Gone fishing - for new ways to make money

This story was first published in The Straits Times on July 29, 2013

HE SIGNS off as "The Fish" and is the face of home-grown ornamental fish supplier Qian Hu Corporation.

But not everything is going swimmingly well for Mr Kenny Yap, 48, who says he is driving the "biggest transformation and restructuring" of the company since its listing in 2000.

And he is straight up about why there is a need for a strategic rethink of the company: "The oversupply of dragon fish."

Qian Hu suffered a $9.1 million loss when it sold its Malaysian dragon fish subsidiary after a number of new fish farms in Malaysia focused on dragon fish.

Mr Yap, the firm's executive chairman and managing director, acknowledges that Qian Hu was too reliant on the popular fish. Until the second half of last year, dragon fish accounted for about 30 per cent of the firm's profit.

"As a businessman, I know that I shouldn't be too reliant on one source of income (the breeding of dragon fish)," he tells The Straits Times. "But how do you turn down the opportunity to make money when a product is in demand?"

The firm's earnings for the second quarter ended June 30 tumbled 84.4 per cent to $83,000 from the same period last year.

But this costly episode was necessary for Qian Hu, says Mr Yap.

"In hindsight, the company needed this drastic situation for us to look at how we can sustain the business," he says.

He expects the restructuring process to be completed by the end of the year.

On top of exporting live fish, Qian Hu will increasingly expand its product offerings to include aquarium accessories such as fish food, pumps and tanks as well as other pet accessories.

Declining to disclose more details, Mr Yap says Qian Hu will "inject more activities into the dragon fish segment to differentiate itself from the market".

He also says the recovery of the fish export market will depend on how fast the ailing, recession- hit European market bounces back and regains confidence.

Mr Yap says things are turning around and the company will build a strong foundation for future leaders of Qian Hu.

The popularity of other pets like dogs and cats may be growing, but he believes that the fish business has a less drastic business cycle and is more resistant to recession.

"If the economy is bad and you lose your job, you won't go home and kill your fish, right?" he says with a laugh.

He adds that fish are among the most universally accepted of pets. They are not associated with religious beliefs, are less likely than furry animals to trigger allergic reactions, and take up only a small amount of space, he argues.

Apart from being a corporate chief, Mr Yap is known on the street as a person with a wicked sense of humour.

He issues a corporate calendar every year featuring not bikini- clad women but fish and his own "wise sayings". This year, he published a calendar on marriage, and wrote: "A man who is not married is a boy. But when he gets married, he is boiled."

And if Mr Yap strikes one as being a colourful albeit slightly eccentric man, his home off Upper Thomson Road clearly shows he is not lonely.

His home is one of seven orange-coloured terraced houses in a row - all owned by the Yap family. They are home to the families of his four elder brothers and two cousins. Mr Yap, a bachelor, and his mother, Madam Ang Kim Sua, 83, live in one house. He also has four sisters, three of whom live in nearby Springside.

"We repaint our homes every five years, like how Housing Board flats get a fresh coat of paint during the regular maintenance or upgrading period," he says. "Before this, our homes were painted bright red, blue and yellow!"

He speaks excitedly of how his uncle and late father had lived according to the "one pocket" or one-family fund concept since the kampung days. This means all members of the family pool their income, and draw on the common pool depending on their needs.

"The money between them wasn't split 50-50," he explains.

"My uncle said my dad needed more money because he had five sons who may get married, whereas he had only two. And a slightly different one-family fund concept is still practised by us. We live together not for money but out of love for one another."

In the early 1990s, the local property market was struggling. But Mr Yap and his third brother took a risk and purchased an option to buy the terraced units, costing $5,000 each. As the property market picked up, they exercised their option in 1995 and the Yaps have been living there since.

Mr Yap coined the Yap Family House Rules, a list of 10 instructions displayed in the seven households. They include: "Always put Qian Hu's interest before the Yaps' family interests" and "you will strike a balance between looking after the needs of your own family and the needs of other members of the extended family".

"This is a way for me to pass down the Yap family values, especially when the extended family grows and lives or works farther apart," he says.

When asked if his parents bugged him to tie the knot, Mr Yap says they respected his decision to stay single.

Still, his mother openly voices her concerns in Hokkien during the interview, telling Mr Yap he should try to settle down. "Who will take care of you and help you with things like doing your laundry in your old age?" she asks.

But Mr Yap assures her that he will be all right. "For now, my main focus is growing Qian Hu and grooming the next generation of leaders."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on July 29, 2013

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