A recession, the dot.com bust and the Sars crisis: Taking place around the early 2000s, these events caused many businesses to go under. For Sheng Siong Group co-founder and CEO Lim Hock Chee, however, they created fertile ground for aggressive growth.
Taking advantage of ensuing low rental rates, Lim opened 14 stores between 2000 and 2005. Prior to that, the supermarket chain had only three outlets since its beginnings in 1985.
Then again, one doesn’t build one of Singapore’s fastest-growing retail chains by treading well-worn paths. Today, Lim helms a 33-store public company that rang up $687.4 million in total revenue last year. He has been on Forbes Asia’s Singapore 50 Richest list since 2012, with an estimated net worth of US$545 million (S$690 million).
“People are often unwilling to change when they’re comfortable,” says the 53-year-old father of four in Mandarin, during our interview at Sheng Siong’s corporate headquarters at Mandai Link. That’s why he does not consider the closure of his former family business a setback, but a fortuitous turning point. Covering a whiteboard in Chinese phrases to illustrate his points, the multimillionaire looks like an earnest teacher in a simple, loose-fitting short-sleeved shirt and black trousers.
Long before he and his siblings (elder brother Lim Hock Eng is the group’s executive chairman and younger brother Lim Hock Leng its managing director) entered the supermarket scene, they helped their parents run a business much further up the supply chain: Pig farming.
The thriving business came to an end in the 1980s, when pig farming was phased out by the Government. Lim approached the owner of a minimart to sell the farm’s excess stocks of pork, and subsequently bought over the shop, when the owner encountered financial problems. Despite competition from five other provision stores in the area, that first Sheng Siong prospered, thanks to a strategy that saw prices being kept low and product ranges broadened.
Several Sheng Siong outlets that followed were similarly situated at sites typically deemed unfavourable. Many were quiet locations that had been passed over by others – but not by Lim and his siblings, who saw the potential in the low-rent sites. With a laugh, Lim says: “We didn’t worry about competing with the bigger chains. We just worked very hard, because we didn’t want the business to fail. I ordered goods myself for more than a decade, so I know what products sell.”
Further demonstrating Lim’s out-of-the-box approach, the Sheng Siong supermarkets were the first in Singapore to feature a two-in-one concept, combining the offerings of a provision shop and a wet market. It’s a strategy that has clearly proven popular: The company went public in August 2011 and is now Singapore’s second-largest supermarket chain, after Fairprice.
He balks, however, at the suggestion that his company’s success is driven by personal ambition. For Lim, who was named one of the Best Chief Executive Officers at last year’s Singapore Corporate Awards, taking care of his people’s prospects is one of the key reasons for expanding Sheng Siong’s operations – here and overseas. The company has partnered a Chinese business, and plans to begin its overseas foray in the city of Kunming.
He notes: “If we just remain in Singapore, we may eventually have 50 stores, but then we would come to a standstill. In Singapore, how many vice-presidents do you need? But, if you go to a market like China, there will be a need for many more vice-presidents. It’s by creating new paths that your company can move towards a bright future.”
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