Sunday, 25 November 2012

What can you get for $600,000?

A luxury car for the family or a Dignity Kitchen that trains the disabled and disadvantaged to be hawkers? Mr Koh Seng Choon chose the latter. Now mired in debt two years on, he tells Susan Long why he has not given up and is now brewing the world's first social enterprise IPO.
The Straits Times, 23 Nov 2012

MR KOH Seng Choon has many pots on the boil.

His frenetic days are filled with putting out fires and cooking up new ways to help others. He is in debt, and in a hurry all the time. He darts in and out of this interview, doing a presentation to corporate sponsors mid-way, answering calls, instructing his staff - and rushing off to pick up his son.

The 53-year-old started Dignity Kitchen, a hawker training school at Kaki Bukit View in 2010, for the disabled and disadvantaged. He remortgaged a commercial office space he had bought earlier for investment and has since pumped in another $400,000 to keep the 14,000 sq ft premises, which includes a foodcourt, going.

It used to lose $2,000 daily. He has since managed to staunch it to $600. On the side, he juggles four jobs to make ends meet, including teaching entrepreneurship at global management school SP Jain, being a consultant to Indian corporations, mentoring CEOs and being an independent director of a Taiwanese poultry company.

Mr Hsieh Fu Hua, the former Singapore Exchange chief executive and founder of privately run charity BinjaiTree, who has advised Mr Koh on funding matters, notes: "He has gone to great lengths, at considerable cost to himself and his family, to realise his vision for Dignity Kitchen."

At Dignity Kitchen, Mr Koh has his plate full with the spectrum of trainees he takes in, from the blind, deaf and polio victims, to cerebral palsy sufferers. One of his former trainees, suffering from bipolar disorder, jumped to her death, which he "took very personally". Another, with Down syndrome, came in and hugged everyone, then licked them too.

He's also taken in struggling single mothers, former convicts, repeat PSLE failures, the depressed and the long-term unemployed. Each "category" is tricky enough to train but having such a trainee "mix" all at the same time presents layered challenges.

Dignity Kitchen seeks to do two things to change perceptions: that the disabled, if given a chance, can be enabled; and that their dignity can be restored through vocation.

"I don't give you the fish; I teach you how to fish and more important, I give you the skills and self-respect to cook the fish so you're proud of what you do," he sums up.

The deal is that anyone who is disabled - physically, mentally, intellectually and socially - is welcome to work there, if the person passes his interview. He currently hires 32, with a waiting list of 40. He pays them all the same wage - $5 an hour for six hours, five days a week, which adds up to $600 a month: "a decent day's work for a decent day's pay", he says.

So far, he has trained about 100 people over six to eight weeks each, and placed about 70 of them in hawker centres, cafes, hotels and food factories. They work mostly in food preparation and cleaning positions, earning between $850 and $1,200 a month.

To pay its bills, Dignity Kitchen runs 14 stalls that are open to the public, serving up its best-selling Vietnamese beef pho noodles for $3.50 and Filipino Adobo chicken and pork for $4. Daily, it serves a lunch treat, sponsored by corporations, to the elderly from various welfare homes. It also sells its Hawker For A Day Experience for people to experience life as a hawker and the premises may be rented out for functions.

The next food thing he's cooking up is an "airline food-inspired" hawker stall which will offer only two choices, chicken or fish, in warmed-up trays, which the autistic can easily serve. He's also collecting used books - cookery, children's, romance and motivational books - and training intellectually disabled children, supervised by their mothers, to sell these books at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital.

He's also piloted a microfinance scheme for two single mothers with 10 children between them. He pays for the stalls' rental, equipment and supplies, and trains them to run it first for a wage, then profit-sharing and, in time, he hopes, independently.

He plans to start another Dignity Kitchen in Hong Kong soon. With two self-supporting kitchens running, he hopes to launch the world's first social enterprise initial public offering (IPO) - which will enable him to "tap commercial money to support a social cause" and to expand worldwide. At the end of each year, he will give shareholders the option of pocketing their dividends or using them to buy lunches for needy elderly.

Defining success

MR KOH, the sixth son of a bus conductor and seamstress - the family lived in a crammed, rented York Hill flat - was an unremarkable student. He went to Pearl's Hill Primary, Bukit Merah Secondary and Singapore Polytechnic, before starting work at Jurong Shipyard.

Three years later, he was frustrated by his lack of prospects. His parents and elder siblings pooled their savings to send him to Sheffield University in Britain. To make up the rest of his expenses, he worked during summer vacations at William Cook Steel Castings. The boss was so impressed with his work ethic that he paid for his school fees, in exchange for a two-year bond.

After graduating with first-class honours in both mechanical engineering and business, he managed a 48-man steel foundry in Sheffield that produced 10,000 tonnes of steel castings a year. Then he travelled around the world to China, Indonesia, Spain and the United States doing mergers and acquisitions for William Cook.

Soon after, he did a master's degree in computer integrated manufacturing at Cranfield Institute of Technology, then joined a Geneva-based surveillance company.

In 1994, after 12 years away, he returned to Singapore as a management consultant with Coopers & Lybrand, with his wife, Vivian, an architect from Hong Kong, one child and another on the way.

In 1997, infected with entrepreneurial fever, he started his own consultancy Christopher Benjamin - named after his sons - to help Indian and Chinese small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) expand overseas.

Up till 2010, he estimates he helped some 56 SMEs in the engineering, food and beverage and logistics sectors venture into China, India, Dubai, Britain and the US.

At the close of his first financial year, he bought himself a limited edition gold watch. In the second year, he bought a Mercedes- Benz C Class. The third year, he bought a commercial office space in Chin Swee Road. The following year, he tore his Achilles tendon.

For nine months, he was out of action, worried sick about how to feed his family. One grim day in hospital, he heard yet another minister on TV exhorting Singaporeans to go forth and start enterprises. He decided to debunk the glamour surrounding entrepreneurship and sat down to write Elements Of Success In Business, which debuted at No.1 on the bestseller list in Delhi in 2004.

He went on to write two more books, on success in education and living. His next will be about Dignity Kitchen's origins.

Keeping to his promise

THE man who keeps score by making sure he "achieves something" every year started volunteering once he touched down here in 1994. "I've promised myself that one day a month, I will volunteer for charity. I've been doing it for the last 18 years since I came back."

At first, he befriended old folk hanging about the void deck at Spottiswoode Park, where he bought a five-room flat. He took them on outings to food factories or Johor Baru. "First, I took along one, then two, four, eight, 30 people, and I then had to hire a bus," he says, adding that he ended up serving on Spottiswoode Park Residents' Committee for six years.

In 2000, he started conducting entrepreneurship classes for inmates about to be released from jail. It was "intimidating", especially when he later met them on the street and they asked to borrow money. But he did it for a decade, learning about their struggles as they tried to re-enter society.

In 2005, he hit upon the Dignity Kitchen concept when he was executive director of the Restaurant Association of Singapore. While restructuring the food and beverage sector, he was approached by a polio victim who wanted to be a chef.

"I told him it was not possible, because a restaurant layout is very complicated, serving multi-cuisine, and the roles are very defined," he recalls.

But it set him thinking that hawker food - the simplest form of business, with low barriers to entry and serving up a single cuisine day in, day out - might be a possible employment platform for the disabled.

In 2007, the engineer started drawing up plans and designing a modular, state of the art kitchen for the disabled. He took it to a series of government agencies but was roundly rejected by all.

So in 2010, he plonked his own money into three stalls at Balestier Market Food Centre serving nasi lemak, desserts and vegetarian fare, staffed by the blind, deaf, mentally ill and a former convict. The first month, they turned over all of $97. They wore badges stating their disability but nobody cared. He realised that with Singaporeans, only taste mattered.

He reworked the recipes. Ten months later, the three stalls were raking in $22,000 a month combined, but the owners wanted the stalls back. So he spent a few months visiting more than 30 religious organisations and commercial canteens to find a reasonably priced site.

"The first question they asked me was: Are you a Christian? So I told them: 'Does it matter if I'm a Christian? If I'm blind, I'm blind. If I'm deaf, I'm deaf.' Then I went to a temple, also cannot. At the end of the day, I learnt that kindness has no religion and no politics."

The atheist began borrowing money to realise his dream kitchen. He scoured scrap yards in Johor in Malaysia for used kitchen equipment, then modified it. Today, his kitchen has a one-hand noodle cooking machine, Braille cash registers and height adjustable worktops.

He made the decision to do this at age 51 because he felt it was the right season to "give back". "Life is divided. From 0 to 25, you learn. From 25 to 50, you earn, your reputation, your money and so forth. But 50 and onwards, you return. As the Chinese say, shen bu dai lai, si bu dai qu. You can't take it with you," he sums up.

As he puts it, it was either build a Dignity Kitchen or buy a luxury saloon car. He chose the former, with the support of his wife, a senior building manager with the Housing Board, and their two sons, aged 17 and 19.

The time-strapped man, who lives in a West Coast condominium and drives a Mercedes E Class, says he's since given up most of his hobbies, including golf and cycling.

Ms Ang Bee Lian, CEO of the National Council of Social Service, whom he credits as his "mentor" over the past few years, says: "His exemplary perseverance, concern and giving spirit is inspirational... He has shown through action what is possible, what is courageous and what is service to those with special needs."

But Mr Koh confides he has been racked with self-doubt along the way. "Is it all worth it?" he is fond of asking, and not in a rhetorical way.

He confides that he still doesn't know the answer. What he does know, is that "failure is when you stop trying".

Mr Koh on....

The work the elderly do

One of the things I don't like seeing is the elderly wiping tables or cleaning toilets. It's not right. Give them something they love to do, like cooking or running a stall, which is what they do at Dignity Kitchen. 

What residents of old folk’s homes really want

A lot of people go to old folk’s homes to entertain them. Don't do that. You know why? When you go there, they have to dress up for you, clap and sing for you. For whose benefit is it? What do the elderly really want? They want to go out, so take them for outings instead.

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