Friday, May 27, 2011

A home-grown rags-to-riches tale

MR NEO Kah Kiat lives in Sentosa Cove, drives a Mercedes S-Class and owns a company worth tens of millions, but it is unlikely that you have heard of the media-shy entrepreneur.

You might have eaten his food, though.

The 39-year-old managing director of food enterprise Neo Group owns three catering companies, a restaurant, a yacht chartering service, a sushi chain and a wine cellar.

He likes to keep a low profile, grinning shyly at guests and nibbling quietly on his food even at media events where the buffet spread is sponsored by his company.

Nevertheless, Mr Neo is his vigorous self again the moment he steps into his office in Wan Lee Road.

The Hokkien businessman breaks into a big smile when this reporter asks him if he would prefer to be interviewed in Mandarin.

What pours out over the next hour or so is a spell-binding rags-to-riches tale that has never been told to the press before.

He is the third of four sons.

Mr Neo's family was so poor that utilities got cut off every once in a while, and they had wooden planks nailed to the windows to keep out the sun and rain.

"If the planks fell off, we'd use cloth to cover the gap. When there was no electricity, we'd use candles," he said.

"Whenever I drove my relative's goods van and my mum sat beside me, she would remind me to be extra careful when we were near a Mercedes-Benz.

"She'd say: 'Don't drive too close to it.

It's a rich person's car... Better keep a distance lest they think we'll scratch it.'

"I never forgot that. I wanted to be behind the wheel of that Mercedes. So I swore to myself that, one day, I would be successful and respected, and my first car would be none other than a Mercedes-Benz."

That said, he didn't run to the Cycle & Carriage showroom the moment he had money in his pocket. Despite being able to afford his current car - a glossy Dolomite brown S350 (price? $355,888) - at 32 years of age, he chose to wait until six months ago before buying it. In between, he opted to drive smaller Mercedes models.

A believer of delayed gratification, he prefers to pay off his loans and reinvest gains back into his business so its capacity can grow. Greater capacity means greater profits, he reasoned.

Something at his (leased) four-storey building at 6A Wan Lee Road is constantly being renovated to make way for more orders, for instance.

This year, the record number of orders met in a day exceeded 500 during Chinese New Year. Hence, his goal for the Year of the Rabbit: 800 orders.

Some caterers are unable to grow their business because they let their chefs run the kitchen, he opined.

That is why he has designed a synchronised cooking system of sorts to cope with orders.

Each chef in the kitchen is designated to cook only one dish, so a complete buffet of eight dishes can be turned out every two minutes.

"You cannot let the chef control your kitchen, as only the boss knows the capacity of his resources best. Some caterers say that their chefs are artists. But can you teach an artist how to paint? He is not going to listen to you.

"When we're shorthanded, even my directors have to roll up their long sleeves, don the Neo Group polo tee and make deliveries," he said.

What about himself? this reporter asks. After all, this is the same guy who still visits the fish market with his employees at 4am every Tuesday and Wednesday, to select the choicest items.

He also devises the recipes, including in-house-made sauces, batters and pastes. Every day at noon, he tastes the food before it leaves for its destination.

This is also the man who, when faced with a midnight fire that destroyed his first-floor kitchen two weeks before Chinese New Year in 2007, refused to cancel any orders.

Sitting calmly in his office at 6am, he transferred the seven buffet orders for the day to his East kitchen, called up electricians and stove makers to repair the damage, and set up makeshift arrangements for chefs on the second floor. By the third day, things were back to normal.

"I can't leave my office. I have to take care of things here," he replies. In Mandarin and English, he adds: "I tell my employees, I may have diversified the business, but I myself - my attention - is not 'diversified'."

To motivate his staff, they have to sing a company anthem and recite a pledge every morning and evening.

Gesturing at his flat-screen computer monitor mounted on the wall, he shows how he is able to monitor every nook and cranny of his company's premises.

"Before you came in, I just called the second floor to ask why they hadn't brought the fried rice out after it was cooked," he said.

He targets a 20 to 30 per cent growth in business per year. The group is particularly aggressive in expanding this year, adding a yacht chartering service and opening a restaurant in Jurong West.

But, ultimately, he dreams that catering will one day be a respected industry with industry standards, just like restaurants.

Who:
Mr Neo Kah Kiat, 39, managing director of food-and-beverage enterprise, Neo Group Holdings.

Education: He was a top student at Bedok Town Secondary School but chose to drop out after Secondary 2 as he felt that a diploma or a degree would not guarantee riches and respect.

His family was desperately poor at the time and he wanted to start earning money as quickly as possible.

He requested to enlist for national service a year earlier so that he could start his business at a younger age.

Career: Between ages 15 and 17, he helped out at a relative's chap chye peng (economical rice) stall, amassing useful experience he would need later when he started his business at the age of 20.

In 1992, with a capital of $15,000 borrowed from relatives and friends, he leased a small kitchen in Joo Chiat and hired eight staff, including housewives and novice cooks as he could not afford professional chefs. He named his catering business "Neo Garden Restaurant" as he wanted to give his customers the impression that they were ordering restaurant grade food.

Twelve years later, he moved his kitchen to larger premises at 6A Wan Lee Road and launched a halal catering arm, Deli Hub, in 2005. He continued expanding his premises, purchasing another kitchen in the eastern part of Singapore, and incorporated Neo Group in 2008.

He created the more high-end Orange Clove Catering and Japanese sushi chain Niwa Sushi later that year. Niwa Sushi is currently being rebranded as Umi Sushi.

Today, Neo Group is the parent company of three catering businesses, a wine cellar, a Japanese food-outlet chain, a restaurant and a yacht catering service.

His company has a total of 277 staff to date and turns over an eight-figure sum in revenue yearly.

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