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A bighearted giver right from the start

Neo Group's head honcho attributes his business success to lifelong philanthropy

To encourage his employees to give back to the community, 46-year-old Mr Neo matches the contributions of his staff dollar-for-dollar.


GROWING up, Neo Kah Kiat never saw his family having enough money. The electricity and water supply was often cut off from his three-room flat in Eunos, where he lived with his parents and three brothers.

But even as a youngster, he saw the value in giving to those who were less well off than he was.

"I came from a very poor family - we had no money," Mr Neo tells The Business Times. "But when I was young and went to the temples with my mother, I would ask her for 20, 30 cents.

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"Back then, Singapore had a lot of beggars in the temples. So whenever my mum went to the temple to pray, I would be the first one to volunteer to go with her - not to pray, but to donate."

He has certainly come a long way from his humble beginnings. Today, the self-made millionaire is the chairman and chief executive of Catalist-listed Neo Group, a food catering, manufacturing and retailing company with an annual turnover of more than S$120 million.

And philanthropy is deeply embedded in the company's culture, Mr Neo says.

Take, for instance, his firm's pledge to donate all of its catering revenue for New Year's Day - a lucrative day for caterers, as earnings typically spike - to charity.

The initiative, which was inaugurated on Jan 1 this year, saw the firm's catering arm raise more than S$180,000 for beneficiaries such as Ren Ci Hospital and Cheng Hong Welfare Service Society.

Apart from one-day charity drives, the firm also partakes in longer term philanthropic efforts, with sustainability as a main driver. Its beneficiaries cover a wide range; at last count, the firm had donated to more than 60 organisations in recent years.

"To me, we try to give a few hundred thousand dollars every year, regardless of how well the company does. If we find it necessary to contribute more, then we will do that," says Mr Neo.

To encourage his employees to give back to the community, the 46-year-old matches the contributions of his staff dollar-for-dollar.

"I always tell my staff, 'if you find that you are happy, you should make others happier by giving'. I have always believed in that," he says.

Another thing he believes in: that corporates - especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) - can and should do more.

"We need to inspire, to encourage the bosses of SMEs. If (they) start to give, if they start to encourage their staff to give, it's a lot," says Mr Neo.

"You don't have to be successful to donate. It's not about how much you make; it's about you. Roll out small, (then scale up) when you can."

But he cautions that one should approach philanthropy without expecting anything in return. "Don't ever think that after you give, you will have returns. It has to come from the heart," Mr Neo says.

Yet his philanthropic efforts have reaped unexpected rewards over the years, he tells BT.

When Neo Garden Catering - the earliest iteration of Neo Group and a wholly owned subsidiary - first started operations in 1992, pickings were slim.

And even when business picked up as time went by, there were still curveballs to dodge.

"When we started the business, it was very challenging. I personally felt that God was against me. Even when my business was very good, (there were) heavy rains, and I couldn't deliver," says Mr Neo, with a hint of facetiousness.

"But over the years, I found that life has changed. It's like God is supporting me now. Slowly, I understood that it's because I know how to give. When you know how to give, your life changes - that's my experience."

The married father-of-two is also keen on ensuring that his two sons (aged five and eight) are bitten by the philanthropic bug from a young age, as he was.

"A few months back, my wife asked (them): 'If Daddy had (some money), what would he do with it? Would he use it to buy toys for you?' My boys replied: 'No, he would give it to charity.'

"It's important that your children see that you are giving, because they will then be inspired to give. That's so important," says Mr Neo.

  • This is part of a series of stories on impactful corporate giving under the Company of Good programme led by the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre (NVPC). The Business Times is supporting the initiative as media partner.