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TEE YIH JIA, a company familiar to supermarket aunties and corporate towkays alike, is best known for its "Spring Home" brand of popiah skin and in more recent years, frozen parathas. Despite being one of Singapore's most well-known food brands, it is not resting on its laurels. Earlier this year, it launched a new product: frozen hargow crystal skin, or the skin for Chinese shrimp dumplings, becoming the first in the world to do so. This was no easy feat. The hargow skin, the texture of which is notoriously difficult to nail, took over three years of research and development work. But it is all part of the firm's efforts in conquering the Asian convenience foods market, says its executive chairman Sam Goi.
The product allows Tee Yih Jia to break into a product segment that to this day still depends on highly skilled chefs to make by hand. Not only will it reduce food preparation time and the need to hire highly skilled chefs just to make the hargow skin, it also increases options for restaurants. Being made by machines, the skins will also be uniformly consistent - not always possible when made by hand. The hargow crystal skin follows other products that Tee Yih Jia has come up with for the market: pastries for siew mai and Peking duck. "We've been producing them for a long time," Mr Goi says.
Recording over S$1 billion in turnover a year today, Tee Yih Jia has come a long way from its humble beginnings. Mr Goi was initially running an electrical repair shop when one of his customers, Tee Yih Jia, was put up for sale in 1977.
Buying over the business, the astute businessman then saw immediately that the local market was too small for the company to grow. It had to expand overseas, and in doing so, he began to automate the popiah pastry manufacturing process.
From 30,000 popiah skins a day, Tee Yih Jia now produces 35 million pieces a day from factories in over 10 countries, including Singapore, China, Malaysia and the United States. It has also widened its product range to include frozen paratha, glutinous rice balls and dim sum treats.
A newer brand, Happy Belly, sells mostly buns and wraps, including the newly launched hargow skin. And the firm has been very successful - more than 90 per cent of its products are exported through an extensive distribution network of over 70 countries spanning Europe, North America, Southern Africa, the Middle East and Asia-Pacific.
Tee Yih Jia has grown steadily over the past four decades because it has been very careful to maintain its quality, says Mr Goi. "We are successful because we take care of our product quality, product mix and have innovated with new and existing products. Today, the whole world trusts us."
With the business having stabilised, Mr Goi, 67, has taken a backseat in the day-to-day running of the company, though he remains executive chairman of the group. Tee Yih Jia is now managed by a team of professionals and veteran executives led by his second daughter Laureen. Selling well-loved traditional food that have stood the test of time, Mr Goi looks at Tee Yih Jia as "merchants of history". "What this means is that we sell traditional food products by innovating and modernising it to today's consumer preferences and palates," says Mr Goi.
Going by Tee Yih Jia's growth, the company is in good hands. In the first quarter of this year, revenue grew 15-20 per cent from last year. This compares with growth rates of about 5-10 per cent in 2004. It is now planning its next phase of growth - to double its production capacity. It will take time to source for an appropriate location to build the manufacturing facility, Mr Goi explains. He concedes it will not be an easy task to undertake.
The plan is to increase its R&D capabilities and the production of its flagship Spring Home, Master Chef, Happy Belly & Ryushobo brands. They will be exported to markets such as Europe, US, the Middle East and China, all of which Tee Yih Jia sees increasing demand in. The company performs well even when the global economy is sluggish, as more consumers choose to buy their products and cook at home rather than eat out, says Mr Goi.
Having been freed up from daily work, Mr Goi is now on the lookout for the next step-change the company can take. He has embarked on a few personal ventures in the hopes of incubating them till they are more mature, after which they can be subsumed under the company. Banking on a partnership of restaurant owners in China, Mr Goi is planning to ramp up an e-commerce company he invested in to supply food ingredients to restaurants and hotels.
Mr Goi holds a stake of nearly 10 per cent in Chinese food service market leader JMU, a consortium of about 300 restaurant and hotel owners that banded together to do bulk purchasing of food ingredients. Last year, the combined value of their procured goods reached 25 billion yuan (S$5.1 billion). Mr Goi expects this to grow in the coming years.
The firm, which will sell an extensive range of food ingredients including cooking oil, corn flour and flour, among other products, could in turn bring in other opportunities, says Mr Goi. "I have been in China for a long time, and I have made many friends in the restaurant and food ingredients industries. Through these friendships, I had unknowingly built up a network of suppliers and end-users," he says. "I can see a lot of opportunities now."
For one thing, he could invest in factories to expand upstream, or become a shareholder in some of these restaurants and suppliers. His familiarity with the owners of restaurants and their business will allow him to offer better credit terms than other companies, helping him to be competitive, he says.
Mr Goi has also recently invested in a company that bought over Hong Kong dessert store chain Cong Sao, which currently has four stores in Hong Kong and plans to open stores throughout China.
These investments have been made in a personal capacity, as he does not want Tee Yih Jia to shoulder the risk. "If successful, I will put it in Tee Yih Jia," he says. In his view, the new businesses could help Tee Yih Jia - thus far a step-by-step, slow-and-steady business - leapfrog to greater success, he adds. "If managed the right way, the possibilities could be limitless."