Hard work bearing fruit for SunMoon Food Company

Having diversified the business, the next big focus is on technology and innovation

Mr Gary Loh, executive chairman of SunMoon, aims for the company to be a big fruit trading and distribution player by being asset-light and customer-centric, and tapping technology. It distributes a growing list of produce and is targeting vegetables
Mr Gary Loh, executive chairman of SunMoon, aims for the company to be a big fruit trading and distribution player by being asset-light and customer-centric, and tapping technology. It distributes a growing list of produce and is targeting vegetables and organic produce next. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Having plucked a global fruit trader from the brink of bankruptcy in 2007, financial industry veteran Gary Loh then spent years "in the trenches" trying to turn the business around.

A combination of grit and foresight helped him restructure SunMoon Food Company, giving it the fresh start it desperately needed.

It now has over 11,000 sales points around the globe offering more than 100 products, ranging from fresh fruit and vegetables to juices and freeze-dried fruit snacks.

"You go in thinking it is an investment and you end up having to roll up your sleeves," says Mr Loh, who is also executive chairman of private equity firm First Alverstone Capital.

"I was trying to fix a company - then known as FHTK - that was in the middle of a crisis."

The firm was embroiled in a leng- thy debt restructuring from 2008. It was finally resolved in 2015 after First Alverstone Capital injected additional funds into the business.

A key plank of SunMoon's transformation was the shift to an "asset- light" model from a plantation-owning model. This helped slash the headcount from 500 to about 40.

Despite some challenging years, Mr Loh stayed the course, believing in the value and potential of the SunMoon brand, which was built on good-quality Fuji apples.

"We want to be the Airbnb or Uber of the fruit trading and distribution business, by being asset- light and customer-centric, and tapping technology," said Mr Loh, 51.

Its growth strategy and potential caught the eye of Alibaba- KKR-backed Shanghai Yiguo - a -major fresh food e-commerce player in China - last year.

The Chinese company is now the largest SunMoon shareholder with a 51 per cent stake, after investing $15 million in placement of new shares at 4.5 cents apiece. It could invest a further $9 million by exercising free warrants at 5.4 cents each.

This tie-up lets SunMoon tap Yiguo's network and logistics to grow its footprint in China and expand its supply sources.

Mr Loh says: "When Yiguo's investment came, it was like a journey of vindication. It validated my vision for SunMoon and our strategy."

Having diversified the business on multiple fronts - distribution networks, markets and product range - a big focus for the firm in the coming years is on technology and innovation.

The agriculture industry may not have been disrupted by new technology as much as other sectors but change is coming.

However, it is not as if Mr Loh, a banker at heart, had not seen it before. The venture capitalist turned stockbroker had a front- row seat when the electronic trading system was introduced, allowing consumers to place orders and access the stock exchange directly. It was 1999 and he was with UOB Kay Hian.

Fast-forward 18 years and the narrative has not changed: "Technology is key to how we want to drive and scale this business up... technology is the facilitator. It helps you communicate with your customers and get your products to them."

Yiguo, for instance, will have data on who the consumers are, what they are buying and in what quantities, Mr Loh said.

Last September, SunMoon announced that it would deploy the NetSuite OneWorld cloud-based business management platform to manage and optimise its growing network.

It said that the software offered greater transparency and operational efficiency by providing real-time data on prices and details of its product range - allowing vendors to view "live" data before they transact.

Apart from technology, the rising affluence among Asia's middle- class and the trend of promoting a healthy lifestyle will provide growth opportunities for mainboard-listed SunMoon, which has a market capitalisation of about $66.9 million.

Mr Loh says: "The consumption of fresh fruit is still going up, the market is going for healthy living. Understanding that lifestyle requirement is the key opportunity for us."

SunMoon distributes a growing list of produce, including apples, cherries, citrus fruit, avocados, blueberries, young coconuts, red dragonfruit and pineapples.

It is targeting vegetables and organic produce next, moving into items such as garlic, onions, carrots, tomatoes, kale and broccoli.

"I love fruit and vegetables, so I always joke that I am like a kid in a candy store when I am here," Mr Loh quips, gesturing with pride at multiple shelves of SunMoon products on display at the office in Toh Guan Road.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 21, 2017, with the headline Hard work bearing fruit for SunMoon Food Company . Subscribe