MELPOMENE HUA: When you started Neo Garden Catering 20 years ago, did you think that one day it’ll be the number one catering company in Singapore?
NEO KAH KIAT: Definitely not. I wanted to grow the business and be the largest, but I never thought of being number one because there were so many big players back then. I just wanted to be on par with them.
MELPOMENE: Are people your most important assets?
KAH KIAT: To me, people are only assets when they add value. I am proud to say that all my staff are very hardworking, but hard work is only one aspect—they need to add value in their own way. People also want to work for a boss who is very passionate about growing the company, and I always tell my people that if my company is not growing, they should leave.
MELPOMENE: Do you value loyalty?
KAH KIAT: Yes! That’s why we reward staff who are loyal. Many people don’t believe in loyalty, but I do. In fact, I always tell my people if they have not stayed with the company for a thousand days, they are not my staff—and are considered as a “passerby”. Some of my people have been with me for over 20 years, and they are old now, so it’s time for me to give back to them. But I’ll be tough and merciless on young chaps because I know that they need to learn.
MELPOMENE: I saw that your kitchen staff wear shirts with the word “leaders” printed on the back. Do you promote leadership?
KAH KIAT: We have uniforms in seven colours for our kitchen—one for every day of the week. Well, at least in this way, we know that our employees change their clothes. [laughs] Sometimes you will see “leaders”, sometimes it’s a different word.
MELPOMENE: So staff wear the shirts to remind themselves of certain values?
KAH KIAT: Yes, for example, there’s also the word “zero” on the right sleeve. That’s the “zero error” initiative we started over the last two years to motivate our staff to do things right. If they make a mistake, they must write it down so that we have a record and know which of these mistakes are caused by human error, and if they can be solved by technology. We track everything. Recently, we want to implement a quit smoking campaign and if employees successfully quit, they will be given $1,000. We are able to identify smokers based on their uniforms, too.
MELPOMENE: I noticed that you have a company anthem and pledge, it’s very unusual and communal.
KAH KIAT: Yes! When I was in school, we had to recite the national pledge as well as a school pledge, and everyone would stand up straight because there was a sense of pride. I wanted something like that for my company. In 2008, I engaged a consultant, and when I told him to come up with a pledge and a song, he stared at me in disbelief. So, I asked him to follow my instructions. We also have a kitchen pledge, and I just introduced a new zero error pledge but that still needs fine-tuning.
MELPOMENE: What kind of leader are you?
KAH KIAT: I like to share, I like to come up with new things for my staff, and I like to value-add. For example, we have a happiness index and every day before our employees go home, they have to indicate if they are happy. We also have happy sweets and magic mirrors. My plan is to make my people happy so that they will feel like this is a place for them to build a career.
MELPOMENE: What are your core values?
KAH KIAT: Whatever you do, you must be honest. I value honesty, respect, and giving to others. I teach these values even to my children. If you can master these three things in life, you can fly. This is especially important in the food business. If my chefs cook something that’s not good, they can throw it away and I will not charge them for it. I want everyone to be responsible.
MELPOMENE: Speaking of giving, Neo Group has numerous CSR initiatives—do you feel very strongly about giving back to the community?
KAH KIAT: It’s very important, and it is the expressway to success. When you know how to give, you will walk a very smooth path, as many people will offer their assistance. You will also feel happy when you give to the poor and needy because you know your contribution will go a long way in helping them.
MELPOMENE: And what you give will come back to you.
KAH KIAT: I understand the power of giving, and I started giving many years ago. Many leaders only think about themselves, but I’m different. I want my people to benefit, too. When I know that something is good, I’ll try to implement it for my staff. For example, when I saw “Di Zi Gui” (Standards for Being a Good Student and Child) in my son’s school, I adopted standards for my company as well. Whenever I attend events, I will share what I’ve learnt with everyone.
I don’t set visions for the company, only missions.
MELPOMENE: Neo Group Limited reached $100 million in revenue for the first time—is this a landmark for you?
KAH KIAT: I don’t set visions for the company, only missions. When I listed the company, our revenue was $38.4 million and my first objective was to grow to $100 million. To have a breakthrough, you need to have a plan that you believe in. Next, you work towards this plan, spend a lot of time drilling down everything and you must not stop. I told my guys we needed to grow, but we knew that the amount of organic growth each year was insufficient. To truly drive growth, we needed vertical integration through M&A. I didn’t make a big move for two years after we listed but I’ve been speaking to a lot of people, and in the last year, opportunities came up to acquire businesses.
MELPOMENE: Tell me about the decision to acquire Thong Siek Holdings and CTVeg Group.
KAH KIAT: Thong Siek supplies many items so that is a way to cut costs, and their food quality is good. They are also very good in machinery, and we wanted to be fully automated so I needed their expertise. Most importantly, they have a global network of 22 countries. We also acquired 90% of CT and now they supply not only all our fruits and vegetables but also our onions, potatoes—everything. I saw that the vertical integration could give us significant improvements in profit margin.
MELPOMENE: How have the acquisitions impacted your company internally?
KAH KIAT: The acquisitions are good for my staff who have been with us for many years, because now they have the opportunity to work at Thong Siek and CT. In addition, they can to go to different countries and learn how to become directors and owners in the future.
MELPOMENE: You said that you have plans to grow the company to a billion dollars in revenue by 2025?
KAH KIAT: I was celebrating the third year of our listing. I invited many businessmen and told them I wanted to hit one billion in revenue.
MELPOMENE: Were they shocked?
KAH KIAT: Definitely, they told me I could do it and were very encouraging, but they also said, “Mr Neo, it’s going to be very challenging.”
MELPOMENE: It’s hardly possible in the local market: are you looking to expand overseas?
KAH KIAT: I’m only looking at about $500 million in the local market, and a big opportunity overseas. I don’t believe in starting out from scratch for overseas markets, and the way to do it is through M&A. There are opportunities in many places—my friend just called to ask if I wanted to expand to China, but I said no. For me, before you expand overseas, you must first learn the culture, and second, you must love the weather there. Thereafter, you must make sure you have enough people who are willing to relocate.
When people talk about catering, they will talk about our curry chicken.
MELPOMENE: What sets you apart from your competitors?
KAH KIAT: We always focus on quality, from day one, and even when I decided to acquire Thong Siek. Slowly, people will understand that we are way ahead of our competitors because of our quality. I want to build a very strong brand so that people will never think of going to other caterers. When people talk about catering, they will talk about our curry chicken. The curry chicken was inspired by a crab recipe, and I took the formula and tweaked it a few times with my chef, until I got it right—it took us 9 months. Food safety is also very important. We believe in not only running a business, but also running it with a heart because we are responsible for the safety of our customers.
MELPOMENE: Would you say that you want control over every aspect of your business?
KAH KIAT: Yes, absolutely! For example, we are very particular about our suppliers—I have a company that supplies my syrup drinks, but they could not get flavour that I wanted for our orange juice, so I had to get another supplier just for that. Also, I don’t need chefs—I only need cooks who follow my recipe. Chefs give you a lot of problems, that’s why I went into the catering business and not the restaurant business. In restaurants, you need head chefs and you’re always at their mercy.
MELPOMENE: Are you very hands-on with your business?
KAH KIAT: I always know everything. I have this technology [shows phone app] that gives me information on all the outlets, how many orders we have, and even how many bottles of drinks we sold today. I also believe in having rules and regulations for the company and everyone has to follow them—including me. Recently, I set a rule: if a manager is dating a subordinate, they must declare their relationship. If they don’t and I find out, I will sack them immediately.
MELPOMENE: Is persistence your personal philosophy?
KAH KIAT: I enjoy problems. That was my approach when my kitchen at Wan Lee Road caught fire 10 days before Chinese New Year. I knew who made the mistake and till today he’s still working for me. I did not blame anyone, and I just accepted it… maybe god was testing me [laughs].
MELPOMENE: You’re independent and driven, but who do you turn to for advice?
KAH KIAT: I have many businessmen friends and I would call them for advice. People can give you advice, but at the end of the day, you need to make your own decisions. There are some things that can’t be discussed, so I do my own meditation. I take walks alone and slowly break the problem into parts—if I can’t solve the problem today, I’ll continue to tackle it tomorrow or the day after… until I solve it. To me it’s very straightforward, since I’m the head of the company, I have to solve the problem.
MELPOMENE: You work with your wife [Sally], how do you keep your professional and personal life separate?
KAH KIAT: She’s the head of HR and we have different roles within the company. Thankfully, my wife and I don’t quarrel. She listens and believes in me. Sometimes she jokes about how she’s never been in the news and I say that if she wants to be in the papers, I will be the kind of person who carries her bag for her [laughs]. There can only be one face of the company.
MELPOMENE: You topped your class in Secondary 1 and 2, why did you drop out?
KAH KIAT: I dropped out in Secondary 3. My mother was so shocked, and even my teacher came to my home, but they couldn’t do anything about it. I saw that my relatives were all degree holders, but they earned only around $2000. So, I went to enlist early for NS because I wanted to start my own business. And I’ve never worked for someone else before.
MELPOMENE: These days, more and more people are becoming entrepreneurs.
KAH KIAT: Do people know what entrepreneurship truly entails? They start a café, realise that they can’t sustain it and eventually, give up. They don’t have endurance. It was really difficult back then—we had to pay the chefs in advance and sometimes they don’t turn up. Running a catering business is different from opening a restaurant—once you take the order, the responsibility is there—that is why when our kitchen caught fire, we still pushed on.
MELPOMENE: So passion is not enough for entrepreneurship?
KAH KIAT: I hate the word “passion”. You can have passion but what if your company is not making any money? I prefer the term “beyond passion”. My people always ask me, “Mr. Neo, how do you have so much energy and where does it come from?” I tell them it’s because I want to make the impossible possible, and I want my staff to respect me.
Talk less, and do more. I believe in action.
MELPOMENE: Any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
KAH KIAT: You need to be incredibly focused, and you can’t depend on others to work for you. You also must not reward yourself too early. Talk less, and do more. I believe in action.
MELPOMENE: Would you consider yourself successful?
KAH KIAT: I have been asked before: “Mr. Neo, if you go bankrupt what would you do?” I replied in Mandarin, “How can I fail if I haven’t succeeded yet?” To me, only when I hit one billion in revenue, then I consider myself to be successful.
MELPOMENE: If you achieve that goal, would you take a break after that?
KAH KIAT: No. All my businessmen friends know that I’m very “cheong” and I can’t slow down. I don’t like relaxing. Sometimes if I need to take a vacation with my children, I will, but I won’t go on a holiday just to relax. I plan to continue to buy more companies, but my main focus will still be on my catering business because that’s where I started.
Edited by Wy-Lene Yap