A lesson in patience from catching crabs

TCM boss has stayed true to his principles through life's ups and downs

In 1992, a hostile neighbour in a Sims Avenue industrial building made running a business hellish for Mr Tan Lee Huak.

For peace of mind, the mild-mannered vice-president of Science Arts - a company that deals in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) - decided to move out and invest in his own premises.

He found a five-storey building in MacPherson Road and, after several rounds of negotiations, agreed to buy it for more than $6 million.

On the day he was to sign the deal, the seller wanted half a million more.

"I was very upset but the thought of dealing with my nasty neighbour was unbearable. I talked to my two partners, who left the decision to me," he says in Mandarin.

He bit the bullet, only to be told by the bank and business associates that he had paid too much.

Mr Tan, 66, put up with a lot of ridicule but is now having the last laugh. The building is worth at least $20 million today.

"Life works in mysterious ways. Sometimes our enemies or competitors force us to make decisions we would otherwise not make."

There is nothing flashy about Mr Tan, not in the way he speaks, dresses or carries himself. He scripted his success story not with ambition and aggressive strategy, just hard work, perseverance and determination.

But that does not make his achievements any less stellar. Under his steady hand, Science Arts grew from a small retailer of medical equipment to one of the key players in TCM in Singapore.

Besides a TCM college, it runs five TCM clinics, including one each in Alexandra Hospital, Ren Ci Hospital and the Institute of Mental Health.

"It's been a long journey. Along the way, I've tasted life's suan tian ku la," he says, using a Chinese idiom that means joys and sorrows.

The youngest of three children and the only son of farmers in a Tuas fishing village, he had a rough start in life.

His father suffered a long illness and died when Mr Tan was five, leaving his mother to raise three children on her own.

"My father was warded for a while in Singapore General Hospital. We were so poor my mother did not even have the money to take the bus to see him. We raised money for her bus fare by selling guava we plucked from trees in our house," he recalls.

Life was so dire that his eldest sister did not get to go to school.

"My mother couldn't afford it. My second sister completed only Primary 6. But because I was the family's only male, I got an education," says Mr Tan, who went to Joo Koon Primary and The Chinese High schools.

By the time he was eight, he was already helping the family make ends meet by selling crabs he caught in the swampy areas near home.

"On a good day we could get several crabs. We'd sell them for 50 or 60 cents a kati," he says, referring to the traditional local weight measurement equivalent to about 600g.

There were two ways to nab crustaceans, he says.

The first was to use a metal rod with an improvised hook to prise them from their holes when the tide was out.

"If we spotted a hole with fresh mud and a clean entrance, chances were there would be crabs inside," he says.

The other method was to catch them in the river, using a net fashioned from bamboo, with a piece of shark meat as bait.

"The crabs would go crazy over shark meat. The best way was to use a sampan, but since we did not have one, we swam.

"The only problem was, there were a lot of crocodiles in those days so we had to be very careful," says Mr Tan, who lost a pet dog to the reptiles.

Other creatures he caught and peddled included monitor lizards, which preyed on chickens, ducks and other livestock in the village.

The smaller lizards were soaked in herbs and wine for medicinal purposes; larger ones were destined for the cooking pot.

His first job after completing his secondary education was as a bookstore salesman. Besides calling on schools to hawk books and stationery, his job required him to market a Chinese drug for high blood pressure to Chinese medical shops all over the island.

Two years later in 1969, a former schoolmate asked if he was keen to join Science Arts as a partner.

The company had been set up a year earlier by a group of eight, many of whom were his classmates at The Chinese High. It sold mostly medical disposables such as gauze, cotton wool and disposable syringes, as well as some Chinese health products.

When one of the partners pulled out, Mr Tan was asked to come on board. He invested $500.

"I thought it was an opportunity. I also thought that I could contribute since I had some marketing experience by then."

The business was competitive and far from profitable. The first few years were extremely difficult. There were times when Mr Tan had to forgo his salary so that other staff would be paid.

"We had no cash, no reputation. I took care of sales and marketing and the pressure on me was very great because a lot of the doctors in the clinics spoke only English. My English is very bad," says Mr Tan, who was educated in Chinese. The linguistic handicap nearly made him give up the job.

As it was hard to compete on product range, he decided to concentrate on service.

"If clinics called at 6pm and asked for ointment boxes or gauze to be delivered immediately, I would try my best to do it. Some of the other partners said I was foolish to do so.

"But the way I see it, we are human and have feelings. If I do you a favour and help you now, you will remember me and try to repay the favour when you can."

Growth was slow, and many of the founding partners started leaving the company. Today, only three are left.

"One of those who left struck 4-D and bought himself a taxi. He said he could earn more that way," recalls Mr Tan, adding that he too toyed with the idea of leaving.

Then the 1980s arrived, China began opening up and Science Arts began faring a lot better.

"By then, I already had a lot of supporters and clients. The only reason we couldn't make money was, we had to order our products through distributors in Singapore. They took the bulk of the profits; our profit margin was very small," he says.

He started knocking on doors in China himself.

"It was jialat," he says, using the Hokkien word for disastrous. "When I approached them, they would ask, 'Who are you guys? We've never heard of Science Arts before.' Many of them pushed my name card back to me when I gave it to them."

It did not help that he could afford to order only 50 or 60 boxes of a product when bigger players were ordering them by container loads.

Patience, he says, is important when doing business.

"I learnt patience a long time ago while I was catching crabs," he says with a laugh.

Word spread that he was a solid, dependable businessman, one who honoured every contract and paid promptly. Soon he was ordering container loads, instead of just boxes, of products too.

His success, however, attracted some unwelcome attention. Science Arts was then occupying several units of an industrial block in Sims Avenue. One of Mr Tan's neighbours took great pains to find out the company's best-selling products and ordered them too.

"Not only that, he also started undercutting us," Mr Tan says with a sigh.

Their once cordial relationship soured when their workers began fighting. That was when Mr Tan decided to leave, and bought the MacPherson Road building.

But rumours then spread that the company would collapse because he had bought an overpriced building.

"Soon, we had suppliers and other business associates knocking on our doors, demanding payment. It was a big disappointment that friends, and folk with whom we'd done business for a long time, could be like this."

But he managed to pay them, thanks to his negotiations with banks.

"I told the banks, 'Look, there are rumours outside but I want you to look at our record. We've always serviced our loans and never defaulted on our payments, so please do not pull the handbrake on our lines of credit.'"

The Asian financial crisis of 1997 was even more turbulent. The devaluation of the rupiah caused the company - which was doing big volumes of business in Indonesia - to go into a tailspin. Recovery was slow and painful but the crisis had a silver lining.

During this period, Mr Tan became part of The Bosses Network, a group of entrepreneurs who meet regularly to share experiences and business ideas.

"I never had the benefit of a university education but I learnt so much from some of these business leaders who had tasted both success and failure," he says, referring to the likes of Mr Han Keen Juan, head honcho of Old Chang Kee, Ms Nanz Chong, former One.99 founder, and Mr Goh Tong Pak, the former educator who became BreadTalk's CEO.

Since 1998, Mr Tan has extended the use of his auditorium in MacPherson Road for The Bosses Network meetings, held once or twice a month.

"The things I have picked up in the last 15 years you can never pick up from any MBA course."

The year 2003 was a milestone for Science Arts. The firm inked a partnership to go into the TCM business with Beijing's Tong Ren Tang, something a major Singapore health-care group had tried but failed to achieve. Tong Ren Tang, set up in 1669, made its name manufacturing drugs for the imperial family.

The Chinese pharmaceutical giant picked Science Arts because Mr Tan once managed to convince its head to leave out an ingredient - banned in Singapore - for a popular medical product for stroke patients.

The partnership has resulted in five TCM outlets-cum-clinics, three of which are in hospitals.

That, says Mr Lim Sah Soon, is a big deal.

The former secretary-general of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry says: "To be able to set up a TCM clinic in a mainstream hospital is no mean feat. Mr Tan is a quiet and humble man but what he has done is a big achievement for TCM here."

Mr Tan says: "Tong Ren Tang has more than 20 partners worldwide but none has managed to get into hospitals except in Singapore."

He has since initiated other breakthroughs. In 2007, Science Arts obtained halal certification from the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) for 19 medicinal products. The following year, Mr Tan set up a TCM college to spread awareness of traditional Chinese medical practices here.

The company now employs more than 120 people and has an annual turnover of more than $15 million.

Mr Lim says of the friend he has known for more than a decade: "What is remarkable about him is that he is still so hungry to learn."

Indeed, Mr Tan has just completed his MBA with Tsinghua University in China, and is now taking a 11/2-year programme on the Zizhi Tongjian with the same university.

The Zizhi Tongjian is a general chronicle of Chinese history covering 16 dynasties and spanning 1,400 years.

Mr Tan, who is married but does not have any children, says: "I treasure lifelong learning. Many of my friends are graduates but they stagnated after they left university. I don't want to be like that."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 10, 2013

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