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No Signboard has other irons in the fire

Plans include expanding South Korean chicken and burger chain Mom's Touch, rolling out No Signboard Seafood concept in Shanghai

Under his leadership and a S$300,000 loan from a friend, Mr Lim was able to transform his grandmother's hawker business into a renowned chain of seafood restaurants in Singapore.

MOST of Sam Lim's earliest memories revolve around the sizzle of finely-chopped garlic in hot oil, the aroma of Chinese stir-fry, and the constant clang of his grandmother's wok on the stove.

"When I was five, I would hang out in the kitchen to watch my granny cook," the executive chairman of SGX-listed No Signboard Holdings recalled of No Signboard Seafood brand founder Ong Kim Hoi, who died in 2014 at the age of 74.

"In the late 1970s, Singapore chilli crab was traditionally prepared in a tomato sauce base. But my granny disagreed with the mix of ingredients. First, she created her own chilli sauce. Then she chose to cook crab in white pepper sauce because she felt black pepper was too strong and overpowered the fresh taste of live crab."

Madam Ong's unique and tantalising White Pepper Crab recipe drew in the crowds. Since her stall at the Mattar Road hawker centre in Aljunied lacked a proper sign - only a wooden plank painted in orange - it became known as the No Signboard stall. In 1990, she moved the business to the Farrer Park hawker centre, where the brand continued to grow.

Mr Lim's decision to join the family business eight years later was a watershed moment. "I had worked all kinds of jobs - ranging from third chef in a Swensen's restaurant and hotel bell boy to cargo hand and petrol pump attendant, but never thought of doing my own family business, because I wanted to strike out on my own," he said.

But after his National Service, at the age of 21, Mr Lim changed his mind. "My grandparents and parents were getting old. I realised that it was then or never."

Under his leadership and a S$300,000 loan from a friend - "Tell me, which bank would be willing to lend you S$300,000 without collateral and a proven track record?" - Mr Lim was able to transform his grandmother's hawker business into a renowned chain of seafood restaurants in Singapore.

Today, No Signboard Holdings owns and operates three premium seafood restaurants in iconic locations across Singapore - Esplanade, VivoCity and The Central @ Clarke Quay - as well as one restaurant under a franchise agreement in Geylang.

His grandmother's delectable White Pepper Crab recipe remains a closely-guarded secret to this day, known only to select members of the family.

In June 2017, Mr Lim was appointed No Signboard Holdings executive chairman and chief executive officer. The group, which listed on SGX's Catalist board last November, has a market capitalisation of about S$70 million.

In a testament to its strong branding, No Signboard has received numerous accolades over the years, including the SG50 Prestige Enterprise Award 2015/2016 - Singapore's Top F&B Brand for Seafood Category, and Outstanding Brands - Beer 2016 award for its beer business.

Looking back, No Signboard Holdings' decision to move from the suburbs to a central location - the first being Esplanade, Singapore's premier arts centre in the scenic Marina Bay area - was instrumental in the development of its fortunes.

"Ten years ago, most seafood restaurants were located in the suburbs of eastern or western Singapore, and those in the Orchard Road area were the likes of Tung Lok, Crystal Jade and Lei Garden," said Mr Lim.

"Our move to town made a huge difference - it raised brand awareness and boosted our position."

Selling quality, premium seafood - like Alaskan king crabs, Australian snow crabs, Boston lobsters and Canadian geoducks - also helped to build a loyal following.

This year, No Signboard Holdings continues to forge ahead with a slew of new brands and concepts.

In June, the group announced its diversification into Singapore's hot pot market by securing franchise rights for China's Little Sheep hot pot restaurant, renowned for its delicious soup base made from Mongolian lamb and 36 spices. Under the agreement, No Signboard aims to set up one restaurant in Singapore per year under the Little Sheep brand, within the first five years.

That same month, its Tao Brewery subsidiary acquired the remaining 20 per cent stake it did not own in Danish Breweries, with the aim of expanding the distribution of the latter's signature Draft Denmark beer in the domestic and overseas markets.

Likewise in June, the group unveiled plans to establish a new fast-food chain, Hawker, which will offer consumers hawker-themed food in the form of burgers, buns or wraps. The menu includes black pepper crab burgers, Hainanese chicken rice burgers, nasi lemak burgers and roti prata wraps.

The first Hawker outlet will debut by the end of 2018, and at least another two will be rolled out by early 2019, targeting consumers in the central, eastern and western regions of Singapore.

The group has developed a line of ready meals under its Powered by No Signboard endorsement - including chilli crab spaghetti, Hokkien mee and nasi bryani - produced by its outsourcing partner and distributed via vending machines island-wide.

It is also in talks with food delivery platforms like GrabFood, Deliveroo and Foodpanda to generate more take-away sales not restricted by seating capacity in its dining outlets.

"We noticed that ready meals are becoming increasingly popular with today's busy consumers, who are willing to pay for convenience," said Mr Lim.

This trend is set to continue - Singapore's market for home delivery and take-away food is estimated to hit US$100 million in value by 2022, Euromonitor data showed.

Earlier this month, the group signed an exclusive master franchise agreement to expand South Korean chicken and burger chain Mom's Touch to Singapore and Malaysia. It intends to open eight outlets in both markets within the first three years of the franchise agreement.

That's not all. Mr Lim has a few more irons in the fire - "perhaps another franchise with a dessert concept, and maybe a deal involving a Michelin-star restaurant".

"It's always been No Signboard's mission to expand our restaurant portfolio, offering a variety of cuisines to cater to a wide consumer base, targeting different demographics and taste preferences," he said.

"The group is in a growth phase, and we look forward to bringing more popular franchises to Singapore and the region, pampering the taste buds of customers, and growing our revenue base to enhance shareholder value."

Next year, next stop: Shanghai.

"We plan to roll out the No Signboard Seafood concept there next May or June, and then the No Signboard Kitchen brand - which offers Sichuan delights like dumplings - in September or October," said Mr Lim.

The choice of China's eastern coastal city is important. "It's a seaport, which makes it more convenient for us to import our premium ingredients," he added.

Other target markets in 2019 include Cambodia, Malaysia and possibly Japan. "Next year, it's all about execution - growing the brands we've acquired this year. We will hopefully see the desired results between Year 3 and Year 5."

  • This is an excerpt from SGX's Kopi-C: The Company Brew, a regular column featuring C-level executives of SGX-listed companies. Previous editions can be found on SGX's website

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