Olive Green is a company which develops products from environmentally-friendly materials, and its priority is to raise awareness of climate change in Singapore. Their trademark product Cornware is made from corn and designed to decompose after 102 days.
And while Olive Green has won many accolades and awards in the region, Managing Director Aloysius Cheong shows no sign of slowing down. He believes in constant innovation and is always coming up with a better, eco-friendlier product. Aloysius has kept the prices of his products low, placing mission orientation above profits, and thus the products are made affordable and accessible to everyone.
Mr Aloysius Cheong is very approachable and it was easy to speak one’s mind with him. He has a big vision and is convicted to achieving his dream: that all corporates and consumers will be able to switch to environmentally-friendly materials one day.
While achieving his dream, he also gives back to the society in multiple ways, generously sponsoring schools and events, as well as helping his clients understand the tangible reductions in their CO2 footprint by going green.
- What is the nature of your business?
We manufacture biological products made from corn starch into all sorts of packaging, such as the disposable packaging items that you would usually see. We can even produce things like hand phone covers and packaging for electronics.
We want our products to replace petroleum based plastics one day.
We cater to both industrial packaging as well as consumer packaging.
We have a series of products for the households, known as Cornware, in the segment of disposable plates, cutlery and cups, made from corn starch rather than typical plastics/ Styrofoam or paper. If you want to support our products, you can find them in most leading supermarkets,
- What are your reasons for choosing to do business in this particular industry?
I saw potential in this industry, because Styrofoam and Plastics had hit a new low since 2005. The public were becoming more environmentally conscious and had started condemning the plastic trade. There are actually a number of alternative materials in the market, such as materials made from durian husks in Singapore. In fact we have had these alternative materials popping up all around the world since 1999. I saw the massive potential upside for this alternative green material in the packaging industry. That was when I decided to venture in.
- When you started on Olive Green, what were some of the challenges that you faced when you first went into business?
The 2 problems that we faced were prices and skepticism. Consumers were not very aware and educated about such a material. They even asked if they could eat the Cornware product (since it was made of corn) after they were done using it.
The next thing was hygiene. They did not know if it was safe to use materials made of corn. Little did they know that in actual fact, plastics were even more unhygienic. Many producers of plastic disposables actually uses plastic pellets from dubious sources, sources which will not have passed international safety assessments. The reason for doing so? Quite simply of its low costs.
We faced problems regarding prices as well. Initially, our products were more expensive than normal. But eventually the economies of scale kicked in when our clientele pool increased, thus resulting in a fall in our costs. If you ask us how competitive we are with the prices of plastic, I would say that we are of the same price today. Our prices are stable and are not erratic, unlike petroleum. This is because corn starch is found in abundance in China.
- When and why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?
Coming from family of average income, there are many luxuries I cannot afford. I wanted a car during my university days; as I had just got my license, and it seems that giving tuition will be a good way to start; in getting the income which I need to support one. Surprisingly I managed to rake in $3600k per month on a regular basis. I enjoyed the income and got myself a second hand coupe. That feeling was awesome. In fact, my income then was more than what some of my seniors got in the corporate sector after they graduated.
This continued throughout university and upon graduation I opened my first tuition centre. It has been in operation since 2003. This eventually kick started my love for the adventures that entrepreneurship will bring, and the options that it can open up for me in life will essentially be un-limitless.
- When you decided to go into Olive Green and how did you put together all the resources needed?
I started looking for the technical know-how as I had no expertise in Chemistry. I started asking around and had to rely on my connections, especially my friends who were overseas.
It is all about being resourceful and when you are willing to ask around, the possibilities will come. Otherwise, nothing will happen.
Finally I got in contact with a company with the relevant expertise. They were willing to invest and co-share the business. Initially, I pumped about $50k as an expression of my interest. It was a good thing as investors would want to see commitment. Gradually, more investors came on board.
I had to be around to oversee everything. They were investing in the people more than the product. You can have a fantastic product but if the mindset of the people behind it is not up to par, everything will still fail.
- What is your company vision and mission?
We want to bring our products worldwide and educate people about alternative materials. Our material may not be the best, but it is a lot better compared to other materials which are made with petroleum. This is what we plan to do for the next 5 to 10 years: Olive Green will spearhead this mission, encouraging consumers to take the first step towards a sustainable environment.
We will continue to invest in our technology and getting the right partners to improve ourselves. We will also be looking at other materials besides corn. We have converted so many clients in Singapore, F&B as well as non-F&B. Even supermarkets are using our carrier bags.
People have also asked us why we are not pricing our products to give higher margins. It is a green product after all. I guess the answer is simple, we can get to see the positive changes around us. This feeling of accomplishment beats the high margins anytime. We can always price our products high, have that fantastic cut of a margin, but what good does it serve if our product cannot be sold or rather, sell in small volumes? We want to impact lives in large numbers.
- What are some interesting stories you have about your first few customers/first few years in business?
In the first few years, we approached many clients to try to convince them to change to our environmentally friendly products but to no avail. It was because we did not fully comprehend the market, not understanding that certain designs were more suited for certain regions. We made lots of mistakes and lost quite a fair bit of money as well.
Lesson Number 1: You need to know the taste of the market. You cannot assume that if Design A is accepted in one region, it will be accepted in another.
Lesson Number 2: We were naïve to think that people would simply accept our product because it was better for the environment. People would say that going green was good, but the hard truth is, everyone is concerned about the costs. They complained that the prices were steep and did not take up our products. This is reality number 2.
- How did you overcome these challenges then? Please share some specific examples of the action you took to overcome the challenges.
First, we had to treat it as a lesson learnt. There are no winners or losers – you just treat it as a steep learning curve, making sure that we do not repeat the same mistakes. This time, we asked around, we did our analysis and came up with better and more locally accepted designs.
The price of our product used to be 3 times more than normal plastics. We worked on our processes, tweaked our formulation and improve on the efficiencies of our production, from machining to manpower allocation. After the changes, the prices became more manageable and that was when clientele started to grow.
- Would you consider yourself a workaholic? And can you describe the company culture that you have created?
I am passionate on how to improve my life skills and on my products every single day. It is very important to stay ahead at all times. This will ensure that one will always have the upper hand.
When I have a suggestion for my staff, I would always ask them to think through my method, try it out and give me their feedback. For example, I would do deliveries myself to find out more about the problems faced by my delivery team. That allowed me to be in a better position to make good decisions.
You will be resented if you force your staff do things which are not practical or logical. People will also appreciate and respect you if you are willing to spend time with them and understand their situations. This is only common sense.
- What are some of your proudest business achievements to date? And why are they so important and meaningful to you?
I am grateful to say that there are many. Wining this award is one of them. It’s a testament for my myself, an indication that the values and principles which I hold dear are working well for me.
- How do you promote learning within your Company? What are the training opportunities that you provide your staff?
We always send our staff for upgrading courses regardless of their job appointment. There is so much to learn out there. In Singapore, with our Government grants, it is a lot more affordable to send people for such upgrades compared to overseas. You will be “professionally dead” if you do not invest in yourself, regardless of your rank and file.
- What do you see for your business in the next 5 years, and does it include any plans for expansion?
Yes, we are currently working with corn but we will not use it for good. Right now, we are testing another material on with some companies. If things go well, we will be launching it at the end of the year. This new product is better in terms of price and functionality, but less so in terms of design. But people do not mind it since it is a much eco-friendlier product and highly affordable too. We are also looking at some strategic partnerships abroad in the next few years.
13 & 14. In your opinion, what is a good and ethical business? How will you describe your working relationship with your customers, suppliers and service providers?
A good ethical business would be one where the product is able to meet the expectations that it promises. I will not claim that my product is eco-friendly if it is made solely from plastic and not corn. In the case of ours, there is about 70% worth of cornstarch on average for our CornWare whilst the rest are plastics. This has always been the case due to functionality requirements and we will let our clients know from the onset. This is the basis of being ethical. Integrity is a very important part of business.
- How do you differentiate your business from your competitors?
Our direct competitors would be plastic and Styrofoam. Styrofoam is a dying industry due to its health and environmental concerns, and will likely be banned in time to come.The next competitor would be plastic, which is the closest alternative to our product in both functionality and pricing.
Similar products made from palm and sugarcane are green no doubt, contains no plastic at all, but are limited in functions and designs. They are not water proof and leaks the moment you pour hot gravy onto it.
Our products however, are eco-friendly, functional, aesthetically pleasing and very affordable. It is everything a company will need to fulfil their share of CSR. I will like to call it CER, Corporate Eco Responsibility.
At the other end, we have materials and products that are 100% compostable and are very eco. But they are too expensive for the markets acceptance.
- Where and how did you get your business idea for doing a hybrid of corn and plastic?
It was actually by trial and error. We wanted to make something that was 100 percent corn based but it turned out to be powdery and crumbly, not able to serve any purpose. What’s the point of making something that nobody wants to buy or use? We fused both materials and a hybrid between corn and plastic is created.
- How do you think your business has made a positive impact or contribute to the community that you serve?
We sponsor our products to charitable events., be it on a micro or macro level. We try to accede to their request as long as their needs align with our mission. We will always support genuine requests.
18 & 19. What does entrepreneurship mean to you? In your opinion, what does it mean to have the “spirit of enterprise”?
The spirit of enterprise, to me, is the never-say-die attitude. When faced with an obstacle, nothing should break you and you must not give up.
To me, it is about believing in yourself and coming up with solutions to your problems. There will always be a chance to win if you do not surrender.
Successful people succeed because they hang on when everyone else lets go. Many successful people continue despite setbacks, even when they have lost much. They believe in themselves first and then think of ways to make thing work. Our brains are our greatest assets. Creativity is the word and the way to achieving a spirit of entrepreneurship.
- What are some entrepreneurship qualities that you have which has helped you come this far?
I believe in myself 100%, but not blindly. I have seen some entrepreneurs who thought that they were the best and condemned all who had rejected them. This mentality is incorrect because if people do not want a product, then there must be something wrong with it. One has to be humble enough to criticise oneself or the product and work on the shortcomings.
I am very stubborn and quite a prideful person. I do not like to disappoint myself if I can help it. It’s always a habit of mine to share my dreams and visions with my family and friends. Since I have already said it, then I must make it happen.
I think about my businesses every single moment. Yes even during holidays or even the weekends. I will challenge the existing state of my ventures, how can I make them better? Is there a better way to present my products to the masses, what opportunities are there in a given situation, what markets can I enter, in short, how can I be even better. A business cannot just survive, it must thrive. I dare say I am not a person who is easily contented when it comes to this.
- Can you share some of the more significant events / incidents that affected or shaped your business philosophy and the way you conduct your business?
I remember once, when I was young, I wanted to get a toy, rather expensive I must say. My mother had turned me down and that I had to save and buy it myself if I wanted it badly. I was only Primary 4 then.
However, I know that my mum’s brother can afford this toy. I knew that he had the money, so I wrote a long letter to him, peppered with colors and pictures, explaining why I needed that toy and how wonderful it will be for me if I have it.
As per my expectations, I found the toy sent to my doorstep a few weeks later. My uncle called and commended me on my letter. This impressed my parents quite a bit.
I guessed I already have that “go get it if you want it” trait in my character since young.
- Do you have any particular motivation or inspiration?
I look up to successful people. I look up to my partner and people like Patrick Liew, former boss of HSR, who have gone through many struggles; people who went from nothing to something. Many of them were bankrupt but never gave up. Like I say, never ever give up. Adapt, change, and work on it. Repeat if you have to . You will get there one day, guaranteed.
- With the changes in the market today, do you think it has become harder or easier to succeed in business?
It is easier now with so much government and sound infrastructural support. There are opportunities right now as we speak. The markets are very volatile today, and that presents a host of opportunities. You only need to look carefully.
- What advice would you give young people who want to start their own business?
To put it simply, be resourceful and do not go with the norm. If you want to achieve something you never have, then you got to do something you have never done.