Former drifter on solid footing now

Boss of Kenko spas, Swatow restaurants had shaky start with foot reflexology shop

Mr Jimi Tan says he is "like the 1,000-hand Bodhisattva". The former Jack of all trades is now master of a sprawling domain ranging from reflexology to restaurants.
Mr Jimi Tan says he is "like the 1,000-hand Bodhisattva". The former Jack of all trades is now master of a sprawling domain ranging from reflexology to restaurants.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Jimi Tan has doubts about the many epigrams which abound about successful men, but he will vouch for the veracity of at least two.

He agrees with Australian politician Bob Brown who once said: "Behind every successful man, there's a lot of unsuccessful years." And he will volunteer himself as a prime example of that old chestnut: "Behind every successful man is a woman."

Until he met Johor-born Maxim Kang in 1985 and married her about two years later, Mr Tan lived life in a desultory fashion. A serial job hopper, he was without savings, drive or ambition.

"She said she didn't want to have children until our financial condition improved," he remembers.

So Mr Tan who, among other things, worked as a satay seller, textile shop assistant, galvaniser and frozen food supplier, decided to hunker down, learn a trade and start a business.

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He picked up reflexology and opened a small foot reflexology shop in 1991. That humble shop has since grown into Kenko Holdings, which runs 13 spa and wellness outlets in Singapore, with franchises in Malaysia, Indonesia and India. He also owns Swatow Group which has seven restaurants. Together, the two companies have an annual turnover of $35 million.

Mr Tan, 57, is in a pensive mood as he sips warm lemon water in a corner of his 13,000 sq ft Teochew restaurant Swatow in Toa Payoh.

He is the youngest of nine children of a petty trader and a housewife. When he was just 12 days old, his parents wanted to give him away, believing he brought bad luck. "My father's business was not doing well, and my parents were superstitious," he says.

But his maternal grandmother - a reflexologist - put her foot down and took him in. Although she doted on him, he grew up insecure and hating his parents.

He was seven when he went back to his parents. His grandmother was nearly 80 and could no longer take care of him.

The family's circumstances were dire because his father had suffered a stroke and could not work.

"Some of my elder siblings had moved out but seven of us, including my parents, lived in a rented bedroom above a coffee shop in Balestier Road," he says. "My father had a stroke, was bedridden and died two years later."

He attended Balestier West Primary and Hwi Yoh Secondary and from the age of 11 worked during school holidays as a labourer on construction sites to earn pocket money. "I completed my Secondary 4 but was not really a good boy," Mr Tan says candidly.

A puny kid who was often bullied, he joined a street gang in his early teens, got involved in several brawls but escaped falling foul of the law. At 15, he ran away from home because he could not get along with his mother and siblings.

He spent several nights at hawker centres before bunking with an Indonesian classmate who lived in a rented house in Serangoon with his brother and a few friends.

For about a year, before he entered the army, he cleaned toilets and was a general dogsbody at a textile shop in Chinatown.

Life after national service passed in a haze. He drifted from job to job, throwing in the towel whenever he felt like it.

With a rueful laugh, he admits that he went for jobs which did not tax his brain too much. "I didn't know how to think. If you made me think, then I jialat already," he says, using the Hokkien word which means "in deep trouble".

"I was a painter, contractor, TV aerial installer, soya sauce factory labourer, toy promoter in a supermarket," he says, reeling off his gigs.

Often, he held down two jobs.

"For several years, I worked from 8am to 5.30pm as a contractor. From 6.30pm until midnight, I would be selling satay in Bedok."

When he was in his mid-20s, he decided to try flexing his entrepreneurial muscle and set up a small business supplying frozen food such as chicken wings to stall holders in wet markets.

The going was tougher than he imagined so he called it a day and went through several more jobs.

In the mid-1980s, while working as a salesman for a textile shop in Woodlands, he met Ms Maxim Kang, a young woman born in Muar, who was also selling textiles.

When their relationship got serious, he reckoned it was time to shape up.

"I had no direction in life. I liked freedom and would walk away if I didn't like anything. I realised I had to be more responsible if I wanted to be a husband and a father."

The couple registered their marriage in 1987, and jointly ran a small stall selling clothes at a market in Sims Avenue. Although they could make a decent living, Mr Tan decided to pick up a skill.

"Because of my grandmother, I had always been interested in reflexology. It's also a good skill because I can help people with their health problems," he says.

He attended a workshop here conducted by instructors from the International Institute of Reflexology in Florida.

Interest piqued, he began taking more courses, including one on acupuncture from a traditional Chinese physician from Shanghai working in Singapore.

To apply what he had learnt, he started making house calls, charging just $10 for a 45-minute foot massage. He did this for more than two years before closing his clothing stall. He and his wife then poured $10,000 of their savings into opening a small reflexology shop in Joo Chiat called Healthy Family. There were four chairs in the shop which doubled up as their home.

The location, he says, was hardly ideal. "We were surrounded by bars," he recalls, adding that he had no customers on the first day.

"I called up a classmate who was an insurance agent, told him I would buy insurance from him and got him to come to the shop. He said he felt bad about me massaging his feet, so I got my wife to work on him. He was my first customer," he says with a laugh.

For more than a month, business was sluggish. Then one day, a Malay woman who was looking for a Chinese sinseh in the area accidentally ended up in his shop.

She agreed to a foot massage and liked it so much that she became a regular and started introducing many of her friends to the place.

More people got to know of his shop by word of mouth.

"In the beginning, my operating hours were from 10.30am to 8pm. Then 8am to 10.30pm."

Six years later, he opened a branch at Tanglin Shopping Centre.

The shop became a magnet for Japanese tourists, and Mr Tan changed its name from Healthy Family to Kenko. The word means "healthy" in Japanese.

Convinced that he should go upmarket, he closed his Joo Chiat outlet and decided to expand his business in the city

There was resistance, however, from shopping malls which felt that a reflexology shop was not right for their image. So Mr Tan changed tack and started including spa services, including jacuzzi facilities, flower baths as well as manicure and pedicure services .

Today, there are Kenko outlets at some of Singapore's biggest malls and tourist attractions, including Marina Bay Sands, Vivocity, The Esplanade and Singapore Flyer.

The transition from drifter to entrepreneur did not happen overnight though.

From 1997, he started attending a lot of courses - from human resources to marketing, psychology and salesmanship.

"I attended courses by Anthony Robbins and Tom Hopkins," he says, referring to the motivational gurus. "I picked up branding and marketing and learnt all about managing interpersonal relationships."

His wife more than approved. "My wife encouraged me to go. If not, she said, I will always be an Ah Beng," he says, using the colloquialism for roughneck.

Madam Kang - Kenko's managing director - attended many of those courses with him. One, the Potential of Psychology, helped him get rid of the resentment he harboured towards his parents for wanting to give him away.

"I had to change; it's leadership training. I cannot be held back by hatred and other negative things," says Mr Tan, who has long made peace with his mother, now 85.

In the early 2000s, he diversified into the food business. His first venture was a dim sum eatery with two of his brothers. They parted ways after three years and he opened his own dim sum restaurant, Fortunate, in Toa Payoh.

It got off to a shaky start.

"I lost about $300,000 in the first six months," he says.

Aggressive newspaper and television advertising helped to stem the bleeding. Three years later, he did so well that he bought the 13,000 sq ft space for about $6 million. It is worth a lot more today.

In 2010, he turned the space into Swatow and moved Fortunate to a mall in the city. His food and beverage portfolio includes Bao Today and Luk Yu.

His recipe for success, he says, is simple. Hire the right people and pay them well.

The father of two children, aged 17 and 20, chuckles when he looks back on his life. "It started with just me and my wife. Today, we employ 500 staff. I'm like the 1,000-hand Bodhisattva," he says, referring to the Buddhist deity.

But he is is not done yet.

"It's time to make it bigger. I know I am capable and I have the generals to help me."

Jimi Tan on why he chose the name Kenko

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 02, 2015, with the headline 'Former drifter on solid footing now'. Print Edition | Subscribe