Saturday, 5 April 2014

In moment of glory, the Popiah King turns emotional

By Jacqueline Woo, MyPaper, 4 Apr 2014

WHEN his father died at age 90 some months back, food tycoon Sam Goi rummaged through the old man's cupboard. There he found clothes that he had bought his dad, lying unused and still brand-new.

The Popiah King became emotional, lamenting that despite his own wealth, his father had remained frugal to the end.

When he was 19, it was a $10,000 loan from his father that kick-started his first business venture in electrical repairs.

Last night, when Mr Goi was crowned Businessman of the Year 2013 at the Singapore Business Awards, organised by The Business Times and DHL Express, his father was not there to see it.

"But I know he would be proud of my achievements. Thank you, father!" said Mr Goi, 65, turning emotional again.

The award is Singapore's most prestigious business accolade, and in the past has gone to United Overseas' Wee Cho Yaw, Hyflux's Olivia Lum and OSIM International's Ron Sim.

Mr Goi is worth US$2 billion (S$2.5 billion), according to Forbes Asia, and is the executive chairman of Tee Yih Jia, which churns out 35 million pieces of frozen popiah skin daily.

At his 50,000 sq ft house in Nassim Road, he has a fleet of luxury cars, a 1,000-year-old olive tree and parrots that sing "Happy Birthday".

These trappings are a far cry from the days when he was six years old and his family had fled communist China to move into a one-room unit at Geylang Lorong 17.

The odds seemed stacked against him. He was not fluent in English and failed the subject in Secondary Four. His father paid him $60 a month to work at the family's drink distributor shop - and deducted half of that for family expenses.

He decided to strike out on his own. But his company folded as he had no customers. This taught him a lesson that he shared with My Paper. "Having big problems is part and parcel of being a businessman," he said. "I've always thought that if a businessman has no problems, he has no business."

He taught himself engineering skills through night classes, borrowed money from an uncle and set out to repair machines again. Some nights, he slept only two hours. Within five years, his company Sing Siah had exceeded $500,000 in annual turnover.

In 1977, he bought over a business then owned by one of his customers, Tee Yih Jia, which made popiah skins by hand.

The rest is history. He personally drove the automation process, and those machines are used in his factories to this day.

"My capabilities were always in getting my hands dirty rather than scoring in exams," he said.

The next step was to expand beyond Singapore. He set out wooing Chinese chefs in Australia. At first, they resisted his square, machine-made skins - but he convinced them that his product was easier to handle.

Today, 90 per cent of his skins are sold overseas, and the product range has expanded to include frozen prata and dim sum treats.

The man is not slowing down. He works 10 hours a day and still wears an employee pass on a lanyard - just like any other worker. When asked about his hobbies, he said: "It may seem very weird, but running my business is my greatest hobby."

His business empire has expanded to include property developments in China and the acquisition of the Sutera Harbour Resort in Kota Kinabalu.

In his acceptance speech last night, he did admit to one solitary regret. "My busy schedule did not permit me to spend more time with my family and my children," he said.

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