From pig farmer to CEO of $177.8 million supermarket

  • Mr Lim Hock Chee, chief executive of supermarket chain Sheng Siong, and his family come from humble beginnings.
  • Born in 1961, the fifth of nine children grew up first in Jurong, where his father was a fisherman, then later in Lim Chu Kang and Punggol, when his Dad turned to rearing pigs.

    At the height of the business, the family had 3,000 pigs and lived on a sprawling 90,000 sq ft farm.
  • The former farm boy and Jurong Vocation Institute graduate-turned-supermarket tycoon once recalled about his childhood: "Every day after school, I had to clean the pigsties and prepare the pigs' feed."
  • In October last year, the chain reported that revenue grew 4.8 per cent year-on-year to $177.8 million for the third quarter ended Sept 30, 2013, up from $169.7 million in 2012.
  • Mr Lim's brothers, Mr Lim Hock Eng (centre) and Mr Lim Hock Leng (far left), continue to serve on Sheng Siong's board, as executive chairman and managing director respectively.
  • This is the man who was once quoted in this newspaper as saying: "I don't believe in luxury. Why have two beds when I can sleep only on one? Or have two coffins when I can be buried only in one?"
  • The family used to live in a 1,500 sq ft space above his headquarters cum warehouse in Woodlands, because it was more convenient to keep watch on the goods stored there after dark. Now, security guards do that job.

    The family has moved to a five-room HDB flat in Hougang, but the space is still kept as a "rest room" for him during the work day.
  • He has that salt-of-the-earth air of a self-made millionaire, and is someone who is more at home sipping a cup of coffee in a kopitiam than chilling out in a wine bar.

    Ask him what he enjoys doing in his spare time and the self-confessed workaholic gives you a blank look.
  • It is only after some prodding that he offers "watching wuxia films like Tsui Hark's Seven Swords" and "reading Chinese classics and management books" as answers.
  • For such a thrifty man, it comes as somewhat of a surprise that he wears a Rolex watch. Smiling bashfully, he says it was a gift from a supplier in 2000, to thank him for hitting a certain sales figure.

    He gave it to his younger brother. "Why wear a watch when you can check the time on your mobile phone?"
  • But it found its way back to him last year. He says with a hearty laugh: "My brother kept it all this while and gave it to me as a kind of long-service award. I didn't know it was the same watch and was so touched that he had bought such a nice gift for me."
  • THOSE who have worked with him say he is a driven, hardworking man who believes in treating the employees well.
  • His staff get one free meal every day - a buffet-style one for those who work in the Woodlands headquarters and boxed meals for the rest. These are prepared in a central kitchen.
  • Sheng Siong's then-assistant general manager who is in charge of supermarket operations, says: "He always has the employees' interests at heart and will go out of his way to help anyone who has problems at home, like giving cash incentives to those with young kids on a case-by-case basis.
  • In 1985, Mr Lim and his brothers Hock Eng and Hock Leng, ran a provision store in Ang Mo Kio measuring just 1,400 sq ft.
  • Back then, the shop's daily takings were only about $2,000. By 1988, it was well over $19,000 a day.
  • The secret to its low prices is the way it maximises profit margins by constantly challenging itself to churn out higher turnover per sq ft of retail space, Mr Lim says.
  • "For example, if we can make $10 instead of $4 for every sq ft of retail space, we can cut costs effectively and offer very reasonable prices to customers," he says.
  • One way of doing this is to provide speedier service so that more customers can be served in the same period of time.
  • And he is quick to stress that he does not believe in checking out the competition all the time. "Rather than waste time comparing ourselves with others, why not look at how you can improve yourself instead?"
  • He is keen to dispel the myth that low prices come at the expense of quality.

    "We have been able to keep our prices low because we are increasingly going directly to the product sources, thus eliminating the middlemen," he explains.
  • No one should doubt his resolve, especially not this son of a pig farmer, whose Chinese name literally means "lucky star" and whose nickname is Ter Bak (Hokkien for pork) because he used to sell pork.
  • When he was in Secondary 3 at Chinese High School, he decided to quit and do a two-year car mechanic course at the former Jurong Vocational Institute (JVI).
  • "I was struggling in English, managing just 20 or 30 marks," he says. "The water pump in our farm often broke down, so I figured if I learnt how to fix cars, I could help to fix the pump too since the mechanisms were similar."
  • It proved to be the right decision because he thrived at JVI, staying in school every day to study and excelling in the practical aspects of his course.
  • The training has stayed with him all these years and until a few years ago, he was Mr Fix It at Sheng Siong, doing everything from sorting out power trips to welding the handles on trolleys to make them more sturdy.
  • He was thrown into the media spotlight again after his mother, Madam Ng Lye Poh, 79. was kidnapped for a $2 million ransom on Wednesday. She was released unharmed on Thursday after Mr Lim paid a $2m ransom.
  • The first Sheng Siong outlet was founded by Mr Lim and his two brothers as a mini-supermarket in Ang Mo Kio back in 1985. Today, the chain has 33 supermarkets.
  • "They called my mobile phone, I tried to contact my mother but her line was not working anymore. They told me that my mother was with them," said Mr Lim in Mandarin during a press conference held at the Sheng Siong Clementi Blk 720 branch.
  • "They said they wanted money but of course life is more important than money.

    "I talked to my elder brother, whether or not this was a prank. After some consideration, we decided to call the police.
  • Mr Lim's mother, Madam Eng Lai Poh, was last seen along the road at Block 631 Hougang Ave 8, near her house where she lives with Mr Lim, his wife and four children.
  • "When she was crossing the overhead bridge, a young man approached her and said that I fell down. And that he will take her to see me, so she got into the vehicle.
  • "I was told that she was blindfolded (her hands and feet were tied too)," said Mr Lim.
  • With the help of the police, the ransom was negotiated from $20 million to $2 million.
  • Police said they have arrested two Chinese men. A 41-year-old odd job worker and a 50-year-old credit card salesman, believed to be responsible for the kidnapping.