Lots of grit in caterer's recipe for success

PHOTO: Lots of grit in caterer's recipe for success

The fierce rays from the noon sun bounce off the waters around Lazarus Island, sparkling like white bait in a fishing net.

Seated comfortably in the air-conditioned saloon of his 13m-long yacht, Mr Neo Kah Kiat, 43, is looking at Sally, 40, his wife of nearly 15 years. Her eyes crinkle as he animatedly tells the story of the promise he made her when he was 22 and a penniless caterer.

He is a marvellous storyteller, thanks to his booming voice, emphatic pauses and dramatic hand gestures.

"I told her: 'If I don't success, I won't married you,'" he says in piquant Singlish. "I rather she go and marry someone else if I cannot provide for her because it means I am a useless fellow.'"

Shaking his head and breaking into a sly grin, he continues: "Last time I give myself very pressure but I also don't heck care lah because I must success."

Sally's faith in the Secondary 2 dropout was not misplaced because Mr Neo did succeed, and spectacularly, too.

The struggling caterer is now the founder and chairman of the Neo Group, the Catalist-listed food catering company with an annual turnover of more than $40 million.

Home - one of several properties he owns - is a corner terraced house in upscale Sentosa Cove where he berths his yacht at the back. Four luxury cars including a Bentley and a Mercedes-Benz S series are parked in the driveway.

Candid and congenial, with the expansive personality of a trooper who knows how to take it on the chin, Mr Neo is the second youngest of four children.

His father was a failed businessman; his mother used to juggle two jobs - bakery assistant by day, factory worker by night - to help make ends meet.

"We were the poorest among all our relatives. We rented out one bedroom in our three-room flat in Eunos, so my three brothers and I had to sleep in the living room," he recalls.

Things were so dire that their electricity and water supply was often cut off because the family could not pay the bills.

For as long as he could remember, he had but one dream.

"I wanted to be a businessman although I didn't know what a businessman was. I just wanted to earn a lot of money," he says.

Money, he reckoned then, would help to redress what he thought were injustices.

"I wanted to show our relatives - who looked down on us - and my father - who favoured my brothers more - that I could make it," he says.

The entrepreneurial instincts kicked in early. At nine, he would salvage discarded cable tie from factories and fashion them into interesting shapes. Peddling these to classmates for 10 cents each could earn him $2 or $3 a day.

At 12, he started selling otah - fish cake wrapped in banana leaf - on weekends.

Through a friend, he contacted an otah supplier who told Mr Neo he had to place a minimum order of 1,000 sticks.

"It cost $70 for 1,000 sticks so I borrowed the sum from my godmother," he recalls, adding that he cycled from Eunos to Bedok North to collect his supplies.

The otah was then refrigerated at home. On weekends, he would wake up at 4am to spend four hours grilling it.

He would then take a taxi to distribute the otah to three other friends.

"We took 250 sticks each. If they sold everything, my friends would get $30 each. If not, they would have to absorb what they did not sell. I got $60," he says, adding he hawked his lot by going floor to floor in HDB blocks.

"I also learnt how to make satay, and sold them in the void deck of my HDB block," he adds.

Not surprisingly, his studies suffered and he had to repeat two years in Eunos Primary School.

However, he did well when he went to Bedok Town Secondary School and topped his class in Secondary 1.

"I was champion in mathematics," he says proudly.

But just one week into Secondary 2, he quit school.

"I just didn't like studying. The school teacher came to my home but my mother said she could not do anything because I just didn't want to continue. I only wanted to run a business."

Cobbling together his savings and a small loan from his godmother, the then 17-year-old took over an economy rice stall at a small factory canteen in Geylang Bahru.

"I employed a chef. I remember he came to work with his own set of knives and other equipment," he says. "I served and washed the dishes." It was a tough slog. "I didn't make any money, I just broke even," says Mr Neo who closed the shop not long after. He began his national service after applying for early enlistment.

Upon completing his NS, he partnered an aunt to start a business repairing second-hand electrical appliances.

"I rented a small space in a shop in Ang Mo Kio and went around collecting old TV sets, refrigerators and air-conditioners. I would get someone to repair them and after that, export them to countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia," says Mr Neo, who often rolled up his sleeves to do simple repairwork himself.

The business lasted about one year.

"It was not easy. You had to deal with many parties and the profit margins were not good," he says.

Unimpressed with the food catered at the parties some of his friends threw, he decided he should get into catering next.

In 1992, he borrowed $15,000 from family members, relatives and friends, hired a skeletal crew and leased a small kitchen - shared with another caterer - in Joo Chiat to start Neo Garden.

"I would use the kitchen from 6am to 6pm and he would use it after that," he says.

Those were tough times, he recalls.

"On weekdays, we'd get one or two orders; on weekends, four or five. We would be working two months, but just earning one week's worth of money," he says with a sigh.

With great humour, he tells of the battered lorry he used for deliveries.

"I could not afford to pay the instalments. Every couple of months, I would get a call from the finance company: 'Mr Neo, you must come down and pay a bit.'"

"I also didn't have money to repair the faulty radiator. Every trip I made, I would have to stop at least three times to top up the radiator with water. One day, the whole thing just broke down."

For eight years, he lets on with a wry laugh, he had to borrow money from loansharks - whom he euphemistically refers to as "friends" - so that he could give his staff a Chinese New Year bonus.

"You have to take care of your staff. Even though I had no money, I would look for money to pay them," says Mr Neo who would settle the loans - together with the hefty interest - a few days after Chinese New Year when there were usually more catering orders.

The thought of giving up, however, never once entered his head.

"I just believe one thing: I must, must continue. It was very, very tough but my ego is very, very big. I cannot fail," he says, loudly emphasising the last word.

It helps that he has never been intimidated by hard work. In fact, he thrives on it.

He would turn up at his kitchen at 4am and hit the wet markets four times a week to order fish and other ingredients.

"I spent 12 years in the kitchen helping to cook and fry. I know everything there is to know about the business."

His friend, Ms Aileen Low, 48, says his capacity for hard work is probably his greatest strength.

"He is very cheong," the director of Defu Foodstuff says, using the Hokkien word for "tenacious".

"He can wu zhong sheng you," she adds, using the Chinese proverb which means "to create something out of nothing".

To stay afloat, he started a tingkat lunch service. He also advertised in newspapers and hired someone to trawl the Yellow Pages, looking for numbers of companies to fax menus to.

Through it all, he knew one thing was paramount.

"I was very insistent on quality. In the food industry, without quality, you won't survive."

Business picked up slowly.

"I only stopped worrying about money eight years after I started the business," he says.

In 1999, when things settled down, he married Sally, who was his secondary school sweetheart. They have two sons, aged three and five.

Not content to rest on his laurels, he started to expand the business. In 2004, he started a halal catering arm, Deli Hub Catering. Four years later, he opened his first Umisushi kiosk in Eunos MRT station, selling sushi, sashimi and other Japanese food items. Today, there are 19 Umisushi outlets all over the island In 2008, Orange Clove Catering - aimed at the upper end of the market - was launched.

"We can do everything - from a sit-down dinner for 10 people to an event for 10,000 people," he says proudly.

By 2011, the company was ranked by Euromonitor International as the No. 1 events caterer in Singapore.

Mr Neo then decided the time was ripe for the Neo Group to get listed.

"It was time to be recognised. I want to make my staff proud, I wanted them to work in a place where there was corporate governance. I didn't do much planning, I just do," says Mr Neo, whose company achieved its Catalist listing last year.

Neo Group now has more than 500 staff on its payroll, four central kitchens to prepare food, and more than 100 vehicles to make deliveries. Revenue for the financial year ended Jan 31 was $41.7 million.

Running a listed company does not faze the stocky entrepreneur.

He may not have a Harvard MBA but he can articulate, in his own inimitable way, what he considers sound management principles.

And that includes early succession planning, paying and treating staff well, and hiring the right people.

"My people are my biggest assets, so I have to pay them well. People say there are four pillars in every organisation. I say I have 500 pillars, big and small."

To instil camaraderie and loyalty, his kitchen staff wear a different coloured polo shirt every day of the week, recite a company pledge and sing Emil Chau's famous song Friends when they knock off work each day.

He has no issues hiring people smarter than him. In fact, he is very chuffed that a secondary school dropout like him is employing graduates and challenging them every day.

"I like them to be better and smarter than me because if they are not, I will have a big problem. I will not be able to take this company to the next level."

One other thing, he says, has taken him to where he is.

"I learnt how to give. Once you know how to give, your life totally changes. Your business will continue to grow and big problems will become small," says Mr Neo who regularly donates to charities including the Singapore Children's Society.

He adds: "I always tell my staff they have to give, even if it's just 10 cents. I say it's good for them. If they ask me when this can be proven, I will say I do not know. But I tell them to believe me and to believe that it's something they need to do."

The towkay is happy that he has done well enough to help out his family and prove his father wrong. He employs two of his brothers, bought his mother a new Mercedes-Benz C-class last year, and gives his father a generous allowance every month.

"My father told my mother: 'Forget what I said in the past.'"

Meanwhile, Mr Neo has another dream.

"I want to have at least 5,000 people on my payroll and bring my revenue to $1 billion."

It is not a pipe dream, he says.

"When I started this company in 1992, I had nothing. In 2003, we achieved $3 million revenue. But last year, we did more than $40 million."

He says earnestly: "There are a lot of learning curves in this business. But when you have conquered the curves, you will fly."


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