Sheng Siong kidnapping: From pig farmer to supermarket tycoon

Mr Lim Hock Chee, then the managing director of Sheng Siong, sitting with his workers during lunch in a photo from 2004. -- ST FILE PHOTO: HOW HWEE YOUNG
Mr Lim Hock Chee, then the managing director of Sheng Siong, sitting with his workers during lunch in a photo from 2004. -- ST FILE PHOTO: HOW HWEE YOUNG
Mr Lim Hock Chee in a photo from 2009. The Sheng Siong CEO is a former farm boy and Jurong Vocation Institute graduate-turned-supermarket tycoon. -- ST FILE PHOTO: NURIA LING
Mr Lim Hock Chee in a photo from 2009. The Sheng Siong CEO is a former farm boy and Jurong Vocation Institute graduate-turned-supermarket tycoon. -- ST FILE PHOTO: NURIA LING

Mr Lim Hock Chee, chief executive of supermarket chain Sheng Siong, and his family come from humble beginnings.

The former farm boy and Jurong Vocation Institute graduate-turned-supermarket tycoon once recalled about his childhood: "Every day after school, I had to clean the pigsties and prepare the pigs' feed."

He was thrown into the media spotlight again after his mother, Madam Ng Lye Poh, 79. was kidnapped for a $2 million ransom on Wednesday. She was released unharmed after Mr Lim paid the ransom.

The first Sheng Siong outlet was founded by Mr Lim and his two brothers as a mini-supermarket in Ang Mo Kio back in 1985. Today, the chain has 33 supermarkets.

In October last year, the chain reported that revenue grew 4.8 per cent year-on-year to $177.8 million for the third quarter ended Sept 30, 2013, up from $169.7 million in 2012.

Mr Lim's brothers, Mr Lim Hock Eng and Mr Lim Hock Leng, continue to serve on Sheng Siong's board, as executive chairman and managing director respectively.

Below are two profiles on Mr Lim Hock Chee from our archives.

Mind your p's and Queues


This article first appeared in The Straits Times, Life! on Feb 11, 2008.

HE IS known as the towkay who drives a lorry.

For Mr Lim Hock Chee, managing director of supermarket chain Sheng Siong, thrift is more than just a word, it is a way of life.

He has built a chain of 21 outlets which embodies this philosophy too, by selling groceries for less.

This is the man who was once quoted in this newspaper as saying: "I don't believe in luxury. Why have two beds when I can sleep only on one? Or have two coffins when I can be buried only in one?"

But last year, he reluctantly traded in his humble set of wheels for a swanky Lexus 460 at the suggestion of the company's executive director, Mr Tan Ling San.

Mr Lim says in Mandarin: "He said I shouldn't be seen driving a lorry since I represent the company. If I do so, people might think the company is 'ill-treating' me."

Looking embarrassed, he adds: "I still feel very ill at ease. All the money came with the help of my employees, but I wear and drive better than them."

He is referring to $40 unbranded short-sleeved shirts, such as the one he is wearing at this interview.

"This is very good already," he says. "In the past, I wore $10 ones from CK in Chinatown." That's CK department store in People's Park Complex by the way, not Calvin Klein.

He adds: "My trousers used to cost no more than $20. As long as the size fits, I'll wear them. Now, my most expensive pair costs $85."

For the record, he wore a long-sleeved shirt and tie for the photo shoot.

With greying, crew-cut hair and a slight pot belly, the 46-year-old looks a good five years older.

He is married to Lee Moi Hong, also 46, who is a director in the company, and they have three sons and a daughter aged between 13 and 23.

His eldest son is studying finance at Reading University in the United Kingdom, and the rest are still schooling, in Republic Polytechnic and Marsiling Secondary School.

The family used to live in a 1,500 sq ft space above his headquarters cum warehouse in Woodlands, because it was more convenient to keep watch on the goods stored there after dark. Now, security guards do that job.

The family has moved to a five-room HDB flat in Hougang, but the space is still kept as a "rest room" for him during the work day.

He has that salt-of-the-earth air of a self-made millionaire, and is someone who is more at home sipping a cup of coffee in a kopitiam than chilling out in a wine bar.

Ask him what he enjoys doing in his spare time and the self-confessed workaholic gives you a blank look.

It is only after some prodding that he offers "watching wuxia films like Tsui Hark's Seven Swords" and "reading Chinese classics and management books" as answers.

The busy boss doesn't use a Blackberry either. When he needs to jot down notes or list appointments, he turns to his trusty 555 notebook, which fits nicely into the front pocket of his shirt.

On the cover of the latest one is written neatly, "Nov 1, 2007" in Chinese, the day he started using that particular notebook.

"I used to change notebooks every month, but then I realised it was too wasteful. So now I'll use a fresh one only when I have filled up every page," he says.

For such a thrifty man, it comes as somewhat of a surprise that he wears a Rolex watch. Smiling bashfully, he says it was a gift from a supplier in 2000, to thank him for hitting a certain sales figure.

He gave it to his younger brother. "Why wear a watch when you can check the time on your mobile phone?"

But it found its way back to him last year. He says with a hearty laugh: "My brother kept it all this while and gave it to me as a kind of long-service award. I didn't know it was the same watch and was so touched that he had bought such a nice gift for me."

Small player, big heart

THOSE who have worked with him say he is a driven, hardworking man who believes in treating the employees well.

His staff get one free meal every day - a buffet-style one for those who work in the Woodlands headquarters and boxed meals for the rest. These are prepared in a central kitchen.

Mr Tan Cheng Kwan, 38, Sheng Siong's assistant general manager who is in charge of supermarket operations, says: "He always has the employees' interests at heart and will go out of his way to help anyone who has problems at home, like giving cash incentives to those with young kids on a case-by-case basis.

"He feels that only when the employee is happy at home will he then be able to concentrate at work."

With just 21 outlets, Sheng Siong is considered a small player in a market dominated by the big boys such as NTUC FairPrice (over 200 outlets), Shop N Save (over 45 outlets) and Cold Storage (over 30 outlets).

But its growth in recent years has been nothing short of phenomenal.

In 1985, Mr Lim and his brothers Hock Eng and Hock Leng, ran a provision store in Ang Mo Kio measuring just 1,400 sq ft.

Back then, the shop's daily takings were only about $2,000. By 1988, it was well over $19,000 a day.

Now, Sheng Siong has about 3,000 employees and group turnover last year exceeded $580 million, compared with a modest $45 million in 2000, when the chain started its rapid expansion.

The family-run chain plans to list in two years' time.

The secret to its low prices is the way it maximises profit margins by constantly challenging itself to churn out higher turnover per sq ft of retail space, Mr Lim says.

"For example, if we can make $10 instead of $4 for every sq ft of retail space, we can cut costs effectively and offer very reasonable prices to customers," he says.

One way of doing this is to provide speedier service so that more customers can be served in the same period of time.

And he is quick to stress that he does not believe in checking out the competition all the time.

"Rather than waste time comparing ourselves with others, why not look at how you can improve yourself instead?"

He is keen to dispel the myth that low prices come at the expense of quality.

"We have been able to keep our prices low because we are increasingly going directly to the product sources, thus eliminating the middlemen," he explains.

Although Sheng Siong has only six housebrands, a small selection compared to over 500 at FairPrice, he says it is growing this segment of its business.

No one should doubt his resolve, especially not this son of a pig farmer, whose Chinese name literally means "lucky star" and whose nickname is Ter Bak (Hokkien for pork) because he used to sell pork.

Took vocational path

BORN in 1961, the fifth of nine children grew up first in Jurong, where his father was a fisherman, then later in Lim Chu Kang and Punggol, when his Dad turned to rearing pigs.

At the height of the business, the family had 3,000 pigs and lived on a sprawling 90,000 sq ft farm.

When he was in Secondary 3 at Chinese High School, he decided to quit and do a two-year car mechanic course at the former Jurong Vocational Institute (JVI).

"I was struggling in English, managing just 20 or 30 marks," he says. "The water pump in our farm often broke down, so I figured if I learnt how to fix cars, I could help to fix the pump too since the mechanisms were similar."

It proved to be the right decision because he thrived at JVI, staying in school every day to study and excelling in the practical aspects of his course.

The training has stayed with him all these years and until a few years ago, he was Mr Fix It at Sheng Siong, doing everything from sorting out power trips to welding the handles on trolleys to make them more sturdy.

With a sad expression, he says: "There are other people who do the welding now. I can't do everything myself. And because I drive a Lexus now, I can't do the dirty jobs such as clearing the garbage because that would mean getting the car dirty too."

After national service, he helped out at the farm for two years before he was forced to look for something else to do when the Government started phasing out pig farms in the 1980s.

In 1984, when the farm was stuck with excess pork, he and his newly-wed wife rented a stall at the small Savewell Supermarket at Block 122 Ang Mo Kio Ave 3 to sell chilled pork.

She was his neighbour in Punggol and they were matchmade by her sister-in-law.

Nine months later, the Savewell owner was in financial difficulties and asked if Mr Lim was interested in taking over an outlet from him for $30,000.

Although he was offered a store in Bedok, which had the best location in the chain, he decided to stick with Ang Mo Kio as he was familiar with the "uncles and aunties" in the neighbourhood. His father poured in $200,000 and Mr Lim roped in two of his brothers.

They changed the name of the 1,400 sq ft store to Sheng Siong, which means "rising" and "vegetable" in Chinese.

He says: "That was actually the worst location because it was located at the foot of a slope and was not visible from the main road. On top of that, we had to climb up and down the stairs whenever we had to unload goods."

To attract customers, he and his siblings would carry heavy items for them up the stairs. This was the beginning of Sheng Siong's tradition of "excellent service", Mr Lim says proudly.

"We were very worried that the business would go bust, so we did everything without thinking too much," he says, adding that the brothers each drew a monthly salary of just $800 until 1995.

Now, he earns more than $20,000 a month.

And go bust they did not. The business grew and started giving the big players a run for their money.

The biggest expansion in the company's 22-year history was between 2000 and 2005, when 14 new outlets opened islandwide, including in Jurong, Bedok, Serangoon and Clementi. Sheng Shiong at Tekka Mall, which opened in 2003, is the largest outlet, occupying 45,000 sq ft.

The expansion happened despite the economic slowdown following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, and the Sars epidemic in 2003.

Flashing his usual wide grin, he says the supermarket business is unique as it thrives under all economic conditions, good and bad. "After 9/11, rentals went down and we seized the opportunity to open more stores," he says.

"Then when people stayed away from restaurants during Sars, we enjoyed brisk business because more people started buying food to cook at home."

The chain has now become a household name and even has its own TV show, The Sheng Siong Show, which made its debut last May. The game show, hosted by Kym Ng and Dasmond Koh, is into its second season and airs on Channel 8 every Saturday at 8pm.

It features a children's talent competition and a lucky draw that promises $1 million worth of prizes.

Business went up by about 20 per cent after the show started airing, Mr Lim says.

Sheng Siong's philosophy has always been to provide "speedy service, low prices and good quality" to its customers, he adds.

"In the early days, we used this tagline to motivate our staff: 'You have to queue to buy 4D, you have to queue in a bank, but you don't have to queue in Sheng Siong'," he says.

"I can tell you that we have the fastest cashiers in Singapore. If we don't let our customers queue, then we are already ahead of our rivals."

Asked what is the most difficult part of running a multi-million-dollar business, he ponders for a while before replying: "Maintaining cordial family ties is not easy."

Currently, two of his brothers, three of his sisters, two sisters-in-law and one brother-in-law are working in the company.

His father, who imparted values such as thrift to his brood, is the chairman of the company but is not involved in the day-to-day running of the business.

Mr Lim adds: "Of course there have been disagreements and arguments among the siblings. Sometimes, I've also thought of quitting.

"That is why I hope we can be listed soon, so that we can keep Sheng Siong going without disintegrating, like so many other family-run businesses."

The interview winds up and the board secretary invites this reporter to try their catered staff lunch, which happens to be a sumptuous steamboat buffet spread featuring crabs, prawns and scallops that day.

Mr Lim declines to join in, mumbling about a slight pain in his leg.

Then, after saying goodbye, he walks away in brisk, firm steps, no doubt forgetting his pain as he heads for his beloved office, where his supermarket empire awaits.

From pig farmer to supermarket chain owner


This article first appeared in The Straits Times on Jun 10, 2009.

Sheng Siong founder says logic and common sense guide his business

BACK in the early 1970s, Mr Lim Hock Chee was feeding pigs and cleaning pens on his father's farm in Lim Chu Kang.

Today, the 48-year-old runs one of Singapore's fastest growing retail chains, Sheng Siong Supermarket.

Last week, Minister of State for Trade and Industry Lee Yi Shyan joined Mr Lim at a ground-breaking ceremony for Sheng Siong's new corporate headquarters and distribution centre at Mandai Link.

The complex - costing some $65 million - is set to be completed in 2011, by which time the site the business occupies will have increased from 0.88ha to 2.32ha.

The founder and managing director of Sheng Siong says the new facilities will help increase operational efficiency by about 20 per cent and allow the firm to expand more aggressively from its present 22 outlets.

Despite the downturn, he believes Singapore could still accommodate possibly up to 20 more of his supermarkets.

"Our new distribution centre is a crucial step towards supporting our growth plans," he said in Mandarin.

"In the long term, it should enhance our supply chain processes and beef up distribution, manpower and transportation efficiency by 10 per cent or more."

Since it was founded in 1985 by Mr Lim, Sheng Siong has established itself as a key player in the retail sector.

A 2007 survey conducted by Euromonitor International found that the supermarket chain was the third largest retailer in Singapore by sales volume.

Last year, with Mr Lim at the helm, Sheng Siong recorded a turnover of $667 million, up from $606 million in 2007 and $508 million in 2006.

Not a bad return for a former farm worker whose first love, he revealed, was mechanical engineering.

"I liked fixing motor vehicles, I liked learning about how engines worked - it was all very systematic and logical. If one component didn't work, everything else would fail, just like in business," he said.

Mr Lim grew up helping his late father, Mr Lim Kim Siong, run the family farm, which at its peak was rearing some 3,000 pigs at a time. However, by the early 1980s, Cheng Siong Pig Farm, as the family business was called, had already been relocated by the Government from Lim Chu Kang.

"The Government literally broke our rice bowl as they phased out pig farming in Singapore," quipped Mr Lim.

"Not long after, we were relocated to Punggol, the Government directed us to close shop."

Left with stocks of pork to clear, Mr Lim stumbled upon a mini-supermarket owner who was willing to rent him space to sell the meat.

"I had just got married and was visiting my wife's relative in Ang Mo Kio when I chanced upon a small supermarket there. It sold everything except pork," he recounted. "So I approached the owner and asked if he could rent me some space and he agreed."

Although he did not have to fork out any rent for the space in the 1,400 sq ft outlet, Mr Lim paid the supermarket owner 20 per cent of whatever sales he made from selling pork.

"It was a lot, but I had no other choice. The alternative was for the pork to rot and go to waste," said Mr Lim.

Fate, however, had other plans for him. Within one year of agreeing to the arrangement, the owner of the supermarket ran into financial trouble and had to offload the outlet.

"I took the opportunity to ask him if he would sell the business to me and he agreed," he said.

"And so, in 1985, with just $30,000 - of which $20,000 was given to me by my father - I started the first Sheng Siong outlet, which still exists today."

Over the next few years, the hands-on approach he learnt from working at the pig farm helped him quickly pick up the skills needed to run a retail business.

Logic and common sense helped Mr Lim - who barely completed secondary school and had some vocational training experience - approach life and the running of Sheng Siong.

"Academic achievements reflect the knowledge you have learnt from books, but life experiences - what you learn from doing - give you a different type of knowledge," he said. By 1988, Mr Lim started his second Sheng Siong outlet in Bedok North, followed by a third 4,500 sq ft store in Woodlands, which was the first to offer consumers both "wet and dry" shopping options.

"That was a concept which was rare in Singapore at the time, and Singaporeans welcomed it as they could buy the things they needed from both a wet market and provision store," said Mr Lim.

The "wet and dry" supermarket model would take Sheng Siong from just three outlets in the 1990s to 22 branches islandwide today.

Mr Lim has already drafted plans to take Sheng Siong to the next level.

With the construction of the new corporate headquarters and distribution centre under way, Mr Lim hopes to take Sheng Siong public and expand across the Causeway.

"My original plan was to list Sheng Siong within one to two years, but market conditions have not been favourable. However, the plans are still in place and we'll just have to wait and see," he said.

As for the next generation at Sheng Siong, Mr Lim is going to leave it to his children - he has three sons and a young daughter - to decide for themselves.

"I don't want to force them into it...I'll leave it to them to decide if they want to join Sheng Siong," he said. "But I am very proud to say that they all have expressed some interest in the business, so we'll see what the future brings."

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