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SME Diaries: How a halal food firm found expansion opportunities in a pandemic

In this instalment of SME Diaries, Mr Hasan Abdul Rahman, managing director of halal food firm Pondok Abang, describes how Covid-19 disrupted the firm's regional expansion plans but provided an opportunity to focus on expansion closer to home.

Mr Hasan Abdul Rahman is managing director of halal food company Pondok Abang, which his parents founded in 1990.

Mr Hasan Abdul Rahman is managing director of halal food company Pondok Abang, which his parents founded in 1990.

Hasan Abdul Rahman

Small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which form 99 per cent of businesses in Singapore, have felt the impact of Covid-19 keenly. TODAY’s Voices section is publishing first-hand accounts from SME owners and managers on the highs and lows of running a business in the pandemic.

In this instalment, Mr Hasan Abdul Rahman, managing director of halal food firm Pondok Abang, describes how Covid-19 disrupted the firm's regional expansion plans but provided an opportunity to focus on expansion closer to home.

On March 11, 2020, Habib, my senior business development executive, and I were in Johor Baru viewing a factory space proposed for our use by our partner in Malaysia. 

It was to be used to manufacture halal-certified frozen ready-to-eat dishes for distribution in Malaysia, a move in line with our 2021 regionalisation plan.

This would provide us with the opportunity to tap a market of more than 30 million people worth billions of ringgit.

We came back to Singapore excited and began drafting the floor plans. A week later, the Malaysian government announced the movement control order to curb the spread of Covid-19, which put a halt to our plans.

I remember vividly the sudden change of mood, from excitement to being in a state of panic.

Many thoughts came to mind: How is this going to affect my Malaysian team members who commute to Singapore daily from Johor Baru? Am I still able to import stocks from Malaysia that are crucial to our distribution in Singapore?

Fortunately, the staff members decided to stay, and the borders remained open for essential goods. My relief was, however, short-lived as Singapore announced the circuit breaker in April 2020.

I saw our revenue taking a hit as orders from food-and-beverage establishments tumbled by 50 per cent on average and orders from wedding caterers stopped completely.

Although disappointed, I quickly realised that this was the best opportunity for us to expand locally through offline retail and online platforms.

I am heartened by the support from the community for our ready-to-cook-and-eat products that have gained popularity, especially among working mothers.

To cope with growing demand, we embarked on an automation project in 2019, increasing our output from one to four tonnes a day.

This enabled us to distribute our products to more retailers such as frozen food marts, mini-marts and supermarkets including Mustafa Centre, FairPrice, Ang Mo and Fortune.

Our products were also made available on our website, FairPrice Online and many other platforms.

Despite the challenging climate, we are glad that we found valuable partners. Through collaboration, we recently launched our meat-free ready-to-eat dishes and are working towards exporting our products to three South-east Asian markets and North America.

With all these opportunities in hand, I have decided to develop a new manufacturing facility by securing another unit at Jurong Food Hub, doubling our size to 5,000 sqf.

Expected to be operational in early 2022, the facility will help us increase output as we develop more products.

With the recent reopening of borders, we are also reviewing our plans to resume the factory in Johor Baru. Our joint-venture company will redevelop the space to suit our production requirements.

All in all, these two years have been a roller-coaster ride.

But I truly believe that with every hardship, there is also cause for optimism. We will continue striving to build a brighter future.

ABOUT THE WRITER:

Mr Hasan Abdul Rahman, 32, is managing director of Pondok Abang, which his parents founded in 1990. From its humble beginnings selling Malay-style curry puffs, or karipap, at the back of a motorcycle and operating stalls for more than two decades, it has grown to become an organisation that specialises in the import, processing and distribution of halal frozen food.

If you are an SME owner or manager with an experience to share or know someone who wishes to contribute to this series, write to voices [at] mediacorp.com.sg with your full name, address and phone number.

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SME Diaries manufacturing frozen food halal business

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