You may well be familiar with putu mayam – the traditional Indian snack of white string hoppers that you dip into a pile of red jaggery sugar. But what you may not realise is that the sugar you take for granted was actually produced by Singapore’s oldest and only sugar manufacturer.
With most Singaporeans assuming that all our foodstuff is imported, it seems like a surprising discovery that Cheng Yew Heng has been making rock sugar, red and black jaggery sugar since the 1950s.
The Senoko factory is run by third generation owners John Cheng and his second brother, Liang Kheng. Their eldest brother, Liang Chye, runs SMC21, a leading food ingredients blending company.
Their grandfather started the company in 1947, selling Chinese hawthorn candy, sour plums and preserved fruit. In the 1950s, it switched to manufacturing rock sugar, red and black jaggery sugar due to strong competition from imports from China. It was also around this time that their father, Ngee Chuan, took over the business.
Mr Cheng, 37, left his banking job in 2008 to join the business shortly before his father passed away. Besides taking over the 72-year-old company, he was also tasked to protect its legacy, built on a philosophy ingrained in its name: Cheng being the family name; Yew for friendship; and Heng for happiness. It means that family and friends who work together, succeed together as well. With an annual revenue of more than S$100 million, it looks like the legacy is in good hands.
Cheng Yew Heng has been run by third generation owners for the last decade. Is it easier to run a family business when there are no elders to report to?
We are fortunate in that we don’t face obstacles such as the older generation not letting go of the reins. But we’ve had to face an ageing workforce, trying to change their mindsets. It would be nice to have the older generation guide us, but there are also challenges in that.
As third generation owners, we have more freedom to come up with ideas, but it doesn’t mean that anything goes. Every decision must make financial sense.
When I started Jewels Rock Sugar Sticks, I had to run the idea past my brothers, who have more years in the business. They were skeptical and concerned that the product was too niche. I worked with Singapore Polytechnic on the formula, and took on the branding myself. Jewels was launched in 2016, and today it is sold at department stores, Jewel Changi Airport, and at high-end supermarkets in China.
What would you consider your biggest achievements since joining the company?
There were many hurdles but I see them as learning experiences. One of which is modernising the company, such as having a leave system and switching from a five-and-a-half-day to a five-day work week. Along the way, we achieved HACCP and then a ISO22000 certification for food safety. I also introduced more automation, as manufacturing sugar was a very manual process before.
Most importantly, I found my passion in the business.When I first joined, I thought sugar was boring. And I missed the interaction I had with my friends who were working in the CBD, while I work in a factory. I was also the youngest in the company, with no peers to talk to, although I did make friends with my older colleagues.
Back then, I hoped that there were other next generation business owners that I could talk to. It was on a study trip overseas that I got to meet them, and it got me thinking, why not start a network for people like us.
So I started the Singapore Management University Business Families Alumni Group, which I chair, and there are now 140 members from different industries.
We all understand that we need to prove our worth – that’s the biggest challenge for all next-generation business owners. Carrying the Cheng name is stressful.
We gather every quarterly, and it is a good platform to network and spark collaborations.
As if you are not busy enough managing Cheng Yew Heng, you also started innovate 360, a food innovation ecosystem.
Innovate 360 is Singapore’s first incubator with food facilities. It is hard to start a food business, and if you are new to the industry, you may not know where to begin. As a company, we have the expertise and experience to help startups commercialise their ideas faster to succeed.
Cheng Yew Heng will move into a new factory in June, and Innovate 360 will also be in the same building. We have started working with a few startups, and they will eventually use the space for their R&D and we will help with warehousing and logistics.
Cheng Yew Heng is Singapore’s only sugar manufacturer, and Liang Kheng once said that sugar is recession-proof. Are there challenges that the company faces?
There is the war against sugar, how it is bad for you. But I feel it is about educating the consumer. The fact is, you need to exercise and moderate what you eat, whether it is sugar, green tea or carrots. Too much of a good thing, such as carrots, can be bad as it makes your skin orange.
Sugar enhances taste and it gives us energy. Everything is about moderation.
What advice would you give to those who like you, who are expected to continue the family business?
Join the family business with an open heart, find your passion, and persevere. The last is especially important in a family business, where you are expected to work harder than your employees. Know that you are not alone, because there are others out there who are in the same boat.
It has been 10 years since your father passed away. What would he think about what his sons have done with Cheng Yew Heng?
I think he would be proud of us brothers working together and of the strong relationship that we have with our customers. Even today, our suppliers still speak fondly of my dad, and they too, are proud of us for carrying on the name.
What’s next for Cheng Yew Heng, and are there succession plans?
We will be developing new products, and also investing in startups. As for succession plans, one of my nephews is going to university soon, and he is now doing an internship on sugar trading. I have a few other teenage nephews who help out at the company, helping me write up recipes to earn some pocket money.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.