Popular CEO on a mission to sustain bookstores

Popular Bookstore group chief executive and executive director Chou Cheng Ngok, who has been with the company for more than 50 years. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

SINGAPORE - Even as Popular Bookstore starts stocking its shelves with gadgets like drones to combat a long-term decline in revenue from books, the chain's long-serving chief, Mr Chou Cheng Ngok, is clear where its heart and soul lies.

"Born a bookshop, die a bookshop. I am a bookseller," declared its group chief executive and executive director.

It is a mission that keeps the 80-year-old going. He has been with the company for more than 50 years, taking over from his father Chou Sing Chu, who founded Cheng Hing Company in 1924.

Back then, it was in South Bridge Road and sold Chinese novels and decorative posters.

Today, Popular has about 180 bookstores in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong, and has almost 4,000 employees. It is Singapore's largest bookstore chain.

His insistence that the nearly century-old company remain a bookstore appears to stem from a firm belief that physical books will always be in demand and a desire to keep the roots of Popular as a bookstore.

Even as the firm no longer makes most of its money from books, Mr Chou, a traditionalist who is effectively bilingual, having studied at both Anglo-Chinese School and the former Chinese-medium Chong Cheng School, said he will never give up on books, as it is the love of the physical book that he is betting on.

He said: "You would probably agree with me: You can read from a Kindle but, ultimately, if it is a book that you really want, you would go and buy one.

"So I can swear to you, print media will never die. The feel of books is quite, quite different... Somehow, if you love books, you cannot escape (having) the physical book."

Yet, Mr Chou himself is not known to be an avid reader. In a 2014 interview with The Straits Times, he said he does not read books, but magazines like The Economist and Forbes instead, as he does not have the luxury of time for it.

The biggest challenge for bookstores today, Mr Chou believes, is not the smartphone or the Internet, but the basic costs of rental and labour.

"The future of books is not that the print media is dying, and multimedia is coming up. The future of books is that (bookstores) can't afford rental," he said.

So how has Popular managed to expand over the years, when other bookstores such as Borders and Page One have closed?

"No magic, no secret," quipped Mr Chou.

"We are actually not the kind of bookshop that anybody envisaged - (those that) just sell books. Maybe, one of the true-to-nature kind of bookshops is Kinokuniya. It is fantastic; it survived. But all the others, if you sell books alone, you won't survive.

"I don't blame people for asking, 'Hey, what are you doing? You are no longer a bookshop'. I must admit that heart and soul, we will always be a bookshop, but we can no longer be 100 per cent true to being an absolute bookshop. Then we're looking for (our) demise," he said during a 90-minute interview at the Popular headquarters in Serangoon North on Dec 8.

Mr Chou still works full-time at the bookstore, up to seven days a week. And he says he spends most of his days thinking about the legacy of Popular and how it can stay ahead of the game.

"What is the future of Popular? Probably 20 per cent books, 80 per cent non-books," he said, adding that it is looking at 50 to 80 more stores in the next five years.

This is because despite remaining profitable, its customers' reading and entertainment habits have evolved, and Mr Chou believes that "no one in his right mind would willingly walk into a bookshop" just for books.

Some statistics might bear out Mr Chou's observation. A National Arts Council survey in March 2016 found that 56 per cent had not read a literary book in a year.

Popular's path of diversification, which it has embarked on since it started selling English books in the 1980s, has led it to remain relevant today, Mr Chou said.

He has two children and three grandchildren, and he is not worried about business succession, with no plans to retire any time soon.

One might be foolish to bet against a man whose motivation is to carry on this home-grown business that started 93 years ago.

"This company started as a 'peanut'. My father slogged 40 years to build a base, and he passed it on to me... Since it is handed to me, I will do my best and, like the Chinese say, fa yang guang da (to bring to greater heights).

What does 'best' mean? "Continuity, and preserving the name of Popular," he said.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.