Popiah King’s Midas touch

PHOTO: Popiah King’s Midas touch

Investors see him as the man with the Midas touch, but billionaire businessman Sam Goi says he is uneasy when people rush into buying shares just because he has made an investment.

The Sam Goi effect, as it is known, has occurred a number of times this year after Mr Goi made significant investments in local companies, including Global Yellow Pages.

News of his interest is enough to convince many investors and traders that the share must be a winner and they jump on the bandwagon.

But Mr Goi, 64, says the faith others put in his judgment is stressful.

"I don't want those investors who follow me to suffer losses, and I feel very bad if they do because they put their trust in my investment decisions," he adds.

"As a result, I've become even more cautious about the companies I buy into. But I'd like to remind investors - I'm no god, please do not follow me blindly."

You cannot blame other investors for backing the same horse as Mr Goi.

On Feb 20, a day after Mr Goi's buy-in, Yamada's shares surged 126 per cent to close at 30.5 cents while JB Foods' stock added as much as 30.6 per cent at one point on Jan 24 - a day after Tee Yih Jia's investment was announced - before closing 27.4 per cent up.

While Mr Goi is becoming increasingly well known for his share market forays, he is still regarded by most as the "Popiah King" - and for good reason.

He remains executive chairman of Tee Yih Jia, which manufactures more than 30 million pieces of frozen popiah skin daily.

However his appetite for investments has gone far beyond the food industry over the past decade. The canny investor tells The Straits Times that holdings in the food sector account for only 20 per cent of his interests.

The rest range far and wide, including real estate, particularly in China, where Singapore-listed GSH Corporation, in which he holds a majority stake, develops projects.

His shrewd business sense over the years has made Mr Goi a wealthy man with a US$1.7 billion (S$2.17 billion) fortune, according to Forbes magazine, but he shows no signs of slowing down.

In the hour-long interview at Tee Yih Jia's factory in Senoko, he excuses himself several times to pick up calls and attend to business matters.

There has also been a flurry of investments this year, buying stakes in Global Yellow Pages, mushroom supplier Yamada Green Resources and JB Foods, a cocoa ingredient maker.

He denies speculation that he buys into these companies to make a quick buck, describing himself instead as a long-term investor looking for businesses with growth potential.

While Mr Goi shows plenty of skill and verve in share investing, he is still resisting the many calls to list Tee Yih Jia.

He brings out old newspaper clippings to show that it has occupied minds in corporate Singapore for many years.

"My answer is still the same, now's not the time," he says with a laugh. "There have been a number of offers to have joint ventures or buy into Tee Yih Jia, but I have rejected all of them."

He does hint that he will consider listing the company when the combined turnover of all his food-related businesses exceeds $1 billion, but gives no indication of when that might be.

Why not sell up and retire?

"I believe that everyone needs to do something meaningful to pass time," he says.

"It's just in my character - I love to work and enjoy having something to do."

He quoted a Chinese saying, which translates as: "When one dies and goes to heaven, all his wealth is left in the bank."

When he eventually retires, Mr Goi said that he intends to do even more charity work to keep busy. In the past five years, he has contributed $2 million to $3 million annually to various organisations.

Retirement seems a long way off, given how carefully Mr Goi looks after his health.

"Every morning, I wake up at about 5.30am and start my 8km morning walk by 6am," he says.

Mr Goi used to be an avid golfer who hit the green three times a week but that has been cut back due to work pressures.

There are a few regrets among the huge successes.

"I enjoy playing with my three grandchildren over the weekend, but it makes me think about how I wasn't there for my children for the first 20 years of their lives as I was busy working."

Mr Goi has two daughters, aged 41 and 39, and two sons, 38 and 36. The three younger ones have been working in Mr Goi's businesses for about 10 years. His second daughter, Laureen, is an executive director at Tee Yih Jia, while sons Kenneth and Ben are involved in the property and food-related businesses.

Mr Goi's eyes well up with tears as he recounts how he lost his mother to cancer six years ago.

"Since her passing, I tend to get emotional when those around me sing the Chinese children's song, Mom's The Best, and it makes me feel helpless that I couldn't do more for her," he says. "Nothing is more important than one's parents, that's my view towards family and kinship."


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How the 'Popiah King' became a billionaire

It was a gesture of goodwill that led 62-year-old billionaire Sam Goi to his #12 spot in Forbes Asia's Singapore's 40 richest list this year, but his entrepreneurial streak was what carried him through.

Despite being known as the 'Popiah King', food was not what Mr Goi set out to do when he first ventured into business.

Born to a farmer from China's Fujian province, Sam Goi migrated with his family to Singapore when he was six. They lived in Geylang, where they lived in a one-room tenement and where his father opened a small grocery store.

After dropping out of high school, he did odd jobs at a mechanical repair shop while also helping his father at the store. It was here at this repair shop that he found out that he had a knack for fixing machines.

His first business venture was, fittingly enough, his own repair shop, which he financed through a loan from his father. However, it closed in less than a year.

He did not give up. He was able to raise enough money through the informal Chinese community lending network to start the same business, now called Sing Siah. In four years, his revenues had grown to half a million dollars, and he started a new business to repair ships at the Jurong Shipyard. These two businesses kept flourishing, with multi-million dollar revenues that enabled him to employ 400 people.

It was his third business, however, that made him a billionaire.

When he moved to an industrial zone, he stumbled upon a factory which had a unit that was struggling, with feuding partners. The product: popiah skins. He bought a controlling stake from the owners, who he had earlier befriended. He later bought out his partner, who had started a similar business in Malaysia. By 1980, he had full control of Tee Yih Jia.

From a small operation employing 23 people who could produce 3,200 wraps a day, it is now a frozen foods empire with estimated revenues of US$1.3 billion (S$1.6 billion) that produces 35 million pieces of popiah skins daily in factories in Singapore, China, Malaysia, and the US.

These are sold under the company's Spring Home Brand, and are distributed internationally, together with other products like roti paratha, Indian samosas, glutinous rice balls, and prawn balls.

In 2006, he handed over operations to his US-educated children, and is now going into property in China.

He told Forbes Asia: "I'm a simple man who started in a small way with the humble popiah, but now we've gone far beyond that."

Source: Forbes Asia