Tuesday 20 May 2014

Keeping Axe brand oil legacy burning

Sold in almost 50 countries, Axe Brand Universal Oil had its beginnings in a little shophouse in South Bridge Road about 85 years ago. The medicated oil was produced in a backroom of a pharmacy owned by Mr Leong Heng Keng's father, Mr Leung Yun Chee, who used a formula one of his medicine suppliers, a German doctor, had given him in 1929. Today, it is a household name, giving quick relief for headaches and colds. But Mr Leong recalls the uphill task his father faced in coaxing shopkeepers to sell the oil. He even started newspapers, including Shin Min Daily News, to promote it. The 85-year-old also tells Goh Chin Lian how he expanded the business to the Middle East and China.
The Straits Times, 17 May 2014

How did you get involved in the medicated oil business?

My father had seven children, but the first two died young because of poor medical treatment.

I became the eldest son and from a young age, I helped at the shop.

I was 13 and schooling when the Japanese occupied Singapore in 1942. People lived in hardship and when they suffered a minor ailment, they didn't see a doctor but bought the drugs they needed from medicine shops.

There were few imports during the Japanese Occupation but we had enough German medicines in stock.

We also had no problem manufacturing medicated oil because we had three to four years' worth of the raw materials, like menthol crystal.

We could not import bottles from Germany and Shanghai, so we bought on the open market.

But at the same time, there was less competition because similar medical products could not be imported from China and Hong Kong.

We were also selling in the larger Malaya market.

Why did your father choose an axe as the brand's symbol?

Many people in the old days chopped wood to cook their meals at home. So, it was an object everyone would recognise and this would make the brand easy to remember.

Our brand, in Malay, is called minyak angin cap kapak, which is easy to pronounce as well.

Your father did not want you to go to university. Why?

My father went to school for only three years in his village in China because of poverty and an undeveloped education system.

I studied until high school. I wanted to go to the well-known Lingnan University in Guangzhou. But as I was the eldest, he did not want me to go.

He said: "I studied for only three years and came out to work. You studied for 13 years already. What more do you want to study? Join me to do business and let your brothers go to university."

What was it like doing business in the early years?

My father had foresight. Singapore's market was small, so he went for the Malayan market.

It was difficult at first. The medicine shops had no time for him because they thought he was just another businessman.

He decided to dress better. He put on a Western suit, bought an open-top Ford car and hired a chauffeur.

He would stop the car in front of the shops. Thinking a prominent businessman had arrived, the shopkeepers would come out and talk to him.

Since he looked like a successful businessman, they thought his products must be good.

My father said to them: "I won't take your money now. Sell my products first. When I come back a second time, I'll collect the money. You can then take more goods from me."

The shopkeepers liked the arrangement.

My father also got his chauffeur to distribute fliers with him.

The flier had advertisement only on one side because if both sides had ads, people would throw it away, he said.

So the other side carried famous stories from Er Shi Si Xiao (the classic Twenty Four Exemplars Of Filial Piety compiled during the Yuan Dynasty from 1271 to 1368) because the Chinese valued filial piety. There were also short fiction stories.

When people finished reading, they passed the flier to their family members who, in turn, gave it to their neighbours and friends.

It was effective marketing.

How did Axe brand become so popular?

In those days after World War II, people were poor and could not afford to see the doctor when they are sick.

They used our medicated oil, which cost just a few cents, not even the cost of a cup of coffee.

It has many uses, providing relief from stomach aches and headaches to the itch of mosquito bites and minor illnesses.

How did Axe brand enter the Middle East market?

Every year, Muslims go on pilgrimage to Mecca. Most people in the old days went by ship and the journey lasted two to three weeks.

In the 1950s, I and a few others went on board the ships at the harbour to distribute medicated oil. Most passengers were Malays, although some were from India and China.

The oil came in handy on the rough seas when people got headaches, seasickness, dizzy spells or rheumatism. It was also useful when the temperature was too hot or cold. They all liked it after using it.

We gave out a few thousand bottles each time.

Word spread to the Middle East, Africa and India. Later in the 1970s, we had a distributor in Saudi Arabia, our first in the Middle East. Today, we export to five countries in the Middle East.

Why did your father go into newspaper publishing?

My father was a good marketing man. He advertised in the local newspapers, a bold move at that time.

If you advertise in a newspaper, it's expensive. If you publish your own newspaper, you can promote your product and earn money at the same time.

How did your family start Shin Min Daily News in 1967?

In the 1960s, Ming Pao Daily in Hong Kong sold very well. Its publisher Jin Yong, who is novelist Louis Cha, came to Singapore and wanted to start a newspaper.

Jin Yong knew we still had printing presses from our previous newspaper ventures.

My father told him to discuss it with me. I thought it was a good idea. So I asked him how he would publish the newspaper. "Very easy,'' he said. "I will send a chief editor here to help you."

How was Shin Min different from other Chinese papers?

Nanyang Siang Pau (founded in 1923) and Sin Chew Jit Poh (started in 1928) carried world news on the front page and local news on the inside pages.

Jin Yong said Shin Min's front page would be local news, such as death, rape and murder. World news would be inside.

Also, Shin Min would carry horse-racing lottery numbers released in the afternoon.

Shin Min was sold in the evening, so we were ahead of the morning dailies. When the children selling newspapers on the streets called out mah piu po (Cantonese for "horse-racing lottery newspaper"), they were referring to Shin Min.

Our newspaper also had more fictional or gongfu stories, and entertainment news. We shared content with Hong Kong's Ming Pao, so we were ahead of the morning dailies in our entertainment news, which came mostly from Hong Kong and which many people liked to read, especially women.

Jin Yong also decided to give it for free in the first week, to prevent the big newspapers from buying up all the copies to stop people getting hold of it. Also, the free copy let people discover it was a good read.

We had good sales. After two to three months, we entered the Malaysian market, where it was also well-received.

How did the newspaper help your medicated oil business?

We published an advertisement on our medicated oil in the newspaper. When people saw how huge the ads were, they thought our products must be effective.

Why did you sell Shin Min in 1987?

In 1976, Jin Yong sold his shares and returned to Hong Kong when new laws in Singapore (in 1974) restricted foreign ownership of newspapers. Later, there were more changes to the law, further restricting newspaper ownership. In the end, we sold Shin Min to The Straits Times Press (1975).

(STP-1975, which later became part of Singapore Press Holdings, paid $1.125 million for a 45 per cent stake in Shin Min in 1982. Its holding was increased to nearly 60 per cent in 1983. In 1987, it paid $2.25 million for the remaining 40.99 per cent of the shares.)

In 1971, your father died and you became chairman of Leung Kai Fook. What changes did you make?

We automated and expanded overseas to survive.

In 1972, we moved our factory from South Bridge Road to MacPherson. When our sales increased, we mechanised and automated. I bought machines from Germany. To date, we have a number of production lines that can fill up to 120 bottles per minute with Axe Brand oil.

We now have four factories overseas: in Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and China.

What values did you learn from your father?

He went to Malaya every month and he took me along in the car. Like him, I wore a Western suit. If you look too ordinary, people will not give you due regard.

My father never gambled and we did charity work.

My father was chairman of Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital. I joined its board in 1966 and is still involved (as its honorary chairman and board adviser).

We do a lot of charity work and donate to the hospital every year. It's about giving back to the community.

What is special about your generation?

We placed importance on integrity in business, being principled and dedicated to one's work, having the right values like gratitude to our benefactors, and treasuring the prosperity and national unity that were not easily achieved.

What would you like to see in the next generation?

The right values and the virtues of hard work and thriftiness; to be bold and have a long-term vision when doing business; to develop the family business so that it can continue from generation to generation, and to do their part to benefit society and people.

By boldness, I mean you have to keep expanding your business to the whole world.

Singapore has a small population. If you don't expand overseas, you can't survive.

Business bigwig, grassroots leader and a knight too
By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 17 May 2014

LIKE many in his generation, Mr Leong Heng Keng had his schooling interrupted by the Japanese Occupation.

He was 21 years old by the time he graduated from Chinese High School in 1950.

He did not go for further studies as his father, Mr Leung Yun Chee, wanted him to join the family business, which makes and sells medicated oil.

"My father was getting old at that time, and business was expanding. It was essential I should help him," he says.

However, his brother, Mun Sum, has a master's degree in pharmacy and is now the company's managing director. Three other brothers also help in the business.

But it was Mr Leong who took over the reins of Leung Kai Fook Medical Company when their father died in 1971.

Like his father, Mr Leong, 85, hopes his family can further expand the business that he has helped build into a multinational giant with products sold in almost 50 countries.

He has four children and five grandchildren aged 13 to 27. Both his sons, who are in their 50s, are in the family business.

Under his watch, the company expanded into the Middle East and Africa in the 1970s, and China in the 1980s.

Mr Leong was on the councils of two apex Chinese organisations: Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry from 1967 to 2007, and Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations from 1988 to 2010.

He was also a grassroots leader for more than 30 years in the previous Hong Lim constituency.

He remains a patron of Telok Ayer-Hong Lim Green Community Centre Management Committee and the Citizens Consultative Committees of Kreta Ayer-Kim Seng and Kampong Glam.

For his voluntary work, he was awarded the Public Service Star in 1972 and 1991, and received the Passion Award for community service in 2007.

He has been the Singapore chairman of St John Ambulance Brigade's board of presidents for about 20 years, and in 2010, Queen Elizabeth II made him Knight of Grace of the Order of St John.

Asked how he teaches his children business, he says: "There is little I can teach them in terms of modern management because they have business degrees. I can only share with them my experience."

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