Before I Was Boss: She builds multimillion-dollar business despite losing father and husband to cancer

PHOTO: AsiaOne

At 21, Jocelyn Chng was still studying economics at the university when she had to take over the reins of her family's struggling food sauces business, after her father died following a long battle with colon cancer.

She would attend lessons in the morning before rushing to the factory in the afternoon, subsequently slogging for 20 hours daily just to keep the business afloat.

Then at 37, the CEO of food producer JR Group suddenly became a widow of three sons after her husband's unexpected death from lymphoma.

Despite her grief, Chng soldiered on to take over another arm of the family business that he had started to supply cooked dishes to hotels, restaurants and other businesses under the JR Foods label.

We were so busy running our business together. It was always about work. I wished I had spent more time with [my husband] - have an intimate meal or conversation about ourselves more often 

Now at 50, Chng has expanded her food production empire from Sin Hwa Dee's sauces, to premixes such as those for chilli crab, chicken rice and char siew under the Chng Kee brand, named after her father.

Sin Hwa Dee is presently a multimillion-dollar business, with Chng Kee's sauces being exported to over 30 countries.

Believing strongly in the future of technology, she launched Singapore's first vending-machine cafe in Sengkang last August, after eight years of research and development.

The meal vending machines, which churn out local and international selections like hor fun and curry chicken to pasta, are now a modern convenience at some hospitals, schools, army camps and even HDB void decks, with plans for further expansion.  

The youthful-looking woman is also a restaurateur, operating three restaurants, one of which is Shima Japanese restaurant at Goodwood Park Hotel, which she recently acquired.

One would not expect the well-coiffured and elegantly made-up woman to have gone through so much personal pain and tough business hurdles - including computerisation, to emerge as the successul businesswoman she is today.

JR Group CEO Jocelyn Chng transforms family business into multimillion-dollar company

  • At 21, Jocelyn Chng was still studying economics at the university when she had to take over the reins of her family's struggling food sauces business, after her father died following a long battle with colon cancer.
  • Then at 31, the CEO of food producer JR Group suddenly became a widow of three sons after her husband Richard's (pic) unexpected death from lymphoma.
  • Now at 50, Chng has expanded her food production empire from Sin Hwa Dee's sauces, to premixes such as those for chilli crab, chicken rice and char siew under the Chng Kee brand, named after her father.
  • Sin Hwa Dee is presently a multimillion-dollar business, with Chng Kee's sauces being exported to over 30 countries.
  • Believing strongly in the future of technology, she launched Singapore's first vending-machine cafe in Sengkang last August, after eight years of research and development.
  • The youthful-looking woman is also a restaurateur, operating three restaurants, one of which is Shima Japanese restaurant at Goodwood Park Hotel, which she recently acquired.
  • One would not expect the well-coiffured and elegantly made-up woman to have gone through so much personal pain and tough business hurdles - including computerisation, to emerge as the successul businesswoman she is today.
  • Another such hurdle she had to overcome was when she sold the company's old factories in 1995 to raise funds to build a new one, and the main contractor ran away with the money for renovation. It didn't help that she was pregnant with her first child then. But she managed to work through it, even taking meetings during her one-month confinement period.
  • What kept her going despite these set-backs - apart from help from her affectionate siblings - was the huge influence her grandmother had on her when she was only an impressionable kid.
  • "My Teochew grandmother was a staunch Christian. She would habitually pray and give thanks for everything from exams to travel, and even the slightest things. She would pray for everybody and their needs.
  • "I learned to do the same, not knowing that it would give me the strong foundation that I would need later in life," reveals Chng.
  • "I would go for a walk in the reservoir near my home or sit down to look at the water on a beach near my restaurant. I enjoy nature, it's therapeutic and calms me down. And somehow gives me the inspiration,"
  • To her, success in life is not just about making big bucks. It's being able to share the joy of living with loved ones and spending quality time with them.
  • With tears welling up in her eyes, she reveals her biggest regret - not sharing enough time with her husband, Richard Wong - whom she met in university and describes as her soulmate.
  • He died of cancer in 2004, three years after launching JR Foods; their youngest son was just a year old then. "We were so busy running our business together.
  • It was always about work. I wished I had spent more time with him - have an intimate meal or conversation about ourselves more often," she says.
  • On success, Chng says: "There is no short cut. Achieving success is a continuous process with ups and downs. You must go through thick and thin, improve, adjust and refine." "Life is a journey, not a destination. If you fail, find out why. Keep trying and persevere till you succeed."

Another such hurdle she had to overcome was when she sold the company's old factories in 1995 to raise funds to build a new one, and the main contractor ran away with the money for renovation. It didn't help that she was pregnant with her first child then. But she managed to work through it, even taking meetings during her one-month confinement period.

What kept her going despite these set-backs - apart from help from her affectionate siblings - was the huge influence her grandmother had on her when she was only an impressionable kid.

After losing their jobs at a food factory which closed down, her parents had to eke out a living making sauces to sell to itinerant hawkers.

As they were too busy to look after her, Chng was sent to live with her grandmother till she was 11.

"My Teochew grandmother was a staunch Christian. She would habitually pray and give thanks for everything from exams to travel, and even the slightest things. She would pray for everybody and their needs.

"I learned to do the same, not knowing that it would give me the strong foundation that I would need later in life," reveals Chng.

What happens when Chng hits a roadblock with no ready solution in sight?

"I would go for a walk in the reservoir near my home or sit down to look at the water on a beach near my restaurant. I enjoy nature, it's therapeutic and calms me down. And somehow gives me the inspiration," replies the woman, whose child-like enthusiasm as she speaks reflects a simple faith that everything will pan out well.

To her, success in life is not just about making big bucks. It's being able to share the joy of living with loved ones and spending quality time with them.

With tears welling up in her eyes, she reveals her biggest regret - not sharing enough time with her husband, Richard Wong - whom she met in university and describes as her soulmate.

He died of cancer in 2004, three years after launching JR Foods; their youngest son was just a year old then.

"We were so busy running our business together. It was always about work. I wished I had spent more time with him - have an intimate meal or conversation about ourselves more often," she says.

She is quick to attribute much of the success of Sin Hwa Dee to her husband who had the vision of growing the business. In fact, she credits Wong with the idea of providing hot ready-to-eat meals from vending machines, after he was inspired by the Japanese food scene more than a decade ago.

NO SHORT-CUTS TO SUCCESS

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Chilli crab from a vending machine
Chilli crab from a vending machine

As a mother of three sons aged 15, 19 and 22 today, Chng is aware of the high expectations of impatient millennials who desire quick success.

"There is no short cut. Achieving success is a continuous process with ups and downs. You must go through thick and thin, improve, adjust and refine," she says.

On the most important factor for success, she stresses: "You must first have a good quality product. Marketing and sales are necessary to push your product to a higher level of awareness. But still, you need to have a quality product first in order for it to be successful."

Praised as a model example of accomplished woman entrepreneurship in Singapore, Chng has a mantra: "Life is a journey, not a destination. If you fail, find out why. Keep trying and persevere till you succeed."

chenj@sph.com.sg