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A taste for authenticity
WITH consumer palates growing more refined by the day and competitors aplenty, the food manufacturing business is not for the faint of heart. While he acknowledges these challenges, Richard Lai, the Managing Director of Thai Sing FoodStuffs Industry, exudes a quiet sense of confidence about his company's offerings.
"Our products are made of quality ingredients and they taste authentic," he says of Thai Sing's 80-strong line-up of South-east Asian sauces, pastes and pre-mixes (including soya sauce brewed right on the premises of the company's Woodlands facilities). And he should know. The 57-year-old is something of a one-man research and development unit for his family business, which has 35 employees. Having started cooking since the age of 13, Mr Lai personally experiments with ideas for new products, and seeks advice from friends and associates in the food and beverage industry to perfect Thai Sing recipes.
"Actually, sometimes I think I have to work like an artist," he says. "I start to develop new products when inspiration strikes, and that process always begins at home. In this line, when you have hands-on experience, the way you think and do things becomes very different."
When he was considering introducing a Thai Sing achar, for instance, Mr Lai had no idea how to make this condiment of pickled vegetables. But he remembered a hawker in a Hougang market whose achar he really liked, and decided to approach the hawker and ask if he could teach him how to make achar. "He didn't remember me as a customer, but maybe he agreed because he was about to retire, and felt I had asked him in a sincere way."
Mr Lai's first solo attempt at achar didn't go well, and he returned to recount his process to his teacher, who then pointed out where he had gone wrong. "Achar is difficult to make because you have to get the proportions of the ingredients right. The whole process of learning from this hawker to having the final product ready took about six months. And we have many experienced supporters and teachers like him who have guided the development of our products."
From shoes to soya sauce
Thai Sing was founded in 1969 by Mr Lai's father, Lai Joon Chuan, who decided to shift from shoe-making to trading in foodstuffs to make a better living. "We started by selling soya sauce door to door in housing estates," Mr Lai remembers. "In the 1970s, my father saw that hawker centres were being established, so we also started supplying soya sauce to hawkers."
Eventually, they started a manufacturing facility to make their own sauces, and began to supply these to hotel kitchens as well. Today, such B2B customers account for about 60 per cent of the company's revenue, while exports and B2C sales in local supermarkets each account for 20 per cent respectively.
While he is absolutely committed to maintaining the B2B business, exports and B2C sales are both areas that Mr Lai would like to grow. That won't be easy. Consumers in food-obsessed Singapore are spoiled for choice when it comes to the variety of culinary products available in this globalised hub, so Thai Sing is competing with both local and international brands.
But it's making headway. Thai Sing products are currently stocked in supermarkets such as NTUC Fairprice, Sheng Siong, Prime and Ang Mo. Since 2018, its premixes have also been available at online grocery store Redmart and selling well, which means it's connecting with younger, tech-savvy consumers who probably don't have the time or knowhow to make labour-intensive concoctions such as laksa paste from scratch. The company is also stepping up its digital presence in social media channels.
As for exports, homegrown favourites such as chicken rice have not quite achieved ubiquity on the global stage just yet, which means growing overseas markets requires introducing South-east Asian flavours to foreign buyers.
Thai Sing does so by participating in trade exhibitions. "I'd like to bring these Singaporean flavours to more countries," says Mr Lai, who started venturing into foreign markets 20 years ago. Besides exporting products to distributors in countries such as China (their biggest overseas market to date), Indonesia and Malaysia, Thai Sing also sells its wares to Singaporean traders who distribute the goods to markets such as Australia and parts of Europe. "Food is a way of introducing our culture to others, so in a way, we are like ambassadors of Singapore," says Mr Lai.
Bigger and better
With new facilities under construction on its Woodlands site, Thai Sing's total workable area will almost double this year to 38,000 sq ft, and Mr Lai hopes to increase the company's product range. This will mark its most significant expansion since 1996, when Thai Sing moved from its previous premises in Aljunied, which had been much smaller.
The increased costs of running the then-new Woodlands plant, plus the stresses of the Asian financial crisis, meant it took almost a decade for the business to stabilise after the move. "We just had to bite the bullet and get through it," says Mr Lai. "Our priority was to make sure the staff got paid even during the toughest times, even if that meant I couldn't pay myself. This is a family business, and I think of the staff as family."
He also began the process of introducing automation during the 1990s. With the help of government grants for purchasing machinery, today's Thai Sing is 90 per cent automated. "Without these grants, we would have needed another five to eight years to achieve this level of productivity," he notes. It can be hard to find manpower to work in this industry, so automation helps to lighten the workload for staff as well.
Other milestones over the years include obtaining the ISO 22000 certification for food safety in 2017. His wife, who oversees operations, has also been key to modernising the company's work processes, first introducing a fax machine to the very traditional office set-up in the early years and then implementing computerisation and a digital database. Indeed, Thai Sing is still very much a family business. Mr Lai's younger sister handles the company's accounts, and last year, his two daughters both joined Thai Sing full time, and are now working in marketing and operations respectively.
"I hope to nurture the next generation, and help them understand how the company got to where we are today," says Mr Lai. "As for my views about the future, I can only share my experience, I cannot predict what will change. The future belongs to the next generation, who will have their own views about how to run the business. We started Thai Sing to make a living, but we have turned it into an enterprise, and we aspire to do even better."