'Slacker' who woke up and smelled the coffee

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 24, 2013

Jason Soon was 19 when his girlfriend dumped him for another man.

She was brutally honest when pressed to tell him why: She did not think he had much of a future.

Few would blame her for coming to that conclusion. He had taken seven years instead of four to get his O levels, and had no idea what he wanted out of life.

Still, the rejection rankled and the youth vowed he would prove her wrong one day.

Two decades and countless setbacks later, Mr Soon, 46, now owns Kim Guan Guan, a thriving coffee business with an annual turnover of $7 million.

Home is a swish condominium apartment in Bishan, and the father of four has also invested in a few properties, including two warehouses and a commercial office unit.

He is happy with what he has achieved but wishes he had had a surer sense of himself when he was younger. "I might have done better," he says in Mandarin.

The complacency of his earlier years, he says, might have had something to do with being the youngest of three children of a businessman and a housewife. His father ran a stationery and paint shop, and the family lived in a house in the Thomson area. "Life was quite comfortable and being the youngest, I was quite sheltered. My mother spoilt me," he admits with a laugh.

Books and exams, he says ruefully, were not quite his cup of tea.

"I had to repeat my Secondary 1 and Secondary 3," says the Normal stream student of the now defunct Pei Dao Secondary School in Kim Keat Lane.

"I tried but I just couldn't retain anything I studied. I just felt very defeated and developed an inferiority complex."

However, he takes great pains to stress, he was not a bad sort. "I might not have liked studying but I didn't join any gangs or steal. Even when I played truant, I would stay at home, not make trouble outside."

He served his national service with the police force and was based at the Toa Payoh Police Station. Suicide, murder, gang fights - he saw them all in the two years he was a man in blue.

He nearly lost his life in a macabre accident too when he was asked to refill some fire extinguishers in Jurong. As there were no other vehicles available, he was given a police hearse to make the trip.

The bizarre accident happened along Jurong Town Hall Road.

"I saw a stationary lorry ahead but I ploughed my vehicle into it. I don't know why I couldn't or didn't stop," he says.

The front of the vehicle was smashed in, trapping him. "The handbrake wedged itself through my left shin," he says, lifting his left trouser leg to reveal a nasty 20cm scar.

A crane had to be called to pull the front of the hearse away before he could be freed, and he needed surgery for his injuries.

"I told myself I couldn't die. I had not got married yet, or had children, or found a career. I needed to prove my former girlfriend wrong," recalls Mr Soon, who could not walk for three months after the accident.

After national service, a cousin invited him to start a coffee business. He knew nothing about coffee and did not even drink it. "But my cousin said there were so many coffee shops so there would be a lot of business," he recalls.

The two of them put in $13,000 each to start Kim Guan Guan. He got a loan from his reluctant father.

"He nagged but I said I needed to try, otherwise I wouldn't know if I would succeed. The nagging went on for 10 years, because I had nothing to show for it," he says with a laugh.

The cousins bought a delivery van and started business with just a table in a relative's shop.

The trade was more competitive than they imagined, and business was slow.

It did not help, he admits candidly, that he did not put his heart and soul into the business. "I was not serious enough. I relied on my cousin. He did everything, I just made the deliveries."

Reality bit hard when his cousin decided to call it a day two years later. Mr Soon bought over the latter's share for $50,000. "I didn't have the cash so he took one of the two vans we had, and I promised to pay the rest in monthly instalments of $2,000," he says.

The idea of throwing in the towel crossed his mind too. "But I asked myself, 'If I give up now, does that mean I will always give up in life? How will I live my life? What can I do? Become a delivery man, earn $1,600 a month?'"

Carrying on meant having to shoulder a debt of more than $100,000. "But I just had to figure out how to continue."

Boy, was there a lot of figuring out to do. He had to start almost from scratch. "I realised how young and irresponsible I had been. I hadn't learnt anything. I didn't even know how coffee was made, where it was grown," he says.

His ignorance was not the only thing working against him.

"Suppliers and customers didn't trust me. They asked me where my cousin was; they said they would not do business with me if he wasn't around."

There were countless sleepless nights. Competitors and even relatives thought he would fail.

"I'd go to coffee shops and make coffee and wash cups for the owners until they would talk to me," he says. "Customers my competitors did not want, I would take. It was my only way of getting a leg in the door and building a customer base which I needed badly."

To earn more, he even became a coolie for a competitor once, hauling 10 60kg coffee bags up two floors in a coffee shop, at $10 a bag.

"I'm lucky my family did not depend on me; no one needed me to look after them. I also did not smoke, drink or socialise so it was enough for me to survive on," says the affable businessman who gave himself a monthly salary of $500 for a few years.

That proved to be a period of self-reflection.

"Why were my competitors doing well? Why was I losing so badly? Was my business model wrong? Was it the way I communicated? Was I not sincere enough? I tried to work out answers to all these questions," says Mr Soon, who took more than five years to clear his debts.

His first breakthrough came in 1993 when he partnered another relative to start a coffee roasting facility, which gave him not only an added source of income but also allowed him to control the quality of his beans.

Two years later, he borrowed from banks and a tontine to raise $220,000 to take over a unit at Defu Lane so that he would have a proper base for his operations. A tontine is an informal micro-financing scheme; members make regular contributions to a common pool and loans are given out to those who make the highest bid.

In the meantime, he found love. He married Ms Wendy Lee, a Temasek Polytechnic business graduate, in 1996. She and his older sister Mandy soon came on board to help him run the operation.

"I couldn't have done it without my wife. She helped to put in a lot of systems and streamline the operations," he says.

Monthly sales grew to more than $100,000 - five times more than when he first took over. But just when he thought he was getting into a groove, his relative decided to quit their partnership.

Desperate to keep the business going, he initially turned to competitors. "They said, 'Sure, I can give you our beans to roast but you have to give me two months credit and also a lower price.' They were using me to press roasting prices down."

He decided to go directly to the coffee shops. "I reckoned I might as well go to the front line. I told them I'd give them the best roasted beans at the best price. I'd also do the roasting for those who had their own beans. That way, I could control the price and I collected cash straight away."

It worked. He now roasts 40 tonnes of beans a month for coffee shops, more than 13 times the amount from other coffee traders.

With his business finally humming, he started thinking about sharpening his competitive edge.

In 2003, he started packing his coffee - from 200g to 4.5kg - in aluminium foil bags instead of the traditional tins. The method is more hygienic, preserves the fragrance of the coffee better, and makes brewing the perfect cup a breeze.

"You just need 2.2ml of water for a 200g bag, very easy. The quality is constant," he says.

He chatted with cantankerous coffee brewers who were resistant to the idea, and managed to convince them that his new packaging made for a fresher, more fragrant cup of coffee.

"I'd tell them, 'If people come and say the coffee you brew is good, won't you feel proud?'"

This packaging innovation took his business to the next level, increasing sales from less than $200,000 to more than $500,000 a month.

He also launched his own brand of Guan's Coffee and Tea in 2005, which he promotes on radio and at trade shows and company carnivals.

"Customers order by phone. It is a small home delivery business which we do because we are passionate about traditional local coffee and want to promote it. It's freshly packed, with no chemicals added," he says, adding they sell about 3,000 boxes a month.

There are no plans to have the range stocked by supermarkets.

"The whole process needs a lot of supervision and I want every bag to be fresh," he explains.

His father, who died two years ago, lived to see him thrive and once told a friend how proud he was of his youngest son's success.

Unlike the days when few customers had faith in him, Mr Soon is now well-known for his pride in his products. He makes daily visits to coffee shops to taste their brews and when he finds them lacking, he has been known to roll up his sleeves to show how it should be done.

"Coffee is the most important item for any coffee shop; it is also their lifeline. You need passion to make a good cup of coffee. It can't be just about money. If it is, the more you do it, the less good it is."

Businessman Vincent Lim, 46, who was Mr Soon's secondary schoolmate, says: "He's different from many other businessmen. He doesn't really weigh the risks or the returns if he feels something is worth doing. He will just put in the time and do his best."

It explains why he helps coffeeshop operators scout for locations for new outlets, and plan their coffee and drink stations, at no extra charge.

The father of three sons and one daughter, aged between three and 16, is proud that Kim Guan Guan has carved out a 15 per cent share of the market as a local coffee supplier.

"It would be nice to have my own coffee place but until I can find the right people to manage it, I won't do so," says the entrepreneur, who now has 30 employees.

He says he has learnt to treat every problem as an opportunity to learn. "I don't go, 'Why me?' Because if you have that attitude, you will become sour. And the more sour you become, the worse the problem gets."

As for the girlfriend who dumped him, predicting that he would not amount to much, he says their paths crossed once after he had turned his fortunes around.

"She hinted she wanted to get back together. But a mirror, once cracked, will never be the same again," he says.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 24, 2013

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