Article first appeared in S-Files: Stories Behind Their Success, published by Success Resources Pte Ltd
When Lim Bee Huat took over the Lau Pa Sat Festival Market from Scotts Holdings Limited in 1995 at a cost of $8 million, the Grand Old Lady of Shenton Way wasn't in the best of health. Business was not exactly flourishing despite its prime location and even its former owners had publicly admitted to that.
Lim spent $4 million renovating the place and $600,000 on an advertising blitz when the market re-opened for business as a 24-hour food court in September 1996. At that time, many people thought that Lim was crazy to pump in so much money into a project that, until then, had not yielded any profit.
But then again, it wasn't the first time that people thought Lim Bee Huat was crazy.
In 1989, Lim successfully tendered for a coffeeshop at Bishan Street 11 for a then jaw-dropping sum of $2.01 million. When the news of the bid broke, it became a major topic of conversation in coffeeshops from Changi to Jurong. Many thought it was an insane amount of hard cash to fork out for a location in an HDB estate. The investment however has since paid off handsomely - that piece of property is thriving and now estimated to be worth some $6 million.
Even better news for Lim is that Lau Pa Sat seems to be heading in the same direction, as throngs of people flock to savour the varied hawker fare at its 86 foodstalls. The market's 25 carts selling mostly knick-knacks and 12 retail shops are also starting to do brisk business. The Grand Old Lady, with yet another facelift, is coming alive again.
Nobody thinks Lim Bee Huat is crazy anymore.
It is not for nothing that many people dubbed Lim the 'Kopi Tiam King', although he himself is quick to reject that label.
"No, no, there are many, many Kopi Tiam Kings. I'm just beginning to find a niche in this market. I would say I'm just among the players." This quote must be in contention for the understatement of the year.
The man is just as modest as when he first started working as a 'coffee boy' at a hawker centre at the tender age of nine. Lim said he is in this business more so because of his love and passion for it rather than for the money and you have every reason to believe him. The coffeeshop trade is 'in his blood'.
Lim started Kopitiam Investment Pte Ltd in 1988 to tender for the Bishan project. By then, Lim was already a veteran in the business; with experience in operating a chain of 8 coffee shops for more than a decade as well as a canteen at the AT & T Building for two years.
Much of this can be attributed to the relentless driving force in the form of Lim, although he prefers to credit the success to the excellent teamwork forged by his 168-strong full-time staff. In terms of single-minded pursuit of business objectives, it is very hard to find someone who can even come close to matching Lim.
In his 27 years in the business, the 45-year-old has never once considered the meaning of the word 'failure'. His self-belief and unblinking optimism for the hawker business has never wavered.
We often hear of determined businessmen stumbling and picking themselves up again to forge ahead, but Lim has never once tripped up; he just kept on running. "If you are determined and work hard and you know your market, you're sure to succeed. Every trade has a master." This is his motto. Sure, it's easy for him. He is, after all, the Kopi Tiam King.
In 1962, when he was all of nine years old, Lim went against his parents' wishes and started working every evening as a coffee boy at the then Esplanade Food Centre, while continuing to attend school in the day. He started by helping out at the stalls in the hawker centre and was paid an initial daily wage of $1.20, a princely sum for a working-class boy his age at that time.
He worked very hard and managed to negotiate for his daily wages to be increased to $1.50 within a year - even at that age, he knew what he was worth and would not be exploited by all the 'uncles and aunties'. He was always a cheerful worker, never complaining about the simple menial tasks given to him, including delivering food and wiping tables.
But he was also quietly watching and learning the secrets of the trade. Eventually he started working for just one stall in the hawker centre specialising in iced 'bo-bo-cha-cha', which was by far the most famous dessert at the Esplanade.
Having to work hard for his money, Lim was naturally thrifty, a trait that remains with him to this day. He pleaded with his boss to let him off at 11.45 pm instead of midnight because he had to take the last bus home. The bus fare then, recalls Lim, was just five cents.
Eventually, he saved up enough to buy himself a bicycle to travel between the workplace and his home at the Kallang Airport housing estate. His family had relocated there when the tragic fire of 1958 razed the entire squatter settlement at Bukit Ho Swee.
"It was a horrible, horrible tragedy I can still remember the day of the fire. We lost everything. We were sent by army trucks to the transit centre at Kim Seng Secondary School. Everybody was terrified. We were then transported by army trucks to Kallang Airport, where we were re-settled into a two-room flat. I can still remember the exact address. My parents, my grandmother, three brothers, three sisters and I were all squeezed into the flat. Those were very hard times"
It is not as though the Chairman of Kopitiam Investment is currently living in grand style. Home is a modest three-room flat at Eastern Lagoon. He has no plans to move into a bigger dwelling in the near future, partly because he just has no time to shift. Every waking hour is devoted to his business.. "Whatever money I earn, I put it back into the business. I keep rolling the cash. I don't have much left to spend on myself"
It was almost the same as the days when he was a coffee shop assistant. Despite having to work every night and during weekends as well, Lim managed to complete his education at the Mountbatten Primary School and went to Buona Vista Secondary School.
He was never interested in his studies though; in class, he would be thinking of more ways to make more money. "I was playing a dual role of entrepreneur and student, except that the entrepreneur part was always far more important".
Nevertheless, he completed his "0" levels (then known as Senior Cambridge examination), albeit with rather poor results. Not that it mattered to him. His aim in life was not to be a scholar. He just wanted to be a successful businessman.
"Because of my work, I was really a street boy. I mixed around a lot with the rascals. Looking back, I could either make it or I could rot like the many bad hats I hung around with. I'd like to think I've made it. With my dreams yet to be fulfilled, I was very determined to be ready for the challenge ahead. I told myself: One thing I that I must do is to concentrate and achieve the target I set, not allowing distractions to dilute my interest, like indulging in vices"
For someone on the threshold of middle age, Lim is remarkably youthful-looking except for a distinct paunch, which may be the result of his love for desserts.
Besides the food outlets, his company also operates a factory at Woodlands, producing a wide variety of desserts. Lim started the operations in 1993 to complement his coffeeshop business. He called it " The Dessert Shop", which besides making desserts, also has outlets all over Singapore.
In person, Lim is personable and very friendly, with a ready smile and a playful gleam in his eyes. Perhaps there is still a coffee boy in him. His slightly portly appearance and simple clothing remind you of those typical old-time Chinese businessmen, except that Lim speaks very fluent English and he has a decidedly Western corporate outlook in doing business.
He does not wear a single ornament; in fact, he doesn't even wear a watch. The time is all in his head he says. Besides, there are clocks everywhere - not least the antique clock perched on top of the Lau Pa Sat Festive Market.
In 1970, when he was still in national service, the government revamped the Esplanade Food Centre (which eventually included the relocated Satay Club). Lim saw the potential of even better business at the Esplanade than before. He tendered for the drink stall for a rental of $1,250 a month through an uncle (actually an older friend) because he was too young to do so himself.
He outbid the stall owner whom he was formerly working for and took over the business. "I was more gutsy than the owner, but she had no grudges against me." He even employed her brothers to work for him. Lim was already and has always been - an efficient and streetwise operato.
At 18, he suddenly found himself listed as 'self-employed' even though technically, he was still doing his national service. He continued to play his familiar 'dual role', as a soldier at Seletar West Camp in the day and entrepreneur at night. He eventually took over another four stalls at the Esplanade and the foundation of his hawker empire was laid.
At the Lau Pa Sat, there were several stalls that were once located at the Esplanade. Lim has been keeping in contact with these old 'neighbours' all these years. Some of these food operators are the children and even grandchildren of the former hawkers at the Esplanade.
"In this business, building rapport is very important. I maintain goodwill with all my hawker friends" Being the Kopi Tiam King' does not make him a royalty - Lim is ultimately still a grassroots man, even though he is now the boss of a medium-sized and fast-growing corporation.
"I've determination. Even as a kid, I told myself I must succeed simply because there's no choice. I've no canopy above me, no shelter from the rain, nobody to feed me. As a boy, I used to daydream about being very successful. I even dreamed of early retirement! The rich kids inherited wealth. I had to start from nothing. There's a lot to catch up."
Lim is the only enterprising member of his family of seven siblings, in which he is the third child. He confesses to being branded the black sheep of his family for going against his parents' wishes in pursuing his own personal agenda. He 'went against the rules of the house' and for a period had to stay away from home. That is water under the bridge now. His parents have long-forgiven him for his 'disobedience'.
"Being in business you cannot neglect filial piety at home and social participation in community, even though initially you are on your own with no godfathers and no secret sponsorships. However, when you finally make it, there should be a time to pay back"
Lim owns 98 percent of Kopitiam Investment Pte Ltd. He recently gave a percent share each to two faithful employees who have worked hard for him for many years. From what you can observe about his office staff, Lim seems to be a well-liked boss. He says he always listens to the suggestions of his staff because "they are all better qualified than I am. In fact, sometimes I'm a bit shy to admit that I'm the least qualified person in my company," he adds with a grin.
Occasionally, he is handed a few business books to read from his long-time girlfriend of more than 25 years, a banker who is pursuing her doctorate degree. These days, because of the rapid expansion of his business, he has no time even to read. He used to work 16 to 18 hours a day, with absolutely no time for leisure, except jogging and sleeping. He has eased off a little because of his age, but still finds little time for anything else except work.
The Kopitiam Investment office at the basement of Lau Pa Sat (the small entrance is somewhat difficult to locate) resembles an underground war room in some ways. No surprise then that Lim often describes the business world as something of a battleground, with the occasional reference to the Chinese master war strategist Sun Tze.
In the conference room hangs a map of Singapore filled with coloured pinheads, which reminds you of a map of a war theatre. The pinheads actually represent the different operations of his business, spread all over the island. There are 10 outlets fully owned by Kopitiam, a few ventures in which it has a 50 percent partnership and a factory in the north, among other operations. . Three white pinheads represented tentative sites at which the company is planning to start new projects in 1997.
Lim prefers to keep a low personal profile if he can help it ('Why kick up the dust?'), but as his company expands into a corporation, he cannot help but be noticed. He has also to do a lot more paperwork, which just isn't his cup of tea (or coffee). He personally oversees the setting up of a corporate structure, with six departments employing, among others, professional accountants, marketing specialists with MBA degrees and computer experts.
His ultimate aim is for his company to evolve a corporate culture so that he does not need to keep a finger in every pie. This is pretty amazing, considering that we are basically talking about a hawker business here.
At the rate he is going, it would not surprise anybody if Lim becomes the first 'hawker' in Singapore to take his company public. That day may not be that far away. Already the Economic Development Board has shown a keen interest in his company and has lent a helping hand in relocating his dessert factory in Woodlands to a premise in the same location about twice the current size.
The next logical step would be regionalisation. After all, it is one of Lim's goals to 'show that Singaporeans can make it in the food industry too' He has been invited to participate in joint ventures in Thailand, China and Japan. He was even approached by a big, well established developer in Hong Kong to manage and operate their food courts in China.
A concrete offer was made to him to start up operations in the Singapore-run industrial park in Bangalore in India, but Lim turned it down, saying that he was not ready to 'do battle on foreign soil yet' He quoted two conditions before he is prepared to venture there - firstly, unless the investments are 'pocket change', then he is ready to try; and secondly, 'until my skin touches the foreign air of Bangalore'.
In other words, he must be there personally to conduct the business and he must know the ground well. Lim believes that 'if you go blindly' into a business or venture into a land you are not familiar with, you stand a chance of being robbed blind. But here in Singapore, in the coffeeshop trade, Lim is definitely on very firm ground.
Lim does not dream about 'early retirement' anymore. At least, not yet. He still has a mission to accomplish - to make the coffeeshop or hawker business respectable in the eyes of people. In this, he has already succeeded to a large extent. But he thinks he has yet to change the image of the coffeeshop as a 'low-grade' business.
He laments the fact that when the 'old coffeeshop owners retire from the trade, most of their children are reluctant to take over. Many old-style coffeeshops have vanished over the years because of that, because the children of the 'kopi-tiam' men are afraid people will look down on them.
One day, when he finally retires. Lim Bee Huat hopes to be remembered as a 'street kid with business acumen'. In other words, the 'kopi kia' (coffee boy) who became the 'Kopi Tiam King'.