Lam Soon Group's Whang Shang Ying, the master grocer

Lam Soon Group's executive director Whang Shang Ying is the force propelling the company's brands into households

Lam Soon founder Ng Keng Soon (above) in a 1950s photo. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF WHANG SHANG YING
Lam Soon founder Ng Keng Soon (above) in a 1950s photo. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF WHANG SHANG YING
Mr Whang Shang Ying (in pink shirt, front row) with his parents, Mr Whang Tar Liang and Madam Chen Mu Hsien on his left, and Lam Soon employees at a Chinese New Year gathering this year. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF WHANG SHANG YING
Mr Whang Shang Ying and his father Whang Tar Liang on a business trip to Germany in 1992. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF WHANG SHANG YING
Mr Whang Shang Ying, Oxford-trained lawyer turned manufacturer and distributor of household products, was also a jazz reviewer for this newspaper for more than two decades. -- ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Walking into the sunlit warehouse at the Lam Soon Group's headquarters in Marsiling, it soon becomes apparent to even the most casual observer that the group has made its presence felt in almost every Singapore home.

Aside from the 21 brands it owns, including the Knife, Naturel, Duck, Sailing Boat and Golden brands of cooking oil, bio-home cleaning products, Soyfresh and HomeSoy drinks, Lam Soon also distributes Woh Hup, Masterfoods and Del Monte products, Dilmah teas and Allswell juices, among many others.

These are staples in many homes and the man who is responsible for that is Mr Whang Shang Ying, 52, the group's executive director.

He heads a company that has operations here and in Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam; employs 6,155 people and has a yearly turnover of US$1 billion (S$1.25 billion).

The Oxford graduate, who was trained in law, is determinedly low-key and self-deprecating, although his ready smile and quick wit show he is not stodgy.

With his salt and pepper hair, glasses and long-sleeved shirt, he looks more like a university professor than master grocer.

He certainly approaches consumer preferences and behaviour like a science.

"We invest quite a lot in research; what is selling in the retail chain."

Noticing that Singaporeans were travelling more and eating widely, becoming "more Westernised in their taste" and wanting to eat healthily without sacrificing taste, he introduced the Naturel brand in 1993.

It started with a canola and safflower cooking oil blend and has since expanded to include organic olive oil sourced from Spain, organic pasta from Italy and organic brown rice and red rice from Thailand. There is also a range of organic pasta sauces.

The company also teamed up with American chocolate brand Hershey's recently to produce chocolate and mochaflavoured soya milk using Lam Soon's Soyfresh brand.

"There's a lot of lactose intolerance in Asia and people want options," he says.

Lam Soon, which started off manufacturing soap, among other things, also launched its bio-home range of cleaning products in 2008, and it is the group's youngest brand. The range includes dishwashing liquid, and kitchen and multi-purpose cleaners.

He says: "We did it to anticipate and meet consumer aspirations. We decided to make this totally home-grown, our brand, our formulation. We use plant-based rather than petro-chemical based ingredients. Green cleaning products are still a niche, but we intend to expand the range."

The dishwashing liquids are scented with lemongrass and green tea, and there is also a lavender and bergamot combination.

Ask about the posh smells and Mr Whang beams, saying: "We want to bring delight in terms of product quality and emotional resonance.

"We can never take consumers for granted. We have to make our products consistently good and reliable, and add new products, so that they can keep the faith."

This head and heart approach to business is perhaps one reason why the company has thrived in its 85-year history.

Mr Whang's grandfather, the late Ng Keng Soon, was from Xiamen in China. He founded the company as a sole proprietorship called Lam Soon Cannery in 1929.

As Singapore was then considered part of Nanyang or the Southern Seas, he named his company Lam Soon, using the Hokkien word for "south" and part of his name.

It started off producing soya sauce and, after the war, expanded its range of products to include canned food, coffee, cooking oil and laundry soap. The company was incorporated legally in 1950.

Mr Ng had three wives and seven children and Mr Whang says that in the 1930s and 1940s, the family home and factory was located in Balestier Road, and the workers lived in the same compound as the family.

By the late 1940s, the patriarch had made good and bought a villa with a swimming pool in East Coast Road, housing his wives in different wings.

In the early 1950s, the factory relocated to Jalan Jurong Kechil and the whole family moved there. Both factory and family home were in the same compound.

When Mr Ng died in 1955, his two sons - the late Whang Tar Choung, who died at age 85 in 2007, and Mr Whang Tar Liang, now 87 and Mr Whang Shang Ying's father - took over the business.

Mr Whang describes his father, a chemistry graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, as being modern and progressive.

"He brought that thinking to Lam Soon," says Mr Whang, whose mother, Madam Chen Mu Hsien, now 83, was a senior architect at the Housing and Development Board. His younger sister is a film reviewer at 8 Days.

"One of the first things he did was to hire a fellow Berkeley graduate as general manager of the company."

The two brothers and their general manager, Mr Samuel Kam, focused the business on oil and soap, updated its machinery and expanded its reach.

Mr Whang says his father never pressured him to join the family business.

"He felt that we should shape our own destiny," he says. "He values that individual freedom."

So he read law at Oxford, graduating with honours in 1986 and was called to the Bar in Britain the following year. Soon after, he joined Drew & Napier in Singapore and was made partner in 1992.

However, he left in 1994 to join the family business.

"Being a professional is great," he says. "It has its comforts but you tend towards repetition in any chosen field. I wanted a change. Consumer goods were interesting to me. I was interested in consumer behaviour."

In 2000, Lam Soon was rocked by a feud between the two brothers that threatened to break the company up.

Mr Whang's father took his older brother to the High Court to wind up the family's holding company, Lam Soon Cannery, saying that his minority shareholder status was being threatened as his brother was handing over control of the business to a listed Malaysian oil palm plantation group.

Mr Whang Tar Choung accused his brother of acting in "bad faith" by starting the court action as he had known about the company's entry into the business.

The case was settled out of court, with Mr Whang's father buying over his brother's share of the company for $120 million.

Mr Whang, who is married to a retired fund manager, with whom he has a 10-year-old son, says: "If we hadn't done so, Lam Soon would have ended up outside the family. It would have been a shame. The DNA of a company is important."

He says his father "stumped up the money with difficulty".

"We are not going around in Ferraris. The money was invested in the business," he says. "That part of history will always be there, but now, the company is family owned but professionally managed."

He adds: "Family owned and run is not necessarily the best business model."

It is this clear-headed way of thinking that business associates say they value.

Mr Chester Wee, 54, general manager of Woh Hup Food Industries, says Lam Soon has been distributing its sauces and condiments in Singapore for six years now.

Asked about doing business with Mr Whang, he says: "He's sharp, honest, sincere, a man of integrity. He's a no-nonsense guy. That's why we can click."

And yet, there is another side to Mr Whang. People who know him as head of Lam Soon might be surprised to know of his other hobbies.

Between 1989 and last year, he reviewed jazz CDs regularly for this paper, under the byline S.Y. Whang. He got into it as a teenager in The Leys, a boarding school in Cambridge in Britain.

"I was looking for something that was not classical, not top of the pops. I listened to jazz on the radio, read up about it and when I was older, went to jazz clubs," he says. "Jazz is an unique expression of music."

He is also a fan of Japanese film-maker Akira Kurosawa's films, adding that Seven Samurai (1954) is his favourite. Set in 1587, the film is about a group of farmers who hire seven masterless samurai to fight crop-stealing bandits.

"I first watched it as a teen and it's got action, drama and talks about humanity in all its range. It's got all the big themes," he says.

In a way, what he says sums up the man: practical but confident enough to know that business - and life - is not always cut and dried.

"We focus on the here and now. The future brings what the future brings."

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