Lunch With Sumiko: Sheng Siong boss Lim Hock Chee walks the talk

Sheng Siong CEO Lim Hock Chee believes he must work harder than his employees

In March, Sheng Siong Group chief executive Lim Hock Chee was named Businessman of the Year 2018 at the Singapore Business Award. From one stall selling chilled pork in Ang Mo Kio, the company now has 54 supermarkets across the island. Mr Lim is know
Sheng Siong Group chief executive Lim Hock Chee is known for being down to earth and plain-spoken. He is also known to roll up his sleeves and clear litter from the office.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Sheng Siong supermarket boss Lim Hock Chee has many trappings of success, but he wears them lightly.

He drives a Bentley, but it was a gift from his younger brother for his contributions to the company.

He lives in a 17,000 sq ft bungalow in an exclusive area but has swum in the pool just once or twice. "It's useless," he says in Mandarin. "The gym is also useless. It's boring to run in the same spot. Hiking is better. I can see different things, unlike when I run on a treadmill."

He has the requisite towkay watch - a Rolex - which was given to him by the same brother, but he doesn't wear it.

"I already have my mobile phone," says the chief executive of the mainboard-listed Sheng Siong Group, which has 54 supermarkets across Singapore.

And if he doesn't have his phone with him during those weekend hikes to Bukit Timah Hill , he'll just approach a stranger.

"Ah hia, kwee tiam liao (Brother, what's the time)?" he adds, this time in Teochew, demonstrating his fuss-free approach to time-keeping.

Lunch with the pork seller-turned-tycoon is a lively affair. He is known for being down to earth and plain-spoken and doesn't disappoint.

His corporate affairs manager had told me he's not comfortable using English, so we converse in a mix of Mandarin, Teochew and some English.

He smiles often, laughs easily and speaks freely, but you sense nothing escapes his eagle eye.

There's a hard-driving streak in him, he admits later, describing himself in Mandarin as "quite stubborn". At another point, he says, in English, that he's "firm".

He has chosen to meet at the canteen of Sheng Siong's massive headquarters in Mandai, which houses its corporate office and distribution centre.

I spot a Bentley, a Rolls-Royce and a Porsche among the cars at the entrance, but the offices inside are nondescript.

Sheng Siong is famous for providing free lunches daily to its employees, which now number more than 2,500. Those working at HQ eat in the same canteen as the boss, while employees elsewhere get meals prepared from a central kitchen delivered to them.

The canteen is a simple structure with ceiling fans, a dozen stainless steel tables and plastic chairs.

The manager says Mr Lim is wrapping up a phone call and asks me to sit anywhere I like. I choose a table near the buffet-style spread of dishes and it turns out to be where the management sits.

Mr Lim Hock Leng, 54, Mr Lim's younger brother and Sheng Siong's managing director, is at a table there with Mr Tan Ling San, the company's vice-chairman.


Sheng Siong Group CEO Lim Hock Chee (right) with his brothers, managing director Hock Leng (left) and chairman Hock Eng, in 2006. BT FILE PHOTO

The elderly Mr Tan, it emerges, is something of a mentor to the CEO and his two brothers. There's also Mr Lim Hock Eng, 59, the chairman, who drops in for lunch later.

All three brothers are tall and stocky, although Mr Lim Hock Chee looks to be slimmer now than in the past, based on old photos.

Today's menu is fish porridge or brown rice with a choice of seven dishes, including asparagus, tofu and meat.

We opt for the fish porridge, which is cooked Cantonese-style and very tasty.

THRIFTY WAYS

In Forbes 2018's list of richest Singaporeans, Mr Lim is ranked 36th, with a net worth of US$830 million (S$1.13 billion).

Wealth, it seems, hasn't changed his thrifty ways. He's wearing a simple grey, short-sleeved shirt, black trousers that were tailored for $40 and sturdy-soled shoes.

 
 

In late March, he was photographed rather more nattily dressed - in black tie - when he won the Businessman of the Year 2018 award.

This is the top award at the annual Singapore Business Award organised by The Business Times and DHL Express Singapore.

The citation spoke of his vision and business acumen in growing Sheng Siong into Singapore's third-largest supermarket chain, after NTUC FairPrice and Dairy Farm, with a 15 per cent share of the market.

I congratulate him on the award and he shares that he didn't know whether to accept it at first.

He had already won other awards and thought "other people should have this". He consulted Mr Tan, who advised him to accept it.

"We were happy but a little frightened at the same time," he says. "Happy because it acknowledges what we have done in the past, but frightened because we will have to think about how we can sustain it in the future."

An award, he observes, is worth nothing if you don't live up to it.

The title caps a rags-to-riches story that is the stuff of the Great Singapore Dream.

He was born in 1961, the middle of nine children in a Hokkien family, with an older and a younger brother, and three older and three younger sisters. "I'm No. 5, just nice, in the middle."

His father started as a fisherman in Jurong and later had a pig farm first in Lim Chu Kang, then Punggol.

Being No. 5 gave Mr Lim a head start in the business world.

Growing up, he used to complain about how his father would make him run errands like go to the bank.

"I used to grumble, why is it always me, not my siblings? It was only later that I knew. My elder siblings had to help out at home and the younger ones were too young and didn't understand anything, so they couldn't go. There was only me in the middle. But I became the one who learnt the most in the end."

He gained a lesson from this: "Don't grumble. Whatever people tell you to do, just do it. Once you're done with the task, you stand to learn the most. It may not be in monetary terms, but you will learn many things."

He quit Chinese High School after Secondary 3 because he was struggling with his English, and did a two-year car mechanic course at the old Jurong Vocational Institute.

After national service - he was a lance corporal based at Sungei Gedong camp - he worked on his father's farm. After two years, he and his wife decided to rent a stall at Savewell Supermarket in Block 122 Ang Mo Kio, to sell chilled pork from the farm.

Madam Lee Moi Hong, who works at Sheng Siong, was his neighbour in Punggol and they had been match-made by a relative.

Half an hour into our meal, Mr Lim suddenly smiles and shouts out in Mandarin: "Hey, that's my wife!" He adds in English: "Hello, Madam Lee."

Madam Lee, 57, a petite, simply-dressed woman, is seated a few chairs away from us and having lunch alone. She looks a little alarmed at having been identified, but smiles at us.

  • WHAT WE ATE

  • Sheng Siong Group canteen 6 Mandai Link 

    Fish porridge and assorted dishes

From the 1980s, the Government started phasing out pig farms.

When Savewell's owner got into financial problems and wanted to sell the store in 1985, Mr Lim's father took out $300,000 to buy the 1,400 sq ft Ang Mo Kio outlet.

The original name the elder Mr Lim gave it was Cheng Siong, or Qing Song in Mandarin, meaning "clean and relaxed".

"My father's friends said he wouldn't be able to make money with a name like that and they suggested Sheng Siong."

"Sheng" means "rising sun" and "siong" is "evergreen pine".

In the years that followed, Sheng Siong expanded steadily in the HDB heartland, relying on a formula of competitive prices, a wide variety of wet and dry market goods, and exemplary service.

Mr Tan, who had founded PSC Corporation and started the Econ Minimart stores, was invited to join Sheng Siong's board in 2006 after he retired. He has been adviser and peacemaker to the brothers.

I ask Mr Lim if he and his brothers are on good terms. "Back then, when Mr Tan was not on the board, we were on bad terms," he says frankly.

"Then Mr Tan came and gave each one of us advice, and we became all right. He told us, 'when you don't have money, you quarrel. Now you have money, you quarrel, it's worse'. Mr Tan guided us to move forward in one direction."

It helps, too, that the siblings have grown older and more mature, he adds.

I am curious if he has ever gifted his younger brother - who gave him the Bentley - anything. He thinks for a while, then says: "I gave him 50 cases of hard liquor - $2,400 per case."

The company listed in 2011. For the financial year 2018, it posted a revenue of $890.9 million and net profit of $70.5 million.

There are several family members working in the group and its subsidiaries, and each has a role.

Mr Lim takes care of human resources, IT and the pork department. His wife is a director in the group's subsidiaries and oversees dried food.

Mr Lim Hock Eng, his wife and their daughter are in charge of vegetables and fruit, while Mr Lim Hock Leng does seafood and frozen goods.

It can't be easy working with family, I observe.

"Not easy," he agrees.

"I always tell them: I'm CEO, so we have to be more hard-working than others, faster than others, start work earlier than others, go home later than others. This is the most fundamental rule. If not, I won't be able to manage a company."

He is known to roll up his sleeves and clear litter from the office.

CUSTOMER IS BOSS

What makes or breaks his business is people, he says. "Human," he adds in English for emphasis.

"Colleagues, family members, suppliers, customers, Mr Tan. People can change everything."

The company pays competitive wages and has bursaries, long service awards and retirement schemes for staff.

He sees one of his challenges as attracting young people to the organisation. It's for this reason that a subsidiary ventured into China with a Kunming store in 2017.

"If we don't expand, the younger people will not want to join us. They will think, if Mr Lim doesn't retire for the next 15 years, then will I have to wait 15 years to be able to take over? Once you stop expanding, people will think they have no opportunities."

While Sheng Siong has an online presence, he points out that many e-commerce businesses are not making money. "We still focus on our bricks-and-mortar stores."

I wonder if he has ambitions to be No. 2 or No. 1 in the scene here. "Don't think about such things, just slowly do it," is his practical answer.

He has always taken a "customer is boss" approach and has, for years, publicised his mobile number in stores so customers can call him.

It started because he wanted to react quickly to feedback on service or products. He then discovered that the possibility of customers calling him made his staff work harder to minimise complaints.

"It means that if my staff did a good job, my phone won't ring."

He doesn't get many complaints now but does get job inquiries.

He seldom goes down to the stores as he doesn't believe in spot checks. "No need. All our workers are very hard-working and we must have mutual trust."

On the home front, his four children, aged 34 to 24, and their families live with him and his wife. "Happy family," he says in English.

His three sons are married. The eldest is in the foodcourt business, the second is a pharmacist doing a business venture and the third is doing his master's. His daughter has just graduated.

 

He laughs when I ask if there's any truth to rumours that one of his sons is married to or had dated the daughter of a Singapore politician.

"Not true, all fake news," he protests, adding that he's even been asked this by taxi drivers. "My entire family has no links to them. Not only my family but including my distant relatives."

In 2014, the family made headlines when his mother was kidnapped. She was released after a $2 million ransom was paid. The culprits were arrested and the money recovered.

She's doing well, he says.

I wonder if he's afraid of kidnappings, what with him giving out his mobile number.

"No," he says. "I have not offended anyone, I always settle things in a proper way."

His life revolves around work and he is stumped when I ask when his last family holiday was.

"I took my wife on a grassroots retreat - three days," he laughs. "Going on holiday is even more tiring." He is a grassroots leader in Marsiling.

As we wrap up lunch, I wonder what gives him the most happiness. There is satisfaction in being able to make decisions, he says. Beyond that, "being content with what you have means happiness".

"In the past, it was about making money. Now that I have money, it's not about material wealth any more. It's about being able to help others too."

On a more practical level, he says: "I'm happy when my workers are safe and customers are okay. A smooth-sailing, accident-free day at work means happiness to me."

Lunch over, we prepare for the photo shoot, but not before he clears the table, taking not just his own bowl, but also the other plates on the table, to the sink.

Twitter @STsumikotan

• Mandarin translation with help from Kua Yu-Lin