Hoon Thing Leong has come a long way from when he used to be a coffee boy.
The 72-year-old is the CEO and founder of popular coffee shop chain Kim San Leng (KSL), which has at least 30 outlets all over Singapore.
Yu Kee Duck Rice and Ming Ji Chicken Rice are just some of the popular stores you can find at the KSL coffee shops.
According to the KSL website, the business began operations in 1965.
However, Thing Leong’s business journey started way back in 1950, when his father Hoon Moh Heng started the first KSL — Kim San Eating House — in Hougang.
Thing Leong subsequently took over the business, presumably in 1965. Since then, it has grown to become a household name.
The Beginnings Of The Coffee Shop King
The businessman arrived in Singapore on a ship from Fuzhou, China, when he was just five years old.
His father had arrived about 20 years before him, and worked hard to save money and open Kim San Eating House in Hougang.
After completing primary school, Thing Leong enrolled in a secondary school, but dropped out before completing Secondary Two education.
He then started working at another coffee shop his father started in Jalan Besar as a lowly kopi-boy.
His days were tough, and the work was arduous. He started work at five in the morning, and spent the days cleaning toilets, wiping tables and serving customers till late at night.
Gangsters and secret societies were also a problem. They often turned up at the coffee shops demanding protection money and often made a scene.
How The Coffee Shop Empire Was Started
After seven years of slogging, Thing Leong decided to strike it out on his own. With some money borrowed from his father coupled with his own savings, he opened Jin Fa Coffee Shop at 23.
It was then that he realised the importance of up-skilling himself. He started attending business talks, reading books, and taking part in courses.
In 1990, he acquired the Bishan Kim San Leng at a whopping S$3.52 million, which is S$2 million more than the starting bid.
By that time, he had already taken over his father’s business and was also running another 11 coffee shops.
After buying over the Bishan KSL, he decided to rename all the coffee shops to Kim San Leng as a tribute to his father’s first coffee shop at Hougang.
Although many thought he was insane to pay so much for the coffee shop, he saw potential in it, and went to great lengths to get famous hawkers to set up their stores in the shop.
According to The Straits Times, the KSL at Bishan alone is worth more than S$35 million today.
Thing Leong also actively learns from his overseas trips, whether for business or leisure, and applies his experiences into the local coffee shop context.
Indeed, he pays a lot of attention to picking up new skills, and was quoted saying that he “credits his achievement to learning”.
In 2019, he was a Skillsfuture Fellow — an award presented by the President to honour individuals as masters of skills and mentors of future talent.
This ensures that the coffee shop continues to innovate and keep up with the times, despite being a largely traditional business.
Back in the day, he pioneered new innovations in the coffee shop trade, such as television advertising and installing time-saving automatic shutters.
Thing Leong “constantly thinks of how to attract more consumers to the franchise, and embraces changes in society,” according to the KSL website.
To groom local entrepreneurs, he also founded the Bosses Network, a platform for like-minded business people to socialise, exchange ideas and network with each other.
He also shares his learning experiences through a regular column in Lianhe Wanbao, and even published a compilation of 80 articles from his column in a book called Strategies of A Boss.
Establishing KSL As A Century-Long Business
The third generation of KSL — Francis, Fiona, Michelle, Andy, and Alfred Hoon — are all aged between 37 and 47, and are already helping Thing Leong run the business.
Thing Leong would like KSL to establish itself as a century-long business, and to be passed on for generations.
More than half of KSL’s outlets are already being run by his children.
Andy Hoon, the second eldest son of the family, shared in an interview with The Edge that since he was a teenager, he was already helping out with various jobs at the coffee shops.
After university, he joined the family business full-time and began sourcing new outlets and stalls to expand the kopitiam chain.
Even though he has also set up his own venture — Yellow Submarines, a Philadelphia Cheesesteak fast food chain — he is still running KSL. In fact, he brings his children to KSL outlets each weekend.
He also strongly believes in the values and ethics behind the family business.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, KSL took part in the “Feed the City – DBS Edition” programme to provide meals to the needy.
“This business is my family’s root. It gives my family a shared goal, a common language that we can talk about every day,” said Andy.
Featured Image Credit: Skillsfuture and Rice Media