The Life Interview With Ang Chin Koon

The Life Interview with Ang Chin Koon: CEO of C K Department Store is heartland retail king

The chief executive officer of C K Department Store spent his teenage days hawking wares illegally at roadside stalls

In August last year, a fire blazed through the C K Building in Tampines Street 92. The flames raged for hours through three of the six storeys and released a plume of smoke so high, it could be seen as far as Kallang.

Mr Ang Chin Koon, 60, who opened myCK, a chain of heartland department stores, was having coffee with a friend outside when he got a call about his burning building. He was floored later when he saw the charred structure of C K Holdings, the parent company of myCK.

Speaking to The Straits Times at a teahouse in Chinatown, the soft- spoken man says in Mandarin: "I was worried about the building and my employees. But we just had to think about what to do next."

In the few short months since, he has already made plans to rebuild the three damaged storeys and extend part of the building.

It's challenging running a business. It's not just about working hard, but you must do things right, have good relationships with people and treat them right. myCK is not a multinational corporation. It's a family.

MR ANG CHIN KOON, founder of C K Department Store, on his philosophy of running a business

The structural reconstruction of the C K Building is expected to cost $7 million to $8 million.

He discusses the disaster matter- of-factly. Perhaps the fire, in the context of his colourful life, is not the biggest blow he has been dealt.

From his hardscrabble teenage days spent illegally hawking wares at roadside stalls to going bankrupt in middle age when he was a family man, Mr Ang's life has been a playbook of setbacks.

He has been resilient, overcoming each reversal, and he is today the chief executive officer of C K Department Store. This used to double as the retail brand name for the chain of stores, but after a rebranding exercise in 2011, the stores are now known as myCK.

A familiar name in Singapore's heartland from Jurong to Tampines, myCK has 19 outlets around the island. Its budget-friendly product mix includes personal care items, household necessities, clothes, shoes and toiletries. It also has more than 30 in-house labels and carries brands such as Johnson & Johnson and L'Oreal.

Last year, Chinese newspaper Lianhe Zaobao reported that C K Department Store had an annual turnover of $80 million for the 2015 financial year.

This success is a world apart from his childhood days, when money was tight. His China-born parents had seven children and the whole family, including two grandparents, lived in a two-room rental flat in Aljunied.

Together with his siblings, he would follow his parents, who were licensed vendors at night markets or pasar malam, to sell household items such as toothbrushes and buttons.

Mr Ang, the second eldest child, recalls: "We were happy making a living and being together."

By day, he worked with his oldest brother to set up an unlicensed stall, rotating through various neighbourhoods such as Tiong Bahru and Hougang. They were on their own, while their parents set up their stall in another area.

At 16, his enterprising brother suggested adding more items such as clothes and lingerie.

Mr Ang, who completed Secondary 3, says his early working days taught him to be "nimble" and manage a business operation.

He would have to yell to grab the attention of passers-by and give the correct change immediately.

He became so good at hawking that when a customer asked for 10 cents worth of mothballs - they were sold loosely in those days - he was able to tell the right weight with just a single scoop of his hands.

Business was good at these unlicensed spaces, but it also drew lots of attention - from the police. While attending to customers, they also had to be on the lookout, in case they needed to pack and run.

At times, the brothers were arrested and made to pay fines. Mr Ang was even hauled to court once after chalking up one too many offences.

Tired of dodging the police after selling their goods by the roadside, his brother suggested renting a shop to sell their wares.

Mr Ang says: "It was a good idea because we had limited space at the roadside stalls and were constantly worried about weather."

In 1978, the family opened their first shop called Pisces, a 500 sq ft space at the Old Airport Road market.

Some of Mr Ang's siblings continued running the illegal roadside stalls until they opened a second shop in Toa Payoh. Both stalls sold the same items, which were mostly made in Singapore, with some from Malaysia.

Their strategy for choosing where to open shops was classic Business 101: Go where it was most crowded.

The brothers, who were mainly running the operations, studied their customers closely to know how to keep them coming back.

Mr Ang, who was in charge of purchasing new products and stocktaking at Pisces, says the retail scene was not as competitive as it is today.

Business boomed. In eight years, they opened 10 stores. The family bought a terrace house in Paya Lebar which doubled as the Pisces warehouse. Some of the Ang children stayed on in the rental flat.

In 1989, the Pisces Group opened PMart in a prime location. The four-storey department store in Dhoby Ghaut had more variety than the smaller stores. There were more clothes for women and a men's fashion and shoes section was added.

As the Pisces Group grew, so did its aspirations.

The group started investing in other sectors such as property and manufacturing in China. There were plans to list the company on the Singapore stock exchange.

Non-family members were joining the group's board, such as the chief executive officer who was a business associate of Mr Ang's brother, the group's chairman.

Mr Ang says: "The plans (to get listed and the investments) weren't in sync with what I thought Pisces should be. We started off in retail and, if you have profits, you should reinvest them in what you are good at."

Things came to a head in 1994, when Mr Ang was handed a formal letter by the Pisces Group board asking him to leave.

Mr Ang, who is married to a housewife and had three children by then, says: "I never thought I would get kicked out. Maybe the board found it hard to have differing opinions. In hindsight, I would have left anyway."

Rising from the ashes

His expulsion sent him into a tailspin. For almost three years, he and his family lived off his savings while he remained a Pisces shareholder. He did nothing else. "I just roamed. I was too upset."

His relationship with his elder brother was tense and Mr Ang avoided meeting his sibling where possible.

Stoically, he says: "When I first left, I was unhappy with how the situation had turned out. So when we met, I had to stop myself from starting an argument. I was sad for at least 10 years."

Over time, Mr Ang's anger subsided and the brothers are now on better terms. After all, he still counts his brother as someone he admires a lot.

"I had worked alongside my brother since I was 13. He guided me both as a mentor as well as through life."

In 1997, to get himself out of a rut, Mr Ang decided to open C K Department Store under his wife's name.

Retail was always in his blood, he says. "I decided to go back to what I'm good at, which is to sell things. It was the only skill I had."

He needed funds to get the first store opened and 17 of his friends came forward with money to help him get started. Mr Ang says that friends trusted him enough to lend money because they knew his character. "I have a reputation of being trustworthy."

He even borrowed money from his eldest daughter, Ms Ang Wei Xia, who was 14 then. She gave him $7,500, a sum she had saved from collecting hongbao. His wife also put in some money for the new business.

Now a director at C K Holdings, his daughter Ms Ang, 33, says: "I knew that he wasn't doing well. I gave him the money to help him and share his burden."

Mr Ang opened the first C K Department Store in Toa Payoh Central - a high-traffic area in the heartland. The store has since closed down. In the same year, he opened another store in Bedok Central. He opened the Tampines Central and Chinatown outlets a year later.

For the first five years, C K Department Store sold mainly apparel, towels and bedlinen. The product mix later expanded to include personal care items, household items and shoes.

Just when he thought he had his life back on track, Mr Ang was dealt a new blow. He was declared bankrupt in 1998 when the Pisces Group folded. He was still listed as a guarantor though he no longer worked there.

Two years earlier, he had an inkling that the group was in trouble financially because he was receiving letters from lawyers representing suppliers that Pisces worked with, demanding payment.

Mr Ang says: "People chased me to settle debts. Others in the industry were also talking about it."

The episode embarrassed him. "Back then, I couldn't look people in the eye. I don't know why, but it's that feeling of knowing that you don't have any money."

It was a "challenging" period, having to put money woes behind him while trying to build a fledging business.

His enterprise served him well. He expanded the product mix to include toiletries because "they made the store smell nice" and blended well with the other merchandise. He also added new designs to the clothes range.

He believes that part of building a strong business is treating his staff well. He modestly describes himself as an "okay" boss and says that the 420 staff of C K Holdings are like family.

During the economic downturn in 2008, Mr Ang gave his staff coupons to use at myCK stores so that they could buy household essentials for their families.

Ms Pauline Aw, 50, who has been at myCK since it opened its first outlet and is its merchandising director of fashion, says: "Mr Ang's a very kind and sincere boss. He renders help to many people, as well as employees, in many ways.

"He has always been open and approachable. There's no matter too small that can't be brought up and openly discussed. Occasionally, at the myCK headquarters, he makes sure that the employees have had breakfast, no matter how busy we are. He will also buy us breakfast when we have morning meetings."

While he works at building the myCK empire, Mr Ang also enjoys travelling - his way of recharging and a way to perfect his photography skills.

Ever the businessman, he also observes retail trends overseas to see what he can use in his stores here. He travels with the merchandising teams to places such as South Korea, China and Thailand to source for new products that would work for Singapore consumers.

His new product ranges have included popular Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese personal care products, and Korean-designed apparel.

While Mr Ang is still in charge, his children are already learning the ropes of running myCK.

Apart from his daughter, her husband and younger brother are both deputy directors at C K Holdings. Their other sister does not work with them.

Ms Ang, who has a business degree from the National University of Singapore and joined the family business after she graduated in 2007, says: "I admire my dad's mental toughness after being through so much and his ability to maintain his positivity."

Ms Ang and her father live in the same condominium, though in different units.

Mr Ang is confident his children will not clash over the business. But if they do fight, he says they should take it as a lesson and emerge stronger.

"I hope they are virtuous and stay grateful - cornerstones of how I run my business and qualities that made me who I am today."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2017, with the headline 'Heartland retail king'. Print Edition | Subscribe