Nut-thing fazes this food distributor
When clients could no longer afford their chestnuts, FoodXervices managers came up with a plan to sell chestnut-based ice cream. -myp
By Rachel Chan
WHAT do you do with the surplus harvest from 1,000 tonnes of chestnuts when your Japanese clients can no longer afford to buy the whole lot?
Well, make a chestnut-based ice cream and sell it, of course.
This was how Ms Nichol Ng, managing director of FoodXervices, came up with her own brand of premium ice cream when faced with that challenge recently.
What Ms Ng, 32, did with her family's 180ha chestnut plantation in Xuzhou, China, is very similar to what she has done to modernise her late grandfather's food-distribution business.
When she took over seven years ago, only five of the firm's 34 employees knew how to use a computer.
Instead of replacing them, Ms Ng sent the staff for training.
And, instead of uprooting some 400,000 chestnut trees to grow more profitable and less labour-intensive crops, she is mulling over creative ways to sell the produce to a larger market.
While it remains to be seen if the ice cream - launched in Cold Storage supermarkets last Wednesday - will take off, creating KooriMo is the food-distribution company's first attempt at developing a retail product from scratch.
The 70-year-old company hopes that marketing KooriMo as a premium product with an eye-catching mascot will do the trick.
FoodXervices was known as Ng Chye Mong in its earliest form, when Ms Ng's late grandfather, Mr Ng Lim Song, set up shop in Rochor Road shortly before World War II. The immigrant from Shantou sold traditional Chinese delicacies, such as shark's fin and abalone, and other cooking provisions.
By the 1980s, Ms Ng's father and uncles expanded into distributing Western foodstuffs to hotels and restaurants.
Today, more than 70 per cent of the 3,500 products FoodXervices sells are imported from Europe and the United States.
Ms Ng was roped in to run the business in 2003 by her father, Michael, who realised that the company had to computerise its handwritten invoice system to keep up with an important client.
"It was not a request," said Ms Ng with a laugh, joking that her semi-retired father is still widely considered the "minister mentor" of the business.
As she was the youngest member of the company, it was an uphill task for her to win the respect and trust of the staff, many whom had been with Ng Chye Mong for decades.
"The first thing an employee asked me on my first day of work was: 'Are you going to replace me with a computer?'" she said.
"I was so taken aback. I asked her: 'Who told you that? No one is firing you'."
Ms Ng communicates with her staff in Mandarin. Not a single employee has been retrenched since she took over.
Five years into the business, she got her brother and only sibling, Nicholas, to manage logistics at FoodXervices.
Revenue has increased since both siblings started running the business together, from $15 million in 2007 to $18 million in 2008, and $22.8 million in 2009.
The number of their clients has increased from 1,000 to 1,800, while the number of products the company carries has grown from about 2,000 to 3,500.
Recently, the company set up a Hong Kong office as part of a regional expansion plan.
"I respect Nichol as my elder sis.
We have been very close since we were young. Our temperaments complement each other, and we take turns to take the soft and hard approach on our staff," said Mr Ng, who fondly calls Ms Ng jie.
Their father, who has just turned 60, still calls them "boy" and "girl", even in front of the staff.
It is their intention to keep the business within the family - even their spouses have mutually agreed that they would have no part in it.
"In the next three to five years, this pie (for food distributors) will be shared by fewer competitors.
That's because many of the small and medium-sized enterprises' and family businesses' owners are ageing and have no successors," said Ms Ng.
Biodata of Nichol and Nicholas Ng
Who: Ms Nichol Ng, 32, and brother Nicholas, 31, managing directors of FoodXervices. They are the thirdgeneration owners of a food-distribution business that their grandfather, Mr Ng Lim Song, started about 70 years ago.
Education: Ms Ng studied at St Nicholas Girls' School during her primary- and secondary-school years. She took her A levels at Catholic Junior College and read economics and Japanese studies at the National University of Singapore.
Mr Ng attended Catholic High School (Primary) and St Gabriel's Secondary School here, but skipped the O and A levels as he was sent to boarding school at Ballarat Clarendon College in Victoria, Australia.
He went on to obtain a bachelor's degree in mass communications and economics from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada.
Career: Ms Ng worked at MediaCorp Radio as a marketing executive for two years after graduating from university, and ran a sandwich shop in Clifford Centre for half a year after that.
She got roped in to run the family business in 2003. Between 2007 and 2008, she restructured Ng Chye Mong into FoodXervices and its three subsidiary companies, PlotX, LogiXtics and GroXers.
While Ms Ng oversees sales, marketing, customer service, human resources, finance and product development, her brother takes care of logistics, operations and procurement.
Mr Ng joined FoodXervices three years ago, after a five-year stint at Asia Pacific Breweries (APB).
He was a trade marketing officer handling all below-the-line promotions and marketing activities for all brands under APB. Before he left, he was an assistant manager running TigerLive, a brand entertainment centre at St James Power Station.
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