Going regional? It’s achievable

Family-owned grocery store proves it with pivot to distribution

Chief executive officer Jack Lim has helped to transform Lim Siang Huat into a regional distributor powerhouse. PHOTOS: TED CHEN

The next time you visit a local supermarket, have a quick scan of the shelves. Many household names, such as SIS Sugar, Magnum and Woh Hup, that find their way from these shelves to your pantries, are up there because of food and beverage (F&B) distributor Lim Siang Huat (LSH).

Founded by Mr Lim Mui Er in 1940, the business started life as a small grocery store in Changi selling goods to the British Forces and expatriate community.

Its name - a combination of the Lims' surname and the Chinese words for "sound" and "fortune", to mean that the Lim name would bring fortune to people - has been an extension of its success through the years.

Today, the company is run by the third generation of the Lim family and distributes more than 5,000 products, including six house brands, to a broad range of retailers and businesses in the region. These include restaurants and hotels. Marina Bay Sands, FairPrice, Cold Storage and Star Cruises are among its main customers.

Regional expansion has been crucial to LSH's growth. In the early 90s, it set up an office in Malaysia, followed by offices in Indonesia, the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam between 1995 and 2018, and struck up distribution partnerships with companies in those countries to increase sales and reach new clients.

The company's expansion helped it to achieve double-digit growth in annual revenue and cemented its position as a key distributor of food and beverages in Asia. Chief executive officer Jack Lim said: "We are the third generation of our family to lead the company. Many family businesses do not last beyond this generation; we want to buck the trend and bring the business to greater heights."

Adapting to new markets

Lim Siang Huat Enterprise Singapore
The company now distributes more than 5,000 products, including six house brands, in the region. PHOTO: LIM SIANG HUAT

After Mr Jack Lim, 50, and his two siblings, Mr Peter Lim and Ms Annie Lim, took the reins of LSH in 1991, the company quickly became one of Singapore's largest F&B suppliers within a few years. "We knew we had to look beyond our shores because the market here is small and there wasn't much more room left to grow," he said.

At the time, the company was exporting goods to a few companies in Malaysia and Cambodia. It decided to grow its presence by opening new offices and partnering firms in the region, and hired locals who knew the market and culture in these countries.

By developing unique talent pools locally and overseas, LSH was able to expand its business; it built better relationships with existing customers and reached new clients.

"The locals spoke the language and had a better understanding of the different taste preferences in each part of the country. We needed that knowledge to maximise our odds of success," Mr Lim explained.

These strategies secured the business major victories. Its Indonesia office now handles distribution for Yeo's and Red Bull, among other popular drinks brands, in Jakarta, Surabaya, Bali and Batam, while the Cambodia office has snagged regional dairy brand Cowhead as a major client.

Business development director Peter Lim, 51, said the company plans to strengthen its regional presence by expanding its offerings.

For example, it will start producing carbonated soft drinks for the Sunkist brand in Indonesia and offer more logistics services to firms in Cambodia from this year onwards to attract new customers and expand existing business relationships.

"Such diversification will give us more stable and sustainable revenues in the long term," he said.

A family business built to last

The third generation of the Lim family has expanded Lim Siang Huat's offerings to include the production of soft drinks and logistics services.

LSH may have built a reputation as one of Asia's leading F&B distributors, but it is not done growing yet. Last year, the firm joined Enterprise Singapore's (ESG) Scale-up SG programme to seek new growth opportunities.

The 2.5-year programme, launched last July, aims to help high-growth local firms scale quickly through peer learning sessions and collaborations, coaching, and guidance from management consultancies such as McKinsey & Co and PwC Singapore.

With the support of PwC, the Lim siblings have begun charting a more detailed overseas growth plan for the next three years.

"One of the biggest challenges for small and medium enterprises like ours is retaining talent," added Mr Peter Lim. "With the guidance of consultants under Scale-up SG, we learnt how to draw up attractive career plans for our employees to encourage them to stay."

LSH has also introduced internship programmes to attract and train potential hires, especially for its overseas offices. For instance, it has sent seven international business studies and information communications technology students from Ngee Ann Polytechnic to its Laos office for two- to three-month internships as part of a partnership with the school.

To further hone Singaporean talent for regional roles, the company plans to offer overseas internships to local students annually for the next four years.

"By offering these internships, students can get regional exposure and understand our business and sector better. Some of them may join our firm after they complete their studies, so everyone benefits," said Mr Lim.

"We're also glad that we can help to give such opportunities to Singaporean students as a Singaporean company."

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