From working in finance to running a more than 40-year-old business

Bee Sim Pau has been around in Singapore since 1978 when its founder known as “Ah Hee” used all his savings to start what was then known as Bee Sim Snack Supplier. Fast forward to 41 years later, Bee Sim Pau has grown exponentially and its products can be found in supermarkets, restaurants, hotels and established eateries. One of the important figures behind the growth is Lee Dai Han.

Dai Han is the Managing Director of Bee Sim Pau and the second generation founder of the company. We spoke to him to find out more about his background before taking over Bee Sim Pau, how he grew the company to new heights, and what’s next.

How’s it like growing up and helping out in a family business?

The family revolves around the business, literally. I used to spend the before and after school hours in the factory. I do my homework, watch cartoons and take afternoon naps in the office. I usually spent those hours observing the workers and operation processes. Evenings before closing, I would help out with cash counting, coin-sorting etc.

As I got older, I would help out in simple operations like sorting and packing of products. I was also more interested in customer and employee relations and would listen in on my parents’ conversations relating to the business.

Due to my time growing up in the factory, I became attuned to consumerism and business planning – such as the way they operate, their strategies and their growth opportunities. An added layer of perspective when I look at the world around me.

You studied overseas and earned a Bachelor in Financial Economics (FE). Did you take this course because it’s beneficial to Bee Sim Pau?

Not really. With FE, I was looking at the bigger picture – a business world in general. Finance and economics are key elements in the world of business. I would have chosen a business programme if my school – Columbia University – had one for undergraduate students.

You did not return immediately to Singapore upon graduation. Instead, you went on to work in investment banking and ventured into renewable energy. Why?

I always knew if and when I return to Singapore, it would be to help out with the family business. Back then, my brother was already helping out so I didn’t feel an immediate need for an extra pair of hands and so I decided to gain more exposure in the States.

I was based in New York City and having the experience at one of the world’s most famous financial district would have been beneficial so I knew it was something I had to do. I think it was also a mix of interest, curiosity and peer pressure – my classmates were all getting finance or consulting positions.

How has your experience working in the US helped Bee Sim Pau upon your return?

Among other things, living overseas alone, working and subsequently venturing into business taught me how to be comfortable with uncertainty, the importance of business strategies and long-term planning. The most important lesson I learned is that everything in the business world takes time so being patient is the key to success. For example:

Operational changes are necessary but implementing those changes is a long and strenuous process.

Developing new capabilities takes time and resources so long-term planning is important.

Were expansion plans in place before you came back to Singapore or after? 

Yes, the team did a good job in putting an expansion plan in place, especially with some of the operational adjustments. When I came back, we put together a sales and marketing layer over the operational plans.

Can you share with us what goes behind the scene preparing for expanding your business, i.e. how you manage to convince restaurants, hotel chains and supermarkets to carry your brand?

I think it was pretty easy for me because of our heritage brand. The longevity of our business is a real confidence booster not just for new customers but for myself as it is a lot easier representing an established brand.

However, having a heritage brand is not always enough. We also needed to invest and strengthen our existing capabilities – for example, more refrigerated trucks, new packing equipment and materials, and meeting of new international safety standards etc.

How does Bee Sim Pau ensure the quality of its products is tip-top even when frozen?

Chilled not frozen. We don’t do frozen at the moment, all our items are chilled. We do a lot of food testing to make sure quality and safety are not compromised.

Now that Bee Sim Pau has successfully expanded its business, what’s next?

I think there’s a lot more to do ahead of us and we are constantly improving. Everywhere I go, I see opportunities for us, be it locally, regionally or internationally. Aside from revenue growth, I see technology as something I’d like to incorporate into our business.

We’re also constantly improving our operational foundation. Right now, I’m happy with the way we’re moving forward, organically at our own pace.

As Edward Abbey puts it brilliantly: ”Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”

Making people smile through his dishes is his greatest reward

Chef Rio Neo started his interest in the culinary industry at a very young age. He grew up helping out his parents with their economic bee hoon stall and continued the tradition of making good food for the people to enjoy only in a different type of cuisine, Japanese.

Currently, Chef Neo is the Head Chef of two restaurants, which both opened within a year after another. First, it was Kabuke in August 2017 with his co-founder Keiji Heng, and in July this year, TOKIDON.

In this interview, we find out what inspired Chef Neo to become a Japanese chef, the challenges he faces, his advice for aspiring chefs and his favourite food.

Your family owns an economic bee hoon store. It would seem like a more natural transition for you to go into Chinese cuisine. Instead, you chose Japanese cuisine. Why?

To be honest, I stumbled into Japanese cuisine by chance. My first job in the kitchen was at a Japanese Restaurant and I worked in several other Japanese restaurants after that. And now I am the head chef at Kabuke and TOKIDON.

What does cooking mean to you?

Cooking for me means using different cooking methods to best amplify each ingredient’s flavours and textures. It also means cooking the stuff I like to eat. One of the greatest rewards is seeing my customers enjoy the dishes that I personally love as well. Ha!

What were the challenges you faced when you were learning culinary skills?

The main challenge is definitely the long working hours and often missing out on family and friends gatherings.

Have you thought of giving up after you encountered these challenges?

Thoughts of giving up did come up but cooking is something I enjoy doing.

If not a chef, what would you be?

Racing motorcycles. Haha. Most probably in the motorcycle trade because motorcycles are one of my favourite things.

There are a lot of competitors out there in the F&B market especially, Japanese food. Where do you get your inspiration to create new dishes for Kabuke and the newly launched TOKIDON?

I get most of my inspiration from watching cooking and travel shows on TV, as well as constantly trying out new combinations of traditional cooking and ingredients that will appeal to local taste buds.

What’s the must-try dish in Kabuke and TOKIDON? Why?

Shiso tempura in Kabuke – colourful, flavourful and “textureful”

Truffle wagyu don in Tokidon – most affordable gourmet beef bowl in Singapore

We see the rise and fall of many F&B establishments. What do you think is the possible cause of them failing?

Most probably poor management of staffs, food costings (wastage control) and more importantly; insincere preparation of food. Putting your best efforts into each plate you serve is very important, customers can feel it when they see and eat the food.

What makes a good chef?

Someone who never stops learning and willing to share everything he had learned to younger chefs

What is your advice for people looking to become chefs or opening their own F&B establishments?

Follow your passion if it makes you happy. As for those planning to set up their own establishments, proper planning and treat your staff well. And always invest in training your staff, they are the ones who can make or break the whole establishment.

Fun question: What is your favourite food other than Japanese food?

Singapore hawker food, of course. Chicken rice!