Fishballs are a quintessential part of Singapore cuisine.
Whether you have it with noodles, in soup, or as they are with a generous dose of chili sauce, they’re a comfort food that many Singaporeans have grown up eating.
And just like any local dish, Singaporeans have favourites that they stick to.
This loyalty has spawned generation-transcending brands, some even older than Singapore herself.
One of these companies is Ming Fa Fishball, a brand whose history goes all the way back to 1946.
Starting as a pushcart along a street in Chinatown, founder Lim Chye Kang firmly insisted that as compared to how most stores produce their fishballs, theirs was to be made 100% from fish meat and sold on the spot.
From filleting the fish, to separating the minute bones from the meat, to grinding the flesh to make fish paste, every step was done painstakingly by hand in a bid to produce the freshest fishballs.
His insistence paid off, and Ming Fa’s handmade fishballs became very popular.
In 1975, one of his 3 sons, Lim Gek Meng, took over the business.
“When it was handed over to me, we started with one stall, selling only fishball noodles,” Lim Gek Meng reveals in the company’s corporate video.
However, due to ever-increasing demand of their fishballs, the 2nd-gen Lim decided to open up a factory to reduce the incidence of human error, and to ensure that the quality of their fishballs.
Fresh fish is delivered to the factory every morning, and Ming Fa’s workers efficiently work alongside their mechanical counterparts to ensure that customers get their supply of fresh fishballs on the same day.
In 2004, the company opened their first eating house along Upper Thomson Road, where they expanded the menu to include local favourites like Bak Chor Mee (noodles with minced meat) and Laksa (noodles in spicy coconut gravy).
Currently, the Ming Fa factory and stores are helmed by 3rd-gen Jerome Lim, who took over the business from his father in 2012.
“Fishballs Brought Up 3 Generations Of Our Family”
“My dad helped out at the stall when he was very young, and soon my mother came in and help too. That’s how fishballs brought up 3 generations of our family,” said Jerome.
Growing up, Jerome occasionally helped out at the fishball stall in Chinatown.
He recalls in an interview with Asian Entrepreneur:
“It was especially busy during the Chinese New Year festive season, where I would be busy cleaning and clearing tables while the other workers would be stacking bowls and bowls of hot noodles on their arms, weaving through the crowd and delivering food to the customers. Even today, I still cannot forget the scene.”
As closely tied as his growing up days were to the business, however, Jerome initially didn’t plan to go down the same path as his father and grandfather.
Said the 31-year-old, “I actually graduated as a finance degree, and I was doing various jobs. I was a financial advisor for 3 years and worked in the construction industry as a project manager for about 1.5 years.”
However, when he realised that his father, the director of Ming Fa then, was ageing, Jerome was stuck at a crossroad.
“[My father] could either slowly scale down the business until it ultimately closes down completely, or I could come in [and help the business hit the] 100 year mark.”
There’s a Chinese saying stating that businesses can never last 3 generations, but that just propelled me [further] and take it up as a challenge.
For the young director, his day is filled to the brim with appointments with suppliers or internal meetings at the central kitchen’s main office.
With a strong belief that happy workers are good ones, he schedules visits to various outlets to meet up with his workers to better understand the problems that they might be facing.
Putting his finance background into use, he focuses mainly on business development and “ensuring [that the business] is steered in the right direction”.
“However, like most SMEs, we basically do everything and there are no fixed routine. I can be at the outlets cooking noodles and washing dishes too!”
Revamping The Business With Technology
A self-professed “old fashioned person”, Jerome still insists on reading physical newspapers before starting his day.
But the same doesn’t apply for his view on running the business.
While “basic infrastructure to run the business was in place” when he took over in 2012, he felt that there wasn’t much technology involved, and that resulted in a lack of system and organisation structures.
Under Jerome’s leadership and adoption of technology, the company now has a proper management and corporate organisation structure, where employees are clear about their roles and responsibilities.
To better facilitate the work of their admin staff, a time management system and a payroll system have been put in place at their main office.
The lorries that deliver the fishballs to various parts of Singapore are now also air-conditioned to ensure their freshness.
From a hawker model, Ming Fa have also expanded through franchising overseas, and they now have 2 shops in Indonesia.
Their target is to have 7 more outlets by 2019.
But more than just using tech to enhance the offline aspects of the business, he also brought the business online – by creating an e-store that customers can easily order from.
To me, business being online is a must in today’s society.
“People must be able to find you online whenever and wherever they want with just a click of a button. Not only that, you must make sure you do your SEO well, so that customers can find you with no fuss.”
If you’ve not already read our own hands-on experience with Shoptiq yet, it’s basically an ecommerce platform that makes setting up an online shop fuss-free.
It also has pre-built integration to local logistics partners and marketplaces, so that you can run your online operations and campaigns easily.
Reveals Jerome, “Shoptiq is much easier for small businesses like us to use as compared to other ecommerce plaforms. It provides a lot of ready-to-use templates that we can just plug and play [to ensure that] our website looks professionally done.”
“[Best of all], it incurs much lower maintenance and transaction costs.”
Jerome’s Next Goal: Hitting The 100 Year Mark
Truly a perfect example of how progress doesn’t necessarily mean that older businesses are left behind, Jerome shares that his dream is to see the brand successfully cross the 100 year mark.
[And it’s] not only that, I want to make sure that our brand can fly high in Southeast Asia, delivering only the best quality noodles to consumers at the most reasonable prices.
As for his advice to those taking over their family businesses, or those establishing their own, Jerome has this to share:
“Always be open and stay humble so as to learn from others. I believe learning is never-ending and there will always be someone better than you.”
Inspired By His Fishball Story? Why Not Create Your Own Ecommerce Business Now!
Whether or not you’re an owner of a long-established business like Jerome, or an aspiring entrepreneur starting out on your own, it’s no doubt that ecommerce is territory worth venturing into.
And while we could just refer you to Shoptiq‘s services, they are running an ecommerce race for both aspiring and veteran in ecommerce, where you can stand to win $10k cash prize to take your business dreams to the next level!
The first Shoptiq Ecommerce Race, happening from now until 31 March 2018, is where entrepreneurs and small business owners come together to compete for the ecommerce champion title.
Participants will have to self-nominate themselves into 2 respective race categories: New Online Business (no prior experience/6 or less months experience selling online), and Established Online Business (more than 6 months experience selling online).
All you’ll need to do is 1) Create a store on Shoptiq; 2) Sign up for the subscription; 3) Indicate whether you’re a new or established online business.
Upon signing up, you’ll receive a digital race pack, which compromises of 10 professional product image credits from ProductPixels, a race map, and race eBook.
You’ll also receive $10 worth of delivery credits from Shoptiq’s partner for the race, Easyship.
Unsure about how to navigate the complicated intricacies of marketing and analytics?
At the end of the race, the winner would be determined based on the highest two months gross sales during the competition period; and each winner will walk away with $10,000 cash prize, a success story video, and a feature article on Vulcan Post – yep, that’s us!
You’ve heard about Jerome’s story, and how he transformed his 71-year-old family business with ecommerce – so why not get started on your own story too?
Join the Shoptiq Ecommerce Race here!
This article was written in collaboration with Shoptiq.