Kopitiam boss Lim Bee Huat first started work as a kopi kia (coffee boy) at the now-defunct Esplanade Food Centre in 1962.
Juggling both work and school, it was indeed hard for the nine-year-old boy. Going against the wishes of his parents, he would clean the spittoons, wipe the tables, and serve coffee every day after school for $1 a night.
From an initial daily wage of a mere dollar, Lim worked hard and finally convinced his boss to raise his pay to $1.50 within a year. And many knuckle knocks on the head from his boss later, he fetched, carried and bargained his way up to $3.50 a night by the time he had finished his ‘O’ levels.
The millennials of today would probably just pack and leave when the going gets tough. But for Lim, he had no choice but to stick to the job because of his family’s poor financial status.
According to his recount from the book SG 50 Living The Singapore Story, he said: “Every morning, my parents would leave seven five-cent coins on the table for each of my brothers, sisters and me. Even then, five cents couldn’t buy you anything.”
He would pool the money and buy a French loaf, which costs 10 cents. In more desperate times, he would even eat the roadside food offerings left by worshippers during the Hungry Ghost Festival.
“When you’re hungry, that’s what you have to do. I had to think of survival. With school opening, I needed shoes, books, uniforms. I had to come up with solutions myself.”
“My thinking was that working hard was a way of life. Enjoy now, suffer later. Or suffer now, enjoy later.”
The latter was an obvious choice to him.
Towkay At Age 18
In 1970, when he was enlisting in National Service, the Government revamped the Esplanade Food Centre and Lim started to see the potential of a bigger and better business at Esplanade.
With his hard-earned wages, he would scrimp and save till he was finally able to cough up enough money to buy his own stall.
He tendered for the drink stall there (the one where he used to work at) for a rental of $1,250 a month – a substantial sum back then – with the help of an older friend because he was too young to be eligible.
He outbid his former boss and took over the business, even employing her brothers to work for him.
“I was more gutsy than the owner, but she had no grudges against me,” Lim said in an interview, which was later published in S-Files: Stories Behind Their Success.
So at age 18, Lim became his own boss – while also being a soldier by day.
He went on to take another four stalls at the Esplanade by age 23, and this formed the foundation of his hawker empire.
Business was so lucrative that during National Day in 1973, he sold over $6,000 worth of bubur cha cha (coconut and red bean dessert) at 25 cents a bowl.
It paid for his first car, a second-hand Datsun 100A costing $3,000.
Thereafter, Lim went on to celebrate his birthdays with a new coffeeshop takeover every year – from Rochor Centre, Victoria Street, Clementi, Whampoa, Toa Payoh, Clementi, Tampines, and even an AT&T canteen.
“It’s the Chinese businessman disease – if you have one, you think of two. If you have two, you think of three. And if you have five, you think of 10.”
His strategy, which is still relevant today, is to dominate the drink and dessert stall, while renting out the food stalls.
“People can’t just come in for food. If a foodcourt has 50 stalls, it will take you 50 days to patronise all the stalls. But you have to come to me every day for drinks or desserts. I think my game is quite clear,” he said.
A Crazy Businessman
In 1988, Lim started Kopitiam Investment Pte Ltd to tender for a Bishan project.
At that time, Lim was already a veteran in the business; with experience in operating a chain of 8 coffee shops for more than a decade, as well as a canteen at the AT&T Building for two years.
The following year, he pumped in a whopping $2.01 million bid for a coffeeshop in Bishan Street 11, which chalked up his reputation as a fearless bidder who single-handedly hauled up Housing Board coffeeshop prices.
Lim recalls a particular taxi driver who remarked to him (without knowing who he was): “This towkay xiao eh, ai ke tiao lao hao (this towkay is crazy, going to commit suicide soon).”
Clearly, many thought it was an insane amount of hard cash to fork out for a location in a HDB estate.
However, the investment has since paid off handsomely – that piece of property is thriving and was worth about $6 million in 2008.
But behind each of his bold bids was deliberate planning and hours of sitting on Bishan benches like a vagrant.
There, he says he watched intently and carefully stored away details like the area’s demographic distribution, neighbourhood 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.
When McDonald’s first opened here in 1979, he also sat outside Liat Towers for a few days observing the beeline for burgers; and French fries.
He remembers mulling to himself: “If I can’t beat you, can I join you? If I can’t have foreign expertise, can I set up a local tier to lead? Can we prove and show Singaporeans can do it, too?”
Then, he went on to do it by taking over the ailing Lau Pa Sat Festival Market from Scotts Holdings Limited in 1995 at a cost of $8 million, pumping in an additional $4 million in renovation and $600,000 on advertising to nurse it back to health.
At that time, many people thought Lim was crazy to pump in so much money into a project that, until then, had not yielded any profit.
His business instinct was inevitably sharp as knife, and the market reopened for business as a 24-hour bustling food court.
Being A Boss Does Not Mean Having A Lavish Lifestyle
Despite his successes, Lim lives a very simple life.
Home for him is a modest three-room HDB flat in East Coast, and he said that he has no plans to move into a bigger house in the near future – partly because he just has no time to shift.
Every waking hour is devoted to his business. “Whatever money I earn, I put it back into the business. I keep rolling the cash. I don’t have much left to spend on myself.”
As the chairman of the Kopitiam Group, Lim today owns over 80 outlets – including food courts, coffeeshops, cafes and dessert stalls – in Singapore.
The kopitiam king also owns 98 per cent of Kopitiam Investment Pte Ltd, and he gave a percent share each to two long-time employees.
Lim clearly is the kind of boss who rewards others for their loyalty.
In fact, he makes it a point to reward his staff with a Rolex watch when they have worked with him for more than 10 years.
He said he also always listen to the suggestions of his staff because “they are all better qualified than I am. In fact, sometimes I’m a bit shy to admit that I’m the least qualified person in my company.”
His Secret To Success
The man sure is humble for someone who has worked his way up to build his own kopitiam empire.
So what’s his secret to success?
“Concentrate on a specific job [and] 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,” he advised.
In his years of business, the 64-year-old never once pondered on failure. While his business is relatively successful, it does not mean that it has not faced any problems along the way.
“Of course we have labour and rent problems now. But if we are running a business, we need to expect that costs will go up in time.”
“[In Singapore], everyone is thinking of progress. If you are willing to work your way, it’s doable. Everything is doable, as long as you put in the effort.”
Featured Image Credit: Bryan Van Der Beek Photography