Oh, Bhoy! What a fine century!

Oh, Bhoy! What a fine century!
(B&W pic) Mr. Abbas Nomanbhoy (2nd from left, standing) with his siblings at the Nomanbhoy bungalow (1920s) where Paragon is currently located.

If a cat has nine lives, a trader has 99! The ups and downs of the market cycles, together with the natural inclination of buyers and sellers to cut out the middleman, give credence to that statement.

But to survive in a convoy of ships, most of which were sunk by the Japanese during their invasion of Singapore, cross the Bay of Bengal, live in India, come back to Singapore after the war, restart the business and build it to celebrate 100 years is an achievement worthy of special mention in the history of the Singapore Indian business community.

In his book Captivity, Flight, and Survival in World War II, author Alan J. Levin says that "after the Japanese had landed on Singapore Island and five days before it fell, ships began leaving... The Japanese soon moved to intercept ships… most were sunk. Forty ships and 3,000 lives were lost".

Mr Moez Nomanbhoy, pater familias of the Nomanbhoy family, recalls sailing on the last convoy of five ships that sailed out of Singapore in February 1942, and surviving the dangerous, long and arduous voyage to India. Three of the five were sunk by the Japanese on their journey through the Straits of Malacca.

Mr Moez's grandfather Nomanbhoy Abdeali came to Singapore in 1882 as a manager of an Indian spice company and when that company closed down he started his own trading business in spices in 1914 at 16 Malacca Street. He was one of the founding members of the Indian Merchants Association in 1924.

His son Abbas Nomanbhoy took over the business in 1930, according to The Nomanbhoy Story, a publication brought out by the company Nomanbhoy & Sons to commemorate their centenary celebrations this year.

Mr Abbas Nomanbhoy expanded his network beyond Indonesian spices to include produce from Africa and coffee from Brazil, to sell to the US and Europe. But the Japanese occupation interrupted all that. After spending time in India when the family returned, they had to sell their Nomanbhoy bungalow (where Paragon in Orchard Road now stands) to restart the business.

When Mr Moez took over the business after the war, he expanded it into China, Korea and Japan. In his account, the Korean conflict in the '50s was a major business opportunity for his company and other traders in Singapore in general.

"Foodstuff, rubber, tyres and tin were all channelled via Singapore," recalls Mr Moez. His son Hanif joined the firm in the '80s and has expanded the market reach of the firm as well as led the product diversification.

"Five years ago we diversified into bunker oil and marine fuel trading," says Mr Hanif. "The family legacy continues with my son Aqeel joining the business," he adds.

How has business practices changed over the century for the Nomanbhoys?

Mr Moez says business in Singapore in those days was conducted on trust. Their exports were on consignment basis, all without legally-written contracts and without bank finance.

In simple words that means the traders would ship the goods, sell them overseas, collect the payments, and only then pay their suppliers. Today legal contracts and bank finance are at the centre of international trade in commodities.

"Life then was more relaxed," recalls Mr Moez. Telegrams and couriers took two days to reach their destinations. Today, traders have to make decisions to buy or sell in an instant.

What has not changed?

"Our values have not changed," says the elder Nomanbhoy. That has helped in building longstanding business relationships. For the company's centenary celebrations in 2014, the senior-most family member of a five-generation-old Japanese company, a sixth-generation scion of a German buyer with whom they have a 60-year relationship, a representative of a Zanzibar company that has been supplying to the Nomanbhoys for 46 years, all came down to Singapore.

What keeps the company going 100 years later? "Every day we open the door, there is a new story," says Mr Moez.

tabla@sph.com.sg


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