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Running your own business might sound fun on paper (no more boss!), but the reality is that it’s probably harder than staying at your day job. And the soaring inflation rate and disrupted supply chains of today are making it even harder for businesses to keep their heads above water.
But for true-blue entrepreneurs, “being like water” and adapting to changes as they arise is part of the thrill of being a business owner.
These entrepreneurs behind two home-grown businesses have beat the odds and helped their businesses thrive in tough times. For both, having the support of a bank as well as welcoming digitalisation were two key things that helped their businesses gain the upper hand even in the face of adversity.
Let’s find out more.
Chong Yik Hwee, Managing Director of Gao Ji Food
Gao Ji Food started out as a small roadside kiosk selling Hakka Yong Tow Foo in Chinatown in 1954. Managing Director Chong Yik Hwee has memories of his father (who passed away in 1965), and later his mother, running the stall.
Mr Chong’s mother went on to set up their first Koo Kee Yong Tow Foo Mee stall at the now-People’s Park Food Centre in 1968, and he remembers skipping school to help out.
He recalls: “We paid $12 a month for a licence. Secondary school was tough. I would skip school to assist my mum. I saw and learnt many new things, including the need to change and keep up with the times.”
Mr Chong took over the family business in 1982, and went on to establish Gao Ji Food in 1994 after fine-tuning its operations and keeping up with market trends. Today, the company has blossomed into one that owns and operates 70 food stall chain outlets and restaurants. Brands under its wing include Dong Dong Hainanese Chicken Rice, Koo Kee Yong Tow Foo Mee, Koo Kee and Steamed Gourmet.
Says Mr Chong: “It has been a journey of growth for me. One key lesson revolves around human resourcing. Upskilling and training are very important. Our employees must want to improve. At night, I write notes of encouragement and send it to my colleagues to motivate them.
“I spend my days outside meeting and encouraging my staff. That’s my job. It gives me better insight into their performance and how we can improve.”
While he remains laser-focused on maintaining the consistency of star dish Yong Tow Foo, Mr Chong knows there is a need to strike a balance doing what he does best, and moving with the times to embrace new technology and innovation.
He says: “My favourite dish is still our speciality Yong Tow Foo — five ingredients, one bowl of noodles. The noodles are made according to how we Hakkas do it. You can go around Singapore and you will not be able to find noodles like ours. For the minced meat, others want to learn how we do it, but they are unable to replicate.”
At the same time, he knows that the company needs to take to social media to gauge the public’s perception and identify areas where they can improve.
“I often look at social media to find out what people are saying about us. We rely on customers to improve. What is most important is the trust they have in us. If our food is good, they will share and our business will boom,” he adds.
Despite his best efforts, COVID-19 was particularly tough on the company as F&B was one of the hardest-hit industries.
“During the pandemic in 2020, times were extremely tough. We were losing tens of thousands a month. I’m a sentimental person, I can’t do things like fire my staff just because our business is not doing well. Everyone who enters the company has a family to raise, so I cannot cut their pay,” recalls Mr Chong.
Luckily, DBS had his back.
“I asked the bank for help. The very next day, I was told I could get a DBS Loan. The letter of offer came within three days. I was very grateful. This meant I could pay my staff’s salaries and my suppliers,” says Mr Chong.
DBS and Mr Chong go way back, as he has been with the bank for over five decades.
He reminisces: “DBS has always been my top pick for a bank. In the 1970s, when I was at People’s Park, I deposited our earnings at the branch nearby.
“I think DBS and I, we have similar values when it comes to respect and responsibility. We walk the talk and do not ignore problems.”
Ifrey Lai, CEO of Mobot
A few years ago, virtually everyone, from Deliveroo riders to salarymen commuting to the office, was zipping around on an e-scooter. Then the government decided to clamp down on them.
“I once said on a radio talk show, if e-scooters ever get banned, my company would have to declare bankruptcy. So, you can imagine how shocked and worried I was when the Land Transport Authority, in 2019, announced a ban on e-scooters on pavements!” says Ifrey Lai, CEO of Mobot, a Personal Mobility Device (PMD) brand whose products include foldable bicycles and electric bicycles.
At the time, Mobot had an inventory of e-scooters worth over a million dollars. The company, which was four years old then, was in such deep trouble that Mr Lai’s son, Bobby, took leave of absence from university to help Mobot clear its stock overseas.
Recalls Mr Lai: “Overnight, my sales dropped to zero and it became dead inventory.”
Thus, he made the risky decision to switch to selling bicycles in Singapore’s already-saturated market, thinking he had no other choice.
But that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. When the pandemic hit in 2020, cycling took off in Singapore. As demand for bicycles skyrocketed and stocks flew off the shelves, Mobot needed cash in order to expand more quickly to capitalise on this opportunity.
The solution? Mobot took out a DBS Loan. This enabled them to open more stores and claim a greater market share before competitors could swoop in.
Thanks to DBS’ financial support, Mobot was able to invest heavily and acquire an inventory of several months’ worth of sales. They also quickly expanded from one single branch to eight in less than two years in order to meet customer demand.
Digitalisation was another move that helped the company grow in tough times. Mobot started selling products through Facebook Live, an initiative helmed by Mr Lai’s son, Bobby.
He candidly shares: “We joined the digital economy and started selling via Facebook Live. My son, Bobby, led the charge. Bobby is actually quite introverted, so to encourage him, my wife and I secretly created Facebook accounts to follow his sessions!
“My wife is very smart. After his first session, she told him, ‘We got five sales!’ Actually, no, we didn’t. But it kept him going and now my son is an expert at this.”
Fast forward to today, Mobot is now a market leader in Singapore.
Says Mr Lai: “In Singapore’s foldable bike market, we are, no doubt, number one. We are constantly fascinated by new inventions for bicycles and have done many innovations. In fact, we have the world’s first integrated speedometer built-in on the bicycle.
“I think it’s the guts to take risks that helped us succeed. Just as we value efficiency and speed in our bicycles, we value these traits in our company as well.”
He also attributes his success today to the immense support they had from DBS.
“DBS’ financial support was really important for us. Without it, I would not dare to go so far, so fast,” says Mr Lai, who says this also brought his family closer together.
He adds: “Before the pandemic, each of us in the family had our own priorities. Today, our one goal is to build this business, with my wife as commander-in-chief. Working together makes us happy. Our time is divided between running the business and organising cycling events so our customers can stay healthy and go green.”
And the future, to him, is still full of promise. “I am constantly excited by the possibilities that lie ahead of us. NFTs for bicycles? Why not! Our ambition? To bring our Singapore brand overseas and tap global market opportunities,” he says.
Future-proof your business with DBS’ digital solutions
As Mr Chong and Mr Lai have shown, invaluable support from a bank that understands SME struggles, as well as digital innovation, is critical for SMEs to thrive in challenging times.
When you bank with DBS, your business can benefit from DBS digibanking, which gives you access to a suite of digital solutions, networking opportunities, FX support, a free debit card and account management, all accessible through a fast and reliable system.
For those who engage in cross-border transactions, the DBS Business Multi-Currency Account will enable your business to grow. A starter account imposes no initial deposit and no minimum balance, and offers unlimited free FAST/GIRO. To give your business’s growth a boost, you can also turn to a Working Capital Loan.
Going digital can be daunting at the start, but it gets easier thanks to the DBS Start Digital Programme and its suite of curated digital solutions.
DBS IDEAL lets you take your business’s digitalisation one step further with an all-in-one system that gives you access on the go to a whole host of functions on a single dashboard. Imagine being able to give approvals, pay salaries, check balances and more on a single screen, even when you’re commuting or waiting in line.
Embracing digitalisation will make your business more competitive and give it the edge it needs to prosper in these challenging times.