Kopitiam Boss goes for the kill to win at all costs

Recently, there have been online controversies over allowing so-called "social enterprise" operators by the government to manage the newly built public hawker centres.

Many netizens have pointed out that many of these so-called "social enterprise" operators are nothing more than profit-oriented food court corporations operating under the guise of "fulfilling social responsibility".

Indeed, many of these "social enterprise" operators are bringing in their commercial food court practices into the hawker centres, resulting in hawkers being squeezed. Many are questioning how hawker food can remain cheap when NEA now introduces a "middleman" to cream off profits from hawkers with their ancillary dubious charges.

And some "social enterprise" operators even introduce a 24-hour stall opening policy inside the hawker centre, thereby, forcing those hawkers who have applied, to work long hours grudgingly.

Kopitiam Group manages Our Tampines Hub Hawker Centre

Two years ago, a reader had written to TOC accusing Kopitiam Group of imposing a "modern-day slavery" system on hawkers at Our Tampines Hub Hawker Centre.

"We are told to operate the stall ourselves and advised strongly to operate longer hours to have a good chance of getting selected; minimum selection on the forms is 12 hrs and the longest is 24 hrs. I am not sure if this is not a modern day slavery under the hood of so called social-enterprise," the reader lamented.

"The terms state clearly that the selection process is totally under the discretion of the company, not under National Environment Agency."

"Why is an enterprise given so much more space that they are free to manage themselves or give to their ‘select’ hawkers to operate without giving any detail of the selection process?" the reader asked.

Kopitiam Group's boss goes for the kill

Our Tampines Hub Hawker Centre is actually managed by "social enterprise" operator, OTMH Pte Ltd, a subsidiary of Kopitiam Group. The founder and boss of Kopitiam Group is Mr Lim Bee Huat. A success story of Mr Lim can be found on its website showing Mr Lim to be a very driven man. His motto is:

  • Make sure you can be master of a trade, otherwise, don't touch it
  • Always give as good as you get: Never kowtow to staff
  • Do your own checks, confirm them, then move in for the kill

The website mentioned that Mr Lim's voraciousness for winning is the "slow-burning kind" which has "brewed in his belly since he was a young boy".

Started working at 9 years old

Indeed, the website revealed that Mr Lim started his first job at 9 years old in 1962, working as a "kopi kia" (coffeeshop assistant) at the Esplanade Food Centre for $1 a night.

Mr Lim said his classmates scoffed at him. "They said: 'Nothing better to do arh?' The trade was shunned then. It was the dirtiest job in town," recalled Mr Lim. But he persisted and continued working after school. By the time he finished his 'O' levels, he was earning $3.50 a night.

He was always fixated on his kopitiam trade, the website said. Today, he is known as the "Kopitiam King", running some 80 food courts, coffee shops and outlets in Singapore.

"You must leave the temple or never become a gongfu master. Anything you want to do, do it right. You must be a master of it, otherwise don't touch it," he said. "Concentrate on a specific job, give your heart, soul and 100 per cent. Don't dilute your interest and plans. Go and go and go all the way to achieve your target."

By the time he hit 18, he knew the business so well he "could walk around blindfolded", the website wrote. That same year, he tendered for an Esplanade drink stall using an older friend's name because he was too young to be eligible. He managed to outbid his former boss for the rental of $1,250, considered exorbitant then, to take over the business and even employ his former boss' brothers to work for him. It was quite an achievement for an 18-year-old.

Never kowtow to staff demands

He also developed a hardliner policy of never "kowtowing to staff demands". He even grew a mustache to make him look older. After much politicking and several strikes by workers - which he stood up to later, he was finally recognised as a tough, no nonsense boss, the website added.

He went on to take over another four stalls at the Esplanade by the time he was 23.

After that, he would take over coffeeshop almost every year - Rochor Centre, Victoria Street, Clementi, Whampoa, Toa Payoh, Clementi, Tampines and an AT&T canteen. His strategy, then and now, was to command the drink and dessert stall and rent out the food stalls.

Single prime mover of HDB coffeeshop prices

According to the website, Mr Lim is said to be a fearless bidder who hauled up HDB coffee shop prices single-handedly. For example, in 1988, he put in a jaw-dropping $2.01 million bid for a coffeeshop in Bishan Street 11. Today, the property is worth at least a few times the price.

Note that HDB privatised its HDB shops some years back and ever since, some of the HDB coffee shops have exchanged hands in 8 digit figures.

However, Mr Lim does not bid wildly. Behind each of his daredevil bids, he would observe and plan, sitting outside the target coffeeshop. There, he said he would watch intently and carefully note down details like the area's demographic distribution, neighborhood traffic, spending power and other wry observations like "young couples don't cook at home to preserve their kitchens".

Only when he was sure the gains far exceeded the odds, did he place his bid for the HDB coffee shop.

Hungry to win

Mr Lim grew up in Bukit Ho Swee which was later destroyed in the 1958 fire. Every morning, he would wake up to find seven five-cent coins on the table, one for him and each of his three brothers and three sisters. His parents were factory workers.

One of his favorite "no money" pursuits then was to pluck fruits from the trees growing along Goodman Road, sigh at the row of big houses there and wonder when it would be his turn to live in them.

"Every day, I was dreaming about it," he said, smiling. "Sometimes, you console yourself. 'Maybe it was inherited.' Then you realise this is life, you have to go for it. If you are born with a silver spoon in your mouth, you tend to only think of entertainment and enjoyment. If you have no canopy over your head, nobody to assist you, you have to depend on yourself to do it."

Even till today, despite success, he is still very much hungry to win more. From 1988 when the Kopitiam Investments Pte Ltd first incorporated, it has achieved many notable milestones:

1988: Tendered successfully for the most talked-about Bishan coffeeshop with a whopping S$2.1 million bid price
1992: Opens The Dessert Shop and its factory
1995-1996: Bought over Lau Pa Sat Festival Market for S$8 million and re-opened it as a 24-hour food mall
1998-2001: Opened or taken over management of a total of 24 outlets (an average of 6 per year) that span across Singapore
2001: Acquired competitor Group, S28 F&B, at S$21 million
2002: Purchased a 30% stake in Aik Hua F&B Group for a cash consideration of S$4.07 million
2002: Procured 100% stake in Aik Hua F&B Group, with an additional consideration of more than S$10 million
2003: Ventured into Shanghai with an initial investment of S$1.2 million for its first food court
2006: Opened The Pau Shop
2007: Work with Singapore Tourism Board to break Guinness World Records for The Longest Satay at Lau Pa Sat
2007: First dialect-themed outlet Mei Shi Mei Ke By Kopitiam opened in Hougang Mall
2008: Opened foodcourt at T3 Airport
2008: Opened The Pau Shop factory
2009: First to be awarded by HDB to private operator to run HDB wet market cum hawker centre at Sengkang
2010: Kopitiam Square, Sengkang's 1st Market and Food Centre opens on 10 January 2010
2013: More collaborations with govt - opened 'Healthy Kopitiam', a first-of-its-kind joint initiative with NUH and HPB

"I'll want to sit on the top chair"

He still oversees operations 16 hours a day at his office but lives humbly. He does not carry a mobile phone nor wear a watch, the website said.

As a Hokkien boy trying to compete in the Foochow and Hainanese kopitiam stronghold, whatever he asked for, he was always "shunned".

"But many years later, I was asked by the Foochow Coffeeshop Association to join them. I said: 'I'm Hokkien.' They said: 'Never mind, now I accept.' "

But he refused and told them with his brand of barbed candour: "Be careful. Once I get in, I'll want to sit on the top chair."

Indeed, Mr Lim is a very driven man making sure that he would win at all costs.