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Friday, February 24, 2017, 09:47

On a roll

By Low Shi Ping in Singapore

Singapore tycoon eyes opportunities to expand his frozen food empire and strengthen ties with his Chinese birthplace

On a roll
(Ma Xuejing / China Daily)

Sam Goi flew to Beijing in January to receive the Special Tribute Award from The People's Tribune magazine, a publication with ties to the official Chinese Communist Party newspaper, People's Daily.

The award was significant and should not be dismissed as just another in the Singaporean businessman's long list of accolades.

Of the three recipients, only Goi (pronounced "gwee") is not a Chinese citizen. The other two winners are billionaire businessman Cao Dewang, chairman of the world's largest manufacturer of auto glass, Fuyao Glass, and former Chinese vice-minister for trade Long Yongtu.

The award was presented at an annual convention highlighting the Chinese dream — the vision laid out by President Xi Jinping that also includes successful Chinese with connections overseas, who are helping to restore the country to its former glory.

"I was very surprised when first told about getting the award. As the only Singaporean, I feel very honored," 68-year-old Goi said.

But others familiar with his remarkable story might not be so surprised. For starters, the self-made tycoon with a net worth of $2.2 billion was ranked No 13 on Forbes' 2016 Singapore Rich List.

Contributing significantly to his wealth is privately held food and beverage company Tee Yih Jia Group, of which Goi is executive chairman.

Tee Yih Jia is the world's largest manufacturer of frozen popiah skin, or spring roll pastry, and Goi is so closely tied to the business that he is known as the Popiah King.

Combined, his factories in Singapore, Malaysia, China, Europe and the United States churn out a mind-boggling 38 million pieces a day. But Goi said the company is still undersupplying the market. Building a bigger factory in Singapore is high on his to-do list for 2017.

"My staff are also overworked — the factories run 24/7," he said. "We definitely need to expand the production and enlarge our workforce."

Asked to name his proudest achievements, "Tee Yih Jia" is his immediate response.

"It is not so hard to become the largest manufacturer of spring roll pastry in Singapore. It is very hard to be the largest in the world. But we achieved that."

Goi is forthcoming about the ingredients to his success. "The most important things in food manufacturing are to maintain quality and hygiene and take care of your customers' health. Our approach is to use today to improve yesterday's quality."

Born in the city of Fuqing in East China's Fujian province, Goi and his family left China when he was only 6. He grew up in Singapore in a one-room apartment with his parents and three siblings.

At 19, he borrowed S$10,000 (around $7,000 today) from his father to start an electrical engineering business, which did not take off.

Undeterred, he attended night classes in engineering, and later took a S$20,000 loan from an uncle to establish a motor rewinding workshop. This time, he succeeded.

In 1977, Goi learned that Tee Yih Jia had been put up for sale and decided to buy it. Already manufacturing popiah skin, it was only producing 20,000 pieces a day and selling them in Singapore. But Goi decided that true success demanded overseas expansion.

He personally engineered the automation of what had been a labor-intensive process, allowing for ramped-up production. And today, Tee Yih Jia's products are available in more than 80 countries.

The product range has expanded to include spring rolls, roti prata, glutinous rice balls, buns, wraps, samosas, dim sum and other convenience foods.

But Tee Yih Jia is not the only venture keeping Goi busy. He is also executive chairman of property development firm GSH Corporation. Formerly known as JEL Corp, GSH was an electronic products distributor before it was sold and transformed into a real estate company.

Goi counts that transformation as another of his achievements. “When I first took over, I paid 0.35 Singapore cents per share via a rights issue in February 2012. In July that year, I acquired more shares at 0.699 cents per share through a placement. In June 2013, I bought another tranche at 5 cents per share via another rights issue.

"Today, the mainboard-listed company trades at over 50 cents per share after a 5-for-1 share consolidation exercise in 2015 and has a market capitalization of more than S$1 billion," he said.

Goi's strategy was simple. Immediately after acquiring JEL, he "didn't do anything" but focus on learning about the business.

"Before you want to do anything, you must understand, absorb, be involved and get an in-depth picture of the current situation," he said.

He wanted to use China as a base but the timing was not right. It was 2014 and there was too much uncertainty in the property market.

Instead, he set his sights on Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia, purchasing majority stakes in the 155-hectare Sutera Harbour Resort and two adjacent plots of land for more than 1 billion ringgit ($225 million).

Goi was attracted by the resort's 4-km beachfront, crystal-clear seawater, west-facing orientation, 27-hole golf course and 104-berth marina. And after a 50 million ringgit upgrade, the playground is booming. "It's even difficult for me to get rooms for the whole family during the year-end holidays," he laughed.

In the pipeline at the same location are two condominium projects: Coral Bay and The Point. More than 70 percent of the units will have panoramas of the South China Sea, with the rest looking out across the golf course.

Meanwhile, GSH is developing Eaton Residences, a luxury residential project in Kuala Lumpur. And it redeveloped Singapore's Equity Plaza, which was rebranded as GSH Plaza before being sold to Hong Kong-listed Fullshare Holdings.

Last year, GSH invested 200 million yuan ($29 million) in a 30 percent stake in food logistics company Henan Zhongyuan.

Goi is ready this year to make an investment push into China. Asked if he is concerned about asset prices, he is matter-of-fact: "Like a helicopter, the market cannot go up forever." And when the bubble bursts? "That's when the opportunities present themselves."

This will not be the first time Goi has looked to his birth country to invest. He is already involved in sectors such as food manufacturing, cold-chain logistics and industrial property development.

He first returned to China in 1979, after being urged by his father to visit Fuqing. "The poverty was everywhere. I saw people wearing clothes with holes in them; the kindergarten that I went to had a leaking roof. I knew I had to do something."

He went on to "make friends" with his birthplace, building a school and roads, and laying piping for water and cables for electricity.

That marked the start of his "giving back" to China. Goi made his first major investment in 1993, purchasing a State-owned brewery in Fuzhou.

Since then, he has not stopped, spurred on by Singapore's first prime minister, the late Lee Kuan Yew — whom Goi greatly admired and who urged Singaporeans to venture overseas and invest.

"I'm lucky to have come to Singapore. It gave me the platform to build up my businesses and use it as a base to expand globally, including to China," Goi said.

Asked how he unwinds, he said his businesses are his "hobby". Inevitably, the topic of retirement comes up, particularly since three of his four children are already involved in his firms.

"I've never thought about retiring. I just focus on passing over responsibility to my successors," he said. "As long as I am healthy, I will continue to be involved in some way."

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