some luxury items for my wife, like a Rolex watch and a Prada bag. I was also with my son and daughter.

Q What are your immediate investment plans?

A I am trying to look for a larger plot of land to build a bigger factory to process and store seafood.

There is still opportunity to grow my business.

The overseas market is huge and the median income in Asia is increasing.

I think our sales will grow from $80 million a year at present to between $120 million and $150 million in three to five years. The new factory will help me achieve that.

The cost involved will likely be about $25 million to $30 million over two years.

Q How are you planning for retirement?

A I see myself handing over the role of managing director of the company within five to eight years.

I estimate that my passive income will be around $30,000 a month then, from rental and company income.

Of this, I will need about $10,000 a month for my lifestyle. I believe in being comfortable in retirement.

Q Home is now/I drive...

A A 1,800 sq ft four-room condominium unit in the East Coast area.

I bought it in 2010 for about $3.2 million. Its current value is about $3.5 million. I live with my two kids and wife. I drive a six-year-old Mercedes E-class sedan.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 24, 2016, with the headline 'Spotting a good catch in exotic frozen seafood'. Print Edition | Subscribe