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BUSINESSMAN OF THE YEAR

Big dreams for the long road

For all of Sheng Siong's achievements over the past 34 years, founder Lim Hock Chee believes in keeping his feet on the ground.

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In a span of 34 years, Sheng Siong boss Lim Hock Chee has transformed the supermarket from a modest business into a listed company which boasts a 15 per cent market share.

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From paying some staff bonuses out of his own pocket to providing daily meals to his workers, Sheng Siong boss Lim Hock Chee believes in rewarding the people who help the company prosper.

WHEN Lim Hock Chee shared with his staff a vision of increasing the number of Sheng Siong supermarket outlets from the then-three to 15, some dismissed it as just big talk. But the 57-year-old businessman has not only grown the supermarket chain to the 15 outlets envisaged, but also built a business empire with 55 stores at last count - and expanding with likely three more outlets soon in Singapore and a second store in the pipeline in Kunming, China.

Currently, the enterprise Mr Lim founded in 1985 has a 15 per cent share of the supermarket pie in Singapore. The company posted a revenue of S$890.9 million and net profit of S$70.5 million for the financial year 2018.

For his vision and business acumen in developing Sheng Siong from a modest business into a mainboard-listed company and Singapore's third-largest supermarket chain with a strong emphasis on customer service and choice, Mr Lim was on Thursday crowned Businessman of the Year - the highest accolade of the Singapore Business Awards (SBA).

Sheng Siong also won SBA's Enterprise Award 2014.

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Early days

A remarkable feat considering that the affable Mr Lim grew up on a pig farm and "knew nothing about running a supermarket". His interest then was in repairing vehicles.

Mr Lim, who quit Chinese High School (now known as Hwa Chong Institution) in Secondary 3 because he was struggling in English, says when he set the vision of having 15 stores, he had just completed a Western management course from which he learnt about tools such as vision and organisation charts.

He was eager to apply what he had learnt and that led him to his vision in the late 1990s. To complement that, he drew up - by hand - an organisation chart of 15 stores including the then-non-existent 12.

It might have been seen by some naysayers as talking big, but that vision has come to fruition under Mr Lim's leadership and notwithstanding that Sheng Siong was surviving in the cracks in its early days. Mr Lim tells The Business Times that there were doubts about his first vision. " 'Mr Lim is talking big. Boss attended the course for a few days, and he's started to talk big after the course' ... Fortunately, I managed to deliver it in the end."

He now has his eyes on expanding the company further. Unfazed by online competition, he notes that it has not posed much threat to his brick-and-mortar business as shopping is very convenient in Singapore, an island densely dotted with supermarkets. In fact, the visionary boss sees a lot of upside for his company since it has "only" a 15 per cent share of the local market. Still, it is challenging even for a player which has been in the business for 34 years. Mr Lim says in Mandarin: "In the past, we got the leftovers, now we have to compete for the pie, it's not easy."

The entrepreneur is reminded of the hardship of early years now that he is starting afresh in Kunming - a city of seven million people - as a new entrant.

Setting a vision and drawing up an organisation chart have served him well, up to this day, though it is now the human resource department that produces the organisation chart, which includes planned new stores.

Setting a vision helps one to anchor goals and work towards targets. And an organisation chart is not only a visual representation of the positions in the supermarket chain, but also a career progression roadmap to attract prospective staff, Mr Lim says.

"With a vision and an organisation chart... people understand that there are growth opportunities working with you. Knowing that Sheng Siong is expanding, staff members might recommend their brother or whoever is keen to join. That's why the firm is venturing abroad, that is also to show to young people that there are opportunities."

To attract quality staff, the company has made a conscious effort to transform from a low-key private player that shunned publicity to one that went for initial public offering in 2011 and embarked on an expansion drive including taking wing abroad.

"Outsiders have said 'Mr Lim, you are so ambitious, you want to earn all the money in Singapore?'," the self-made multi-millionaire recalls a conversation he had. But without expansion, the company might be viewed as one that has no future and no vibrancy, he explains. "Expansion, hence, is not to make more money, but to provide growth opportunities for more people."

Success and succession

And debunking the myth that only his family members could succeed him, he says: "It is not necessary that your children have to take over the position. We are a listed company, if I could make a dollar, but you could make two dollars, I'd rather let you have the position. Why not?"

He cites the example of roping in industry veteran Tan Ling San in late 2005. Mr Tan is now vice-chairman and executive director at Sheng Siong. Mr Tan has the connections with manufacturers that Sheng Siong can leverage to procure supplies at lower prices. Further, the seasoned hand is able to share his expertise in creating brands of products that can be independently sold at places where Sheng Siong may not have a presence, thus providing another stream of income for the supermarket.

The company does not stop at attracting staff but also offers competitive remuneration. While basic pay has been flat for over a decade, staff get 20 per cent of the company's pre-tax net profit as bonus. And bonus is given out every month. Mr Lim points out that the bonus scheme means that his over-2,700 colleagues - a term he uses to refer to his staff - have vested interest in the supermarket's performance, because every dollar it makes pre-tax, the staff get 20 cents in bonus.

"The harder you work, the more rewards you get."

Long before contemporary startups began offering staff free meals, Sheng Siong was already providing its staff that perk. It is a tradition from its first outlet 34 years ago.

Now, food is prepared at a central kitchen in its Mandai headquarters, and boxed meals are delivered to all the outlets across the island seven days a week.

Lest you think that the company is defying the popular notion of "no such thing as a free lunch", Mr Lim is quick to add that everything has to be earned, and the free meals are the fruit of his staff's labour.

The free meals cost Sheng Siong as much as S$7,000 a day, but he says some workers who watch their budget appreciate the help.

People first

He acknowledges that he is thrifty and spends less than S$10 on some days. However, he and his two brothers - 59-year-old Hock Eng who chairs the board, and 54-year-old Hock Leng, who is managing director - do not skimp on staff benefits.

From the dividends they receive as shareholders, the three brothers reward staff for having been with the company for 15 years and 20 years with a 40-gram gold coin and a Rolex watch respectively. The three pay this out of their pockets so that the expenditures do not eat into the company's profits.

The company takes care of the five-year and 10-year long-service awards, which are 20g and 30g gold coins respectively. Many of the staff have been with the supermarket for over 10 years.

The brothers also fund a bursary for children of the staff.

Now, they have plans for a retirement trust fund for some staff and are finalising the details.

But it's not just the staff at profit-making stores who are recognised for their service.

Sheng Siong's Kunming store made a loss in its maiden year of operations. A director proposed skipping the 13th-month bonus for the workers there.

After considering the suggestion for three days, Mr Lim remitted to China S$200,000 of his personal funds as bonus for the Kunming staff.

It is a testament to the company's confidence in the venture, which is seeing improving sales. There is another reason: the man wants the staff to feel rooted and stay.

The helmsman, who waxes philosophical throughout the interview, gives his advice on how to instil a sense of belonging in his staff: "Take care of the roots when you are growing a tree; take care of the water when you are rearing fish; take care of the heart when you are grooming a person."

He says it is important to plan a clear career path for staff who have good attitude and are capable.

Wouldn't that make them prime candidates for poaching by competitors?

Mr Lim thinks otherwise. He is very confident that even if his business rivals could replicate the system, or the hardware as he puts it, the efforts that they put into grooming the staff and leading by example to guide them - the heartware - make Sheng Siong unique.

Its people-centric emphasis extends to customer service.

"I tell the staff: do not be mistaken about who their boss is. In the service industry, one can't be mistaken about who the boss is. It's not the company's boss. Rather, it's the person standing right in front of you."

Also, staff members are each given two folded sheets of paper printed with mottoes such as "if you don't take care of your customers, they will be taken care by others".

This culture is not just for the staff. Mr Lim walks the talk as well.

Humble habits

At a time when consumers are complaining about how difficult it is to get through companies' hotlines and to be attended by a person on the phone, Mr Lim is one of the handful of CEOs who makes his cellphone number available to customers.

When he was contemplating the move over a decade ago, his younger brother advised him against it, given that Mr Lim was already so busy.

After mulling over it for six months, Mr Lim went ahead to publish his cellphone number at every store so customers and staff can reach him easily, be it for providing feedback or getting him to make urgent decisions.

The rewards for doing so include members of the public contacting him to provide locations of stray trolleys.

Of course, putting his contact out in the public has attracted unwanted attention, but he stands by this conviction to serve his customers well.

On taking care of staff and customers, Mr Lim is a strong believer in "one for all and all for one" - a constant refrain during the interview.

To make sure he is a role model for his staff and to continue bettering himself, he reflects on his actions during quieter moments, such as when doing household chores like making his bed and washing his dishes.

This is even though there are two maids at home. He says it is important to maintain these habits.

And while circumstances may have changed for the former farm boy, many of his habits have not. He fishes out a nondescript notebook from his shirt pocket. It shows appointments and notes he jots down religiously. On his wrist, where many bosses might sport a Rolex, are instead scribbled telephone numbers that he has made in a hurry.

A few years ago, he donated half his personal savings to a cause. Concerned that he might not have enough funds for other regular donations already committed via Giro, he turned to his younger brother for a S$500,000 loan to tide him over till he received dividends the following month.

But Mr Lim did not get the loan he requested. Instead, he got S$1 million from his brother, who told him it was a gift. This moved him to tears on the spot. Though it happened some time ago, Mr Lim recalls this with emotion and is misty-eyed when he recounts the matter to The Business Times.

He has since donated the S$1 million to various charities, but objects to being called a philanthropist.

Last September, the same brother rewarded Mr Lim with a Bentley "for his contributions to the company".

The former car mechanic student has come a long way.