Movers and shakers of Singapore's coffee shop business

Kim San Leng is one of the largest coffee shop chains in Singapore, with more than 30 locations. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE - Coffee shops are found in almost every corner in the heartland housing estates, but behind the humble neighbourhood staple are multimillion-dollar business empires and larger-than-life figures with fascinating stories.

Kim San Leng

The coffee shop chain, one of the largest in Singapore, with more than 30 locations, is a third-generation family business.

Kim San Leng started as Kim San Eating House in Hougang, set up by Mr Hoon Moh Heng in 1950.

His son, a then 17-year-old Hoon Thing Leong, started working at another coffee shop his father had opened in Jalan Besar scrubbing toilets, cleaning spitoons and being a general dogsbody, slogging each day from 5am to 8pm.

He also had to pick up self-defence to protect himself from gangsters, who were a regular menace at the time.

After seven years as a coffee boy in Jalan Besar, he borrowed money from his father to set up his own coffee shop in Bukit Timah.

Later on in his career, in 1990, once he had taken over his father's business, he made the news after buying a coffee shop in Bishan for $3.52 million, $2 million more than the starting bid.

However, it was not always a bed of roses for Mr Hoon, with his forays into magazine publishing and noodle-making in the mid-1990s in his effort to diversify - both businesses failed.

He had to sell two shophouses to make good nearly $3 million in losses from the noodle business, which he struggled to keep afloat for nearly five years before finally conceding defeat.

His son, Mr Andy Hoon, however, had more success in branching out of the kopitiam business, setting up regional bubble tea chain Ochado in 2010, and local fast-food chain Yellow Submarines in 2013.

The late Mr Hoon Thing Leong, who died in April last year at the age of 72, was not just a coffee shop king, but also a published writer.

His book featured 80 of his weekly columns published in Chinese daily Lianhe Wanbao, which were stories about his successes and failures. When the book was released in June 2014, 10,000 copies were sold within five days.

Chang Cheng

Part of the Chang Cheng group is Chang Cheng Mee Wah, a chain of 27 coffee shops. PHOTO: SHIN MIN

What started as a humble mixed economy rice stall in a Toa Payoh coffee shop has grown into what is today - a food and beverage empire.

Part of the Chang Cheng group is Chang Cheng Mee Wah, a chain of 27 coffee shops. Other brands under the group include Ming Kitchen, a chain of seafood restaurants, and Rong Kee roasted delights, a chain of hawker stalls that sell roasted meat.

The man behind the brand is Mr Ricky Kok, 53, the founder and managing director of Chang Cheng Group, who borrowed $12,000 to open his first stall in 1994 after 10 years of working in Singapore.

Born into a family of seven children, the Seremban, Malaysia, native, came to Singapore to work as a cook when he was 15, armed with a Secondary 2 education.

In 2000, Mr Kok's younger brother, Mr Paul Kok, joined Mr Ricky Kok in Singapore, before renting his first coffee shop in Tampines, with his older brother's help, 10 years later.

The younger Mr Kok went on to make a splash in 2015 when EH 155 - a company where he is one of two directors - bought a coffee shop in Bukit Batok for $31 million. The sale price was a record at the time. New reports at that time said Mr Paul Kok was already running more than 20 coffee shops by then.

Speaking to The Straits Times in 2015 after his younger brother's big purchase, Mr Ricky Kok said: "This industry is so large. Even if you wanted all the money for yourself, you won't be able to earn it all.

"My brother is more hardworking and much more educated than I am. He deserves all the success he gets."

Kimly

Kimly is listed on the SGX and operates and manages coffeeshops, canteens and foodcourts. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

Founded in 1990, Kimly is one of the largest coffee shop operators here.

The group, which is listed on the Singapore Exchange (SGX), operates and manages a network of 67 coffee shops, seven industrial canteens and two foodcourts under the foodclique brand.

It also runs food stalls, restaurants and confectionery shops.

From the highs of an oversubscribed initial public offering (IPO) to legal trouble, Kimly has seen it all.

Founder Lim Lee Liat started his first coffee shop venture with several friends when he was just 24 years old in 1990.

Kimly grew rapidly and when it listed on SGX's junior Catalist board in March 2017, investors scrambled to get their hands on shares, with the public tranche of the IPO being oversubscribed by more than 335 times.

Trouble started with a $16 million acquisition of drinks manufacturer Asian Story Corporation (ASC) in 2018, which quickly came under probe by the authorities.

In February this year, Mr Lim - who was an executive chairman - and former executive director Chia Cher Khiang were fined $150,000 and $100,000 respectively.

They were also disqualified from acting as a director of any company for five years for failing to notify SGX that Mr Lim owned a 30 per cent stake in ASC, a conflict of interest.

While Kimly had initially decided to engage the duo as independent consultants even after they were convicted and fined, both parties later agreed not to do so following feedback and concerns from its stakeholders.

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