It Changed My Life

Former kopi boy's still full of beans

Mr Hoon Thing Leong dropped out of secondary school and worked as a coffee boy. Today, he owns 35 coffee shops.
Mr Hoon Thing Leong dropped out of secondary school and worked as a coffee boy. Today, he owns 35 coffee shops.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN
Mr Hoon Thing Leong and his sons (from left) Alfred and Andy after graduating from their professional diploma course on organisational excellence, organised by Human Capital Singapore.
Mr Hoon Thing Leong and his sons (from left) Alfred and Andy after graduating from their professional diploma course on organisational excellence, organised by Human Capital Singapore.PHOTO: HOON THING LEONG

Hoon Thing Leong makes a name for himself as Coffee Shop King of Singapore

Hoon Thing Leong leads the way through the crowded Bishan coffee shop, squeezing his burly frame past the cramped drinks station, and stopping at the door to his office.

Before he opens it, he asks what I would like to drink, then shouts out to a woman stirring a cup of Milo vigorously: "One kopi peng siew dai, and one teh si for me."

That, in the parlance unique to coffee shops all over this island, means ice coffee easy on the sugar and hot tea with evaporated milk

His tiny office has space for only a small desk and two seats. "I have a small office in all my coffee shops," the 67-year-old says.

And he has 35 coffee shops, more than enough to earn him the moniker Coffee Shop King of Singapore and make him a millionaire many times over.

But the Kim San Leng Coffee Shop in Block 511, Bishan Street 13, holds a special place in his heart.

In 1990, he paid $3.52 million for it, $2 million more than the starting bid. Many thought he was a lunatic to fork out that exorbitant sum.

The purchase, however, proved to be a game-changer in more ways than one. Its subsequent success gave him a profile and credibility which helped him scale new heights in his business. The shop is worth well over $35 million today.

Mr Hoon has come a long way from his early days as a coffee boy when nasty customers mocked and told him he would never amount to much. "But I told myself I would succeed," he says.

The eldest of six children, he came to Singapore on a ship from Fuzhou in China with his mother when he was five years old.

"My father had arrived about 20 years earlier, when he was 12. He worked really hard and saved enough to open a coffee shop in Hougang," he says in Mandarin.

After Pei De Primary, he went to Dexin Technical but dropped out before completing Secondary Two education.

Because he had been retained a few years in school, he was already 17 when he started working at another coffee shop that his father had opened in Jalan Besar.

"It was a very rough area and coffee shops were not lucrative then because there were a lot of hawkers. Sometimes I had to walk quite a distance to a community centre just to deliver one cup of coffee," he says.

The days were long, and the work menial. Starting at 5am each day, he had to scrub toilets, clean spittoons and be a general dogsbody until 8pm.

Gangsters were a regular menace, demanding protection money and often causing mayhem when they fought with other gangs in the coffee shop.

One of his relatives got roughed up badly for not giving protection money so Mr Hoon decided he needed to learn some self-defence.

He started with White Crane Fist, moved on to Shaolin gongfu and today is a proponent of the Five Ancestors Fist, which incorporates techniques from five schools of Chinese martial arts.

"I never stopped practising wushu," he says.

His skills have come in handy. In 1972, four men - dressed in skimpy swimming trunks and with grease all over their bodies - broke into the family home in MacPherson Road.

"Not only did they want money, but they were also eyeing my sister who was about 16 then," he recalls.

The intruders, armed with knives, pounced on Mr Hoon when he came out of his room. He suffered several slash wounds which required 40 stitches but he gave the thieves such a beating they ran off.

"I still have several scars on my back," says the sturdily built man, adding that he also single-handedly fought off six petty thieves who tried to rob him in Rome in 1997.

After seven years as a coffee boy in Jalan Besar, he decided to strike out on his own.

With money borrowed from his father, as well as his own savings, he opened Jin Fa Coffeeshop in Bukit Timah when he was 23 years old.

"It was then that I realised how little I knew, and how I should have studied harder," he says.

On the advice of friends, he started attending talks.

One story he heard at a talk struck a special chord.

"Two guys went fishing. One went off enthusiastically to do his own thing. The other started talking to fishermen in the area. He told them, 'I'll give you $10 if you tell me where the fish are.' Later, he asked them again, 'I'll give you another $10 if you tell me what they like to eat.'

"Based on what he had learnt, he got a lot of fish, a lot more than the $20 he paid for. But the other guy who went off on his own got nothing."

Mr Hoon took the moral of the story to heart and decided to invest in himself.

Zealously, he started buying books and signing up for talks on everything from insurance to direct sales and real estate.

He also signed up for courses - from time management to leadership and human resource practices - at various bodies, including the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce, the Singapore Institute of Management and American Success Motivation Institute.

"I listened to one tape by the Success Motivation Institute - on unleashing potential and becoming a leader - more than 2,000 times," says Mr Hoon, who was invited in 1996 to give a talk to more than 500 American bosses at the institute's headquarters in Waco, Texas.

The knowledge he imbibed went into expanding his business. He pioneered many innovative practices in the coffee shop trade, including installing automated door grilles and advertising on TV. By the time he acquired the Bishan coffee shop in 1990, he had already taken over his father's business and was running 11 other coffee shop ventures.

What prompted him to make such a high bid for the place?

"Knowledge, awareness, understanding, analysis, evaluation and conclusion," he says simply. "I saw potential."

But nothing was left to chance. He hired a consultant. Mr Hoon also went to great lengths to get famous hawkers to set up stalls in the coffee shop. It took him five tries before he persuaded the woman boss of Mung Kee Chicken Rice to move from Bugis to Bishan.

"I ignored what naysayers said and just focused on how to develop the shop. You need to have a fighting spirit and you need to persevere. I worked day and night to make sure I didn't fail."

With the acquisition of the Bishan coffee shop, he decided to rename all his coffee shops Kim San Leng, as a tribute to his father whose first coffee shop in Hougang was called Kim San Eating House.

The Bishan coffee shop's roaring success gave his business a big fillip and he went on to acquire others in areas such as Yishun and Bukit Panjang. Last year, he paid $8 million for a unit in Henderson.

But it has not all been hunky dory.

In the name of diversification, he tried to go into magazine publishing and also bought over a noodle-making business in the mid- 1990s.

Both ventures failed.

He struggled to keep the noodle factory afloat for nearly five years before finally conceding defeat. He had to sell two shophouses to pay off the losses, which came to nearly $3 million.

"It was a painful lesson but it also told me I should not venture into businesses I know nothing about. I bought a place in the MacKenzie Road area and built a hotel but it's managed by hotel experts. I just focus on my coffee shop business now," he says.

His five children, aged between 32 and 42, help him run his business.

"I'm trying to cultivate my grandchildren's interest in the business too," says the grandfather of five. The youngest is six months old, the eldest is 13 years old.

Like many Chinese towkays of his generation, the chatty entrepreneur believes in giving back.

He helped to co-found The Bosses' Network, which organises talks and sharing sessions for its 1,000 members, mostly bosses of small and medium-sized enterprises.

A grassroots leader, Mr Hoon also sits on the boards of various associations, including the Foochow Coffee Restaurant and Bar Merchants Association.

Last year, he published Strategies of A Boss, a compilation of 80 articles from his popular column in the Chinese evening daily Lianhe Wanbao on management practices. It has become a bestseller.

Retirement is not on the cards.

"I wake up every day with a new spirit. I work because I really enjoy it, not because it will make me more money," he says.

Save for his cholesterol levels, which are a bit high, he says he is in the pink of health.

"Feel this, feel this," he says, extending an invitation to touch the muscles in his arms and calves.

"I practise the Five Ancestors Fist every morning for one hour. You have to keep practising to keep your body fit, just as you have to keep learning to keep your mind sharp."

kimhoh@sph.com.sg