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Serving up food for thought

SINGAPORE — It is often said in the food industry that every one in four chickens consumed in Singapore comes from the cold room of Mr Liew Yew Fah. That claim is no exaggeration as Pin Corporation, the company he runs, holds a 25 per cent share of the market for imported poultry.

Mr Liew left a successful career in IT to help grow his wife’s family business in the food industry. Photo: Ernest Chua

Mr Liew left a successful career in IT to help grow his wife’s family business in the food industry. Photo: Ernest Chua

SINGAPORE — It is often said in the food industry that every one in four chickens consumed in Singapore comes from the cold room of Mr Liew Yew Fah. That claim is no exaggeration as Pin Corporation, the company he runs, holds a 25 per cent share of the market for imported poultry.

The facility where the firm’s food products — primarily chicken and pork — are stored is also one of the most advanced in South-east Asia. Here, four robotic systems scurry around a cold room, retrieving and transporting wares that are stacked up to 30m high.

Following a successful career in the IT industry that spanned Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, Mr Liew came back in 1995 to help run his wife’s family business, Pin Foodstuff.

Renaming the firm Pin Corporation, he tamed its runaway debt, rebuilt trust with customers and suppliers and embarked on a strategy to grow the business.

“In my first year, the main job was to talk to our debtors and creditors. We wanted to negotiate full and final settlement of our debts so we could gain the trust of the market. We wanted them (customers) to know there was a new management, but that they would get continuity from the old company,” recalled Mr Liew.

Pin imports chicken and pork from various countries, including Denmark, Japan and Brazil, to feed markets and wholesalers back home. The firm’s revenue has multiplied more than tenfold to more than S$100 million in 2008 from S$9.6 million in 1997. To cope with the rapid expansion, it built the largest and most advanced cold room in South-east Asia, which opened in 2007.

Now that the firm is recognised as a giant in the industry, Mr Liew recently turned his attention to helping newcomers in the food industry. Three years ago, the Action Community for Entrepreneurship (ACE) asked him to become a mentor to entrepreneurs in the sector. ACE is a private- and public-sector initiative set up 10 years ago to seed and nurture start-ups in Singapore.

The first firm assigned to Mr Liew was run by a couple who had developed a low-fat, soya-based ice cream. The key challenge they faced was marketing their product on a large scale.

“They had a shop but had to close it. I advised them that they needed to do a lot of marketing, but it was not possible to spend tens of thousands of dollars advertising on television,” said Mr Liew.

“So I suggested that (they) try to negotiate (with) supermarket chains to secure good shelf space at a reasonable price,” he added.

The couple eventually went one better than his approach by taking part in a major food trade fair in Cologne, Germany.

Mr Liew met his charges at the fair and found that their product had garnered interest from as far as Africa and the Middle East.

“The first day at the fair, I walked directly to the Singapore pavilion to find them. I was very happy they didn’t have to spend much money to get exposure to the international market,” he said.

The couple were also considering talking to manufacturers in the West to produce their products, as this would give them an easier way to reach out to customers in that region.

“I like to work with these young entrepreneurs because they are very innovative and can change direction very fast. I like to see people who are creative (and) dare to take risks,” explained Mr Liew.

Clearly satisfied with his mentoring debut, Mr Liew has taken another start-up under his wing — one that specialises in vegetarian food.

“I believe more mentors should share their experiences to help new businesses. As long as the company doesn’t sell chicken, I’m willing to help,” he said with a chuckle.

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