When you think about success stories in Singapore, you cannot miss the illustrious Sheng Siong CEO Lim Hock Chee who has made the news time and time again for the positively delightful ways in which he values and rewards his staff, whom he constantly refers to as his colleagues.
Despite being a very successful businessman, with Forbes estimating his family’s net worth at USD1.2 billion (S$1.6 billion) as of August 2020, Mr Lim has cultivated a reputation for being a gracious employer, and Mr Lim being a humble, down-to-earth man who isn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves and pitch in.
Mr Lim started out selling pork in 1985 as a way to help out his father’s pig farm which was experiencing a glut. Mr Lim and his wife decided to rent a stall at one of the supermarket chain stores in Ang Mo Kio, which is now defunct.
Serendipitously, when they were just about to finish selling the excess stock, the store owner ran into financial difficulties. Various stores were put up for sale for existing tenants and others. At the time, the government was starting to phase our pig farms. So with seed capital from his father, Mr Lim and his brothers Lim Hock Leng and Lim Hock Eng decided to try their luck in the retail business. They took over the store at Blk 122.
Thus was born the first Sheng Siong outlet, which still stands today.
Though the business has a bit of a rocky start as it was not immediately visible from the main road and wasn’t convenient to access, it picked up quick enough as it gained a reputation for good service. Even back then, the staff would act as porters for customers, carrying their goods down the stairs. Thus was born a tradition of “customer first” service.
As Sheng Siong continued to succeed, more and more outlets were opened. There are now 61 stores island wide, and two more across the ocean in China.
One could rightly argue that the reason behind Sheng Siong’s success is partly due to Mr Lim’s persistent focus on his employees’ satisfaction and well-being which leads to a high retention rate.
Sheng Siong has long been known for offering competitive remuneration for staff such as giving 20 percent of the company’s pre-tax profit as a bonus, a monthly bonus scheme, free meals for staff prepared at a central kitchen, awards for long-service, and even bursaries for the children of employees.
Last year April, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the supermarket also announced that it would be giving all employees, except directors, an additional month of salary for their hard work throughout the period as demand increased.
In 2019, there was even plans to set up a retirement trust fund for some staff.
In early 2021, Sheng Siong announced that its staff would be receiving bonuses of up to 16 months, inclusive of the annual wage supplement, as the company performed “tremendously well” in 2020 despite it being a rough year for the local and global economy as a whole.
In an interview with BusinessTimes Singapore in 2019, Mr Lim expounded on his philosophy: “Take care of the roots when you are growing a tree; take care of the water when you are rearing fish; take care of the heart when you are grooming a person.”
Beyond his employees, Mr Lim is also known for caring deeply about his customers and determination to provide excellent service.
In a different interview in the same year, this time with Straits Times, Mr Lim had explained that one of his fundamental approaches to the business is that the “customer is boss”.
“Colleagues, family members, suppliers, customers… People can change everything,” adding that he posted up his personal mobile number in outlets so that customers could reach out to him directly.
He had initially done so to allow for quick response to feedback, but later realised that this also encouraged his staff to work harder and minimise customer complaints.
However, he also went on to stress that he does not believe in monitoring hi staff constantly, or visiting stores.
“No need. All our workers are very hard-working and we must have mutual trust,” he explained.
Mr Lim’s generous nature extends beyond his business, as well.
Back in June 2020, a story went viral online of how the Sheng Siong CEO had sent an employee to quietly slip S$00 into the money collection box at a funeral. The story was relayed on Facebook by the man whose wife’s grandmother has passed away.
This story spurred others to share similar encounters they have had with the Mr Lim, whom many praised for being kind, people-centric, and humble.
One person revealed that Sheng Siong has been surreptitiously contributing to wakes for years, recalling a moment 10 years prior when the supermarket delivered drinks to someone’s mother’s wake. Many others shared similar stories to supporting the account.
Another person recalled Mr Lim telling his staff that if any of them saw an ongoing funeral, they can approach the supermarket manager to get money to donate the bereaved family, with no questions asked.
The same person also recounted a time when he saw Mr Lim rolling up his sleeves and helping a new staff carry bags of rice up the stairs as the lifts were not working.
When a manager scolded the staff for letting Mr Lim do such laborious work, Mr Lim replied that a CEO is also a staff and that he was lending a hand to his colleague.
If anything, Mr Lim is a shining example of how success does not have to turn you into caricature of a stereotypical businessman whose only goal is profit first. The positive feedback from the public at large illustrates how Mr Lim’s persistence at centering the wellbeing of his employees and focusing on customer service in his approach to business is something many employers can, and should, emulate.
What Mr Lim proves is that treating your employees well (both by offering competitive salaries and benefits and creating an ecosystem of support) and focusing on customer service and needs doesn’t mean that profits will suffer. This win-win approach ensures employee and customer retention, and subsequently lead to success for a company.