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Premium help: Indoguna's Helene Raudaschl believes in going the extra mile for her clients

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 25, 2013

Listening to Ms Helene Raudaschl, managing director of food supplier Indoguna, talk about doing business here can be startling.

Laments about the labour shortage in Singapore and pleas for more help from the Government are common, but she sings a different tune.

"I appreciate so much what the Government has done for small companies like ours," she says. These include measures such as the Jobs Credit Scheme, introduced in 2009 to help employers retain staff instead of retrenching them during the global financial crisis.

She adds: "It gave companies rebates in cash. I have done business in Hong Kong and Dubai and there, you are on your own. The Government here has done so much to keep people employed in bad times."

Born and raised in Hong Kong, and schooled in Canada, Ms Raudaschl, 39, who is a permanent resident here, is even considering taking up Singapore citizenship. "I feel very safe here. Singapore has given me a lot."

The company she runs, Indoguna, was started in 1993 by Ms Elizabeth Liman. She is a partner of the company, together with Ms Raudaschl and a third partner, Mr Farid Effendy.

It supplied premium meats to hotels and other food businesses. Revenue then was $6 million to $7 million a year, MsRaudaschl remembers, and the company had about 40 employees.

She came on board in 1997. The business now occupies three buildings in Senoko Drive and employs 160 people.

Revenue last year was $62 million and the company now supplies everything from wine and seafood to sausages and Mayura Station full-blood wagyu from Australia.

Its customers include the two integrated resorts, Resorts World Sentosa and Marina Bay Sands; the Grand Hyatt, Raffles, Swissotel and Fairmont hotels, the Astons chain of steakhouses, and restaurant chains such as Gyu Kaku, Imperial Treasure and TungLok.

Indoguna's 5,500 sq m Senoko facility also houses an air-drying chamber, which allows its German master butcher to produce saucisson, a dry, cured sausage; air-dried beef, salame and other European-style smallgoods that usually have to be imported.

She hopes that supermarkets here will like them enough to carry them.

She adds: "We hope to come up with a natural range of sausages made with no chemicals, no phosphates. People should understand that when I sell them a hotdog, there will be no MSG, no chemicals. Just minced chicken in a casing."

Other expansion plans are in the works. It is currently building a manufacturing factory in Dubai, "in the middle of the desert". About 6,000 sq m in size, it costs $8 million and is scheduled to be operational in November this year.

With no space and labour constraints there, it plans to manufacture halal dim sum and other products for Middle East, Asia and Europe. Some of these products will also be shipped to Singapore.

Brisk, energetic and canny, Ms Raudaschl is good at spotting gaps in the food and beverage industry that the company can fill.

With hotels and restaurants grappling with a severe labour shortage, Indoguna, like other food suppliers, is helping customers by taking on some of the prep work. It will deliver steaks and fish portioned to its customers' needs, kebabs already impaled on skewers and meatballs already rolled.

To do this on a large scale, it has invested in equipment such as a $50,000 machine that can make 3,000 to 4,000 meatballs in an hour and a $100,000 auto-slicer which can turn out a few thousand slices of cold cuts in an hour.

"Rather than telling them what we have, we are catering to their needs," she says. "They concentrate on the cooking, we do all the dirty work."

The Grand Hyatt has been a customer since Indoguna started and currently buys meat, seafood and dairy products from the company.

Its executive chef Lucas Glanville, 44, says of Ms Raudaschl: "Helene is very dynamic and customer-centric and delivers under whatever circumstances. If she makes a commitment, she will deliver by hook or by crook.

"The company is our first port of call if we are sourcing a new product because it is reliable."

He remembers how the hotel bought a whole wagyu breed cow from Ireland last year, after the embargo on importing Irish beef was lifted.

"She helped us bring it into Singapore. We bought half, she bought the other half and she organised the logistics and paperwork. It was quite an effort, but she got it in with the usual flying colours."

Another customer is Mr Aston Soon, 41, chief executive of the Astons chain of steakhouses with 31 outlets here. It buys one tonne of beef each month and has been doing business with Indoguna for eight years now. He says: "I have to salute her. She is one who believes in quality assurance and we have never had any problem with her products.

"She also has the foresight to invest in order to meet the demand of customers."

Some of its customers have been catalysts in Indoguna expanding overseas.

It ventured into Dubai in 2005 because many of its clients here did so as well, and wanted the same quality products they were used to getting in Singapore.

Ms Raudaschl says: "I went there in 2005 to see some clients and we found that everything was really booming and there was a lack of quality produce. So we opened a distribution office and warehouse."

The business there has changed too. Europeans, especially Germans, used to make up the bulk of visitors. These days, it is tourists from China.

"We want to be the first to have an Asian food kitchen for other countries," she says. "Europe is becoming a big market, demanding tasty food that does not cost a lot of money. We want to create products that are of good value and high quality."

The can-do spirit that her customers talk about has helped her weather crises and to find new opportunities even when times are bad.

She recalls the Sars crisis in 2003. "It was very bad. We took many steps back. Our customers had no business, no events. There were no weddings."

A good friend suggested she go to India to look at a prawn farm in the Bay of Bengal.

"I said, 'India?' He said, 'Come on, you will change your mind when you try the product.' The sample was very good and during Sars, we had nothing to do."

She went to India with bottled water and toilet paper in her suitcase, not knowing what to expect. There, she found a state-of-the-art facility.

From that came Ocean Gems prawns, frozen just after harvesting. They are available at Cold Storage supermarkets.

After the interview, she leads the way to the company's test kitchen, which sees a lot of action as the management team tests new products and food the company makes or plans to distribute.

People used to buying prawns from wet markets might sniff at the frozen ones that Indoguna sells, but when cooked in simmering water, the large prawns taste fresh, with a firm texture.

Its chorizo has a casing that snaps back in a satisfying way and the aroma of paprika permeates every bite of the sausage.

Ms Raudaschl eats with a hearty appetite, adding with a smile that this is why she is in the gym by 6pm on most days.

In many ways, she was made to do the job. Although her father Hudson Wong, 70, was in the leather accessories business, her mother Elena Tang, now 65, worked for a food company in Hong Kong that imported speciality food from Australia and Europe.

"That's when I learnt a lot," says MsRaudaschl. "They were bringing in raspberries, foie gras, truffles, caviar and smoked salmon."

She and her sister Irene, now 41, got to taste what was then exotic food.

At the age of six, she and her sister were learning about French cheeses such as Reblochon and Livarot; tasting them alongside their mother and her mentor, the late gourmet food supplier Maurice Hofstein.

"My mother would take us along on promotions in hotels," she remembers.

The company supplied the Lai Lai Sheraton in Taipei, Le Normandie restaurant in Bangkok's Oriental Hotel, now called the Mandarin Oriental, among others. "The three of us would have suitcases with all this stuff," she says. "That's how we learnt about the food business."

Her mother went on to found her own gourmet food supply company, Lordly, in 1987. It is now one of Hong Kong's top food distributors and Irene is director of the company.

"We love food. Everywhere we go, we like to try everything," says Ms Raudaschl of her family, adding that they keep databases of restaurants they visit.

She is even married to a chef - Georg Raudaschl, 51, former executive chef of The Hyatt, now the Grand Hyatt. He runs a business manufacturing and selling coffee-roasting machines and another providing financial investment services.

The couple and their son Maximilian, 13, live in a Bukit Timah condominium. "We cook on weekends," she says. "I have so many cookbooks."

She also reads food magazines to get a sense of what foodies are excited about and new products there are.

Finding new sources for meats and sourcing new products will still be important for the company, but with the revamped Senoko facility and the Dubai one coming up, the future looks bright.

She says: "We used our own profits to reinvest in the business. It took us 20 years to get to where we are.

"This is the start of exciting times for us. There were a lot of limitations before but, now, we can do some serious business."

hsueh@sph.com.sg

www.facebook.com/tanhsuehyun

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 25, 2013

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