Monday, July 30, 2012

Rooted in humility


Straits Times: Mon, Jul 30

Your eyes stray to the object slung around tycoon Sam Goi's neck when you meet him at his office in Senoko Road.

The executive chairman of Tee Yih Jia - a producer of popiah, or spring roll, skins - shakes your hand warmly, as you take in his tanned well-proportioned face, average height, solid build, and the navy jacket with gold-coloured buttons and olive green trousers he is wearing.

Then you see it.

Hanging from his nape is a forest green lanyard that ends mid-chest in an employee pass with his mugshot.

The accessory seems incongrous for Mr Goi (say 'Gwee'). He is, after all, one of five Singaporeans on Forbes World's Billionaires list this year.

The 63-year-old Popiah King owns a multi-million-dollar food manufacturing business and has doors opened for him. But the head honcho says there is no reason he should be exempt from wearing it.

'Everyone should be the same,' he says in Mandarin.

He says he identifies with the common person and this unassuming quality underscores his recent bid to help save the beleaguered radio station Rediffusion.

After it was announced in April that the iconic radio station of 63 years was winding up due to losses, former Rediffusion deejay Chang Mei Hsiang bought it over. She later approached Mr Goi, an acquaintance, and he agreed to help.

He injected an undisclosed sum of funds and also offered space at his seven-storey factory in Senoko to store the station's archival material.

He says in an affecting baritone, in Mandarin: 'Rediffusion is an important cultural heritage for Singapore, especially for people of my age, people in their 50s and 60s.

'I want to revive it so that senior citizens who cannot do without it for even a day will not have a sense of loss. They will be able to find themselves again.'

Such tenderness is curious for a hardnosed entrepreneur and it betrays MrGoi's loyal side.

The Kong Hwa School alumnus, for example, remains close to a group of 20 friends since their primary school days. Whenever their busy schedules permit, he makes time to catch up with them over meals.

The three parrots he keeps at his Nassim Road mansion also point to his sentimentality. He chose to own parrots, which have a lifespan of at least 50 years, because they are unlikely to die on him. He also favours them for being human-like; they can talk and sing songs such as Happy Birthday.

As a high-powered fundraiser, donor and advisory board member, he champions community and social causes.Education is one cause close to his heart. Mr Goi, who never made it to university because of dismal English grades, chairs his other alma mater Dunman High School's advisory committee. Over the years, he has donated more than $1.5 million to the school.

This year, he contributed $500,000 to the Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism, which promotes bilingualism from as early as pre-school.

He refuses to say how much he donates every year - he does not want to come across as bragging - but Life! understands that it is a seven-figure sum on average.

The reason for his contributions: If society is unstable, the country suffers, and so do families and businesses.

Rediffusion is therefore more than a nostalgic exercise to keep the past alive. He also sees it as a way to foster bonds across generations of Singaporeans.

Leaning forward in a honey-brown leather armchair in his spacious office, he says: 'My hope is that cherished songs and the stories of ah gong (grandfathers) and ah ma's (grandmothers) difficult past will spur the younger generation to treasure what they have today.'

Chairman of the Ulu Pandan Citizens' Consultative Committee, he has met residents at grassroots activities and his interactions with them have given him cause for concern.

He says: 'It is a small number but there are some Singaporeans who have never experienced hardship and they feel a sense of entitlement.

'But if they take things for granted and Singapore loses what it enjoys now, the situation will be hard to reverse.'

He feels vehemently about this issue and circles back to it a few more times during the interview. Perhaps, it is because his journey to success, like Singapore's road to prosperity, has been built on hard work.

The eldest child of a landowner and housewife in a small village in Fuqing, Fujian, he and his mother were forced to flee the communist government in China in 1955.

Then six years old, he boarded a cargo ship with his mother Yu Ik Ngok. They headed for Singapore to join his father, Mr Goi Koh Tong, now 90, who ran a modest business distributing drinks to coffeeshops.

Their new home was the top floor of a three-storey shophouse in the rough-and-tumble Geylang Lorong 17. The family of six - Sam's three siblings, two girls and a boy, were born here - squeezed into a one-room unit, half the size of a shoebox apartment today.

Life was simple and frugal for young Sam. But at school, he learnt to dream big.

He says: 'Many of my primary school friends were the sons of bankers and hoteliers. Their majies (servants) would bring them snacks such as ang ku kueh after school and they had chauffeurs waiting in Mercedes cars to drive them back to their sprawling homes in Katong.

'Their lives made me think 'Wow, I have to work hard in life and become a big businessman'.'

He adds: 'I also fantasised about living in a house like theirs one day.'

One of his Kong Hwa primary school friends is Professor Lee Chuen Neng, head of the department of surgery at the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine. Recalls Prof Lee, 61: 'Sam was a prefect and he showed natural leadership. Everybody liked him.'

Mr Goi received his secondary school education at Serangoon Garden Government High and later Dunman High School. Failing English, he could not continue with tertiary education. So, at 19, he quit school to work for his father. For six months, he swept the floor at the senior Mr Goi's shop in Joo Chiat, cooked meals for the five workers and made deliveries in a van. His monthly salary was $60, and his father docked half for the family's expenses.

He says: 'The job was boring and it had no prospects. Also, I was getting married and I couldn't raise a family on just $30 a month.'

He married his neighbour's daughter in 1969 and his wife moved in with the family.

At 20, he decided to strike out on his own. With a $10,000 loan from his father, he opened an electrical repair shop with friends the same year he got married. 'But 10 months and it was a gone case,' says Mr Goi, who picked up electrical and mechanical engineering skills in night classes. The company folded because it had no customers.

Adamant about making a comeback, he borrowed another $20,000 from his uncle and a tontine to start over.

Hungry for success, he pushed himself hard. Machines and electrical circuitry that would take others three days to fix, he repaired in one. His punishing schedule meant he sometimes slept just two hours a day, but his efforts paid off. Business grew by word of mouth. Five years later, in 1975, the company, Sing Siah, had 400 employees and an annual turnover of more than $500,000.

Tee Yih Jia was one of his customers then. When a dispute broke out among its shareholders, he bought over the business in 1977 to help his friend. But the partnership dissolved in 1980 and he took full control of Tee Yih Jia, leaving the electrical business to his other partners.

Although new to the food industry, his business acumen told him the local market was limited; for Tee Yih Jia to grow, it had to expand overseas. The company, therefore, had to switch from making popiah skins by hand to a fully automated process.

After two years of research, he successfully developed a fully automated popiah skin manufacturing system. Production leaped from 3,200 sheets to 800,000 sheets daily.

Cracking the international sales market was next. He launched his attack at an international food fair in Sydney in 1982. Chinese restaurant chefs there, however, spurned the then little-known Tee Yih Jia and its square-shaped, machine-made wrappers rather than the common round, handmade sheets.

But they were worn down by the persistence of Mr Goi and his team. After trying the free samples, the chefs came around to the cheaper machine-made skins. The skins were easier to wrap because they were square, held up well during cooking, and had a longer shelf life of five years instead of one day despite being preservative-free.

Today, Tee Yih Jia produces 35 million pieces of popiah skin every day in factories in Singapore, China, Malaysia and the United States. Ninety per cent of these are exported to more than 50 countries, such as Britain, Russia and the United Arab Emirates. Its range of products has also increased to include frozen prata, glutinous rice balls and dim sum treats.

Mr Goi's business portfolio has similarly grown over the years. He now invests in instant beverage-maker Super Group and Tung Lok Restaurants, as well as technology and real estate companies in China.

Remaining hands-on at work, he clocks in more than 10 hours every day. Some nights, he has as many as three dinners - all the better to catch up with industry friends.

Mr Gilbert Ee, chief executive of consumer goods distributor GSH Corp where Mr Goi is non-executive chairman, observes that 'after a long night of business entertaining, Sam has called for meetings with his team'. 'While people half his age are about to crash, he remains very energetic,' adds Mr Ee, 48.

Mr Goi stays fit by jogging for more than an hour at the Botanic Gardens every morning. And when he does not have lunch appointments, he treats himself to hawker fare such as char kway teow at Ghim Moh Market.

The success he enjoys today, he says, has come at a heavy price: He regrets not spending enough time with his children when they were growing up. His two daughters and two sons are aged 35 to 40 now.

These days, he makes sure he plays with his three grandchildren, aged three to eight, when they visit on weekends.

Besides his eldest daughter who is a teacher, the other children work in companies he owns but he dismisses talk of nepotism firmly.

He says: 'They don't get any special treatment and they are assessed on their performance just like any other employee.'

In keeping with their desire to keep a low profile, he declines to give their names or their designations in the companies.

He adds with quiet pride that the family today is close-knit and his children are filial and down-to-earth. Credit, he says, goes to his wife of 43 years, Jacqueline, also 63.

He says: 'She is my pillar of support. She took good care of the children - and they grew up well - so I could focus on my career. She was also understanding when I stayed out late entertaining clients.'

For him, what started as castles in the air have come true. Today, he is a prominent businessman living in a 50,000 sq ft house in Nassim Road, filled with prized possessions such as a verdant 1,000-year-old olive tree in the garden, a large pond filled with arowana fish and carvings of precious Chinese wood and stone, which he collects.

But he is not ready to kick back and relax just yet. He has embarked on succession planning, earmarking and grooming employees, including those who are not his children, with potential. He hopes they will be ready to assume greater responsibilities in a few years.

'But I don't think I will retire completely,' he says. 'Perhaps semi-retirement? Work for me is a source of pleasure.'

lijie@sph.com.sg

My life so far

'My mother was uneducated but she was a capable woman and full of zest for life. When she died, it took me three years to get over my grief. In those years, I'd sometimes wake up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep and feeling deep sorrow.' - Mr Sam Goi on his close relationship with his mother, Madam Yu Ik Ngok. She died in 2007, aged 85, after battling ovarian cancer for two years.

'For a person to succeed, besides hard work, smarts and capable assistants, the most important element is luck. You cannot wait for luck. But if you don't have luck, no matter how hard you struggle, you won't succeed.' - On success

'There were times when we were so busy, we had to work round the clock for days. I was so tired that if I stood still for a moment, I would fall asleep immediately.' - On running his electrical repair shop in earlier years.

'Improve on yesterday today; improve on today tomorrow. To always raise standards of quality. Be fastidious. Compete with myself.' - On his business philosophy

'I am a pretty good cook but I am no match for my wife. She is masterful and her cooking is tastier than what the restaurants serve. Her speciality is Henghwa stir-fried noodles.' - On being spoilt by his wife's cooking

  
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