DATO' DR. CHARLES CHEN
Dr Charles Chen is the founder of FoodNet Consultants Group of Companies. He currently leads the largest food safety consultancy company in Singapore. Armed with an unwavering passion for Food industry and steely determination to make food safety management affordable and accessible, he leads his team to bring food safety to countries in Asia Pacific.
FoodNet Consultants Pte Ltd, with its headquarter in Singapore, is a one stop solutions provider for the food industries. Since incorporation in 1998, our capabilities has served our clients as turnkey project administrator, designer and builder, fitting out specialist, trainer and consultant serving food manufacturers, restaurants and food services, logistics hubs and cold chains, food caterers, canteens, packaging materials manufacturers, food grade sanitizing chemical manufacturers, pharmaceutical manufacturers, supermarkets and farms in Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines, Australia and China.
This is one of the most inspiring interviews that I have had. I am deeply impressed by Dr Charles Chen’s steely determination to succeed against all odds. In China, there is Jack Ma. In Singapore, we have Dr Charles Chen.
Question：what is the nature of your business? What products and services does your company provide? 3. Who are the customers you serve? What’s the current size of your company?
Answer: FoodNet Consultants Pte Ltd, with its headquarter in Singapore, is a one stop solutions provider for the food industries.
Since incorporation in 1998, our capabilities has served our clients as turnkey project administrator, designer and builder, fitting out specialist, trainer and consultant serving food manufacturers, restaurants and food services, logistics hubs and cold chains, food caterers, canteens, packaging materials manufacturers, food grade sanitizing chemical manufacturers, pharmaceutical manufacturers, supermarkets and farms in Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines, Australia and China. The group revenue is S$10m annually.
To capitalize on its competencies to offer 1 Stop Solutions to its portfolio, FoodNet Consultants Pte Ltd has been restructured as FoodNet Consultants Group of Companies consisting of Asia Capital Asset Management Pte Ltd, FoodNet Consultants Pte Ltd, FoodNet Consultants International Sdn Bhd, Business Excellence Consultants Pte Ltd, Solutionspack Machinery (S) Pte Ltd and 6 Elements Building Services Pte Ltd.
FoodNet Consultants Pte Ltd’s (www.foodnetconsultants.com) core competencies include food safety solutions as well as design and implementation specialist for food related premises. It possesses in-house capabilities to develop professional architectural plans, interior design plans, conduct tenders, project management and provides assistance in all statutory submissions. Our team of specialists are also able to assist food companies in reworking menus making them delectable and attractive to prospective consumers as well as using the correct measure of ingredients to make them less labour intensive and cost efficient at outlets or central kitchens to prepare. We also develop and plan customized central kitchen menus and process development which is a focal point for all manufacturing or food handling activities.
FoodNet Consultants International Sdn Bhd serves its client portfolio of FoodNet Consultants in Malaysia. It also focuses on assisting food companies in setting up operations and relocation exercises to various parts of Malaysia.
Business Excellence Consultants Pte Ltd (www.bzexcellence.com) is capable of assisting enterprises in their strive towards business excellence through productivity enhancement measures, process and technological innovations and implementation of quality management systems such as ISO9,000 and ISO14,000. The Company has also acquired skills to develop customized food industry Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems that integrates internal and external management of information across an entire organization - embracing finance/accounting, manufacturing, sales and service, customer relationship management, etc.
Solutionpack Machinery (S) Pte Ltd (www.sp-machinery.com) is a joint venture between Asia Capital Asset Management Pte Ltd and Solutionpack Machinery (M) Sdn Bhd. The business unit specializes in design and customization of machinery and equipment used for food processing, packaging, filling and labelling.
6 Elements Building Services Pte Ltd (www.6elements.com.sg) is a professional Builder and Fit-Out Specialist for the building and renovation of food related premises and it has now also acquired skills and technical know -how to extends its arm to the building of Commercial , Retail and Office Projects beyond the Food Industry.
Question: When and why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?
After returning to Singapore upon completing my Bachelor (Degree with Distinction) in Business Administration (Marketing) at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia in 1997, I was briefly working for a ISO9000 company which was owned by one of the government agencies. After a few months, I think that there was a big potential in food safety. We are the first consultancy firm that focuses solely on food industry. Most of the consultancy firms felt that we are a bit silly to focus on one single industry because back then no consultancy firms would have focused on a single industry. But after 16 years, most of food companies in Singapore would have heard about us before.
I feel that I am not a follower. Sometimes when I proposed something to my bosses, they will tell me this cannot do and that cannot do. I am the kind of person who thinks out of the box to expand the market and to create new market segments in the industries. I feel that it is not easy to work for others.
Question: What are your reasons for choosing to do business in this particular industry?
Food industry is multi-billion dollar industry and is less cyclical compared to other industries.
Question: How did you put together all the resources needed to start our business?
We started only with S$5000 in 1998. There are only two of us. Over the last few years, we have expanded to a staff strength of 20. Very few consultancy firms in Singapore with the exception of Big 4, have such a staff strength. We just recruited a new group CEO and I have decided to take up the role of becoming a project director. This is because I am hands-on person and I have passion in managing projects, and designing machinery and kitchens.
Question：What are some interesting stories you have about your first few customers/first few years in business?
When we first started the company, HACCP was still very nascent in Singapore. Only bigger boys or export companies have it. We have to go door to door and knocked on all food companies. We faced a lot of rejections initially and managed only 2 to 4 projects a year. It was very bad. We have to bite the bullet. But I was driven by my passion and determination to continue. Now we are managing 200 to 350 projects a year. The turning point of the company was in 2007. Before that we have been 2-3 men operations. Every year we have been achieving 30-40% growth.
In fact, most industry competitors thought that we would survived the first 3 years. But this year marks the 16th year of operation. Most importantly, our first 4 clients are still our clients today. They remain our repeat customers. We help them to maintain their systems and build new factories.
Question: Do your parents support you to start your business?
Nope, my parents are not supportive. They thought that it is good to get a good government job and just continued. But I decided to follow my passion. Driven by my passion, I went without salary for the first 3 years. You can imagine how difficult it is being an overseas graduate with a study loan to repay. At that time, there was two of us. I rather pay the guy that I recruited to help me in my business than paying myself.
Entrepreneurship is not easy. Opportunity cost is very high. I just bite the bullet and move on. After 3 years of operations, I started to draw S$500 a month until 2007. I wanted to draw a salary but then I would be compromising on the expansion of the business. So I decided not to draw a salary. It was a lot of determination. There was no family support, no support from anywhere. It is just your guts and your determination to complete the whole journey.
Question: Why did you choose the first business partner as your business partner?
At that time, there was no such faculty as food science and technology. I recruited my partner from University Putra Malaysia whom I got to know through a friend. We were partnering since then, but he has left due to family problems. I told him he can come back anytime when he is ready.
Those days only Malaysia has the academic qualifications. Most of our competitors in Singapore that also provide food safety management are also not food science trained. All 5 food safety consultants have either degree or diploma in food science and technology. That differentiates us from the rest of competitors.
Question: What motivates or inspires you?
I am born in the year of Ox. I am very stubborn. When I feel that this is right thing to do, I am willing to put myself through these challenges (no salary and no support). Unlike other entrepreneurs who have received a lot of support from their parents, this company was built from zero. We used to share a 200 sq. ft. office and today we have expanded to a 4,000 sq. ft. office in 2013.
Question: Why is the company called "Food Net"?
We named the company FoodNet because we want to be the centre of excellence for the food industry. If you go into the Chinese name, it is even more relevant. “富食” – 富sounds similar to food and “食” stands for food.
The nature of our business (food safety) is meant to protect our customers from food contamination and hence we decided to incorporate Bagua (eight trigrams used in Taoist cosmology) in our company logo.
You will notice that only half of our logo is shaded – similar to the concept of Yin and Yang. We believe that good food safety management has to be balance with a reasonable cost. The half-shaded logo also signifies our desire to continuous improvement and perfection in our services.
Question: What is your company vision and mission? How do you convey these to your company staff and team members?
Our vision is to be a 1-stop solutions provider for the food industry. We believe that in order to achieve this, integrity and professionalism are very important. We believe in investing in human capital. Two of our staff are on sponsorship to attend degree programmes. We have a few other staff who are attending Japanese and Chinese language courses to improve our staff capability to managing clients of different cultural backgrounds.
Question: Can you remember the worst day in business or a time when you felt like giving up?
Although we only had 2-4 projects a year initially, the thought of giving up never crossed my mind. We did not operate an office initially because we cannot afford, so I travelled down to their customer’s offices and met them at the coffee shops.
Question: What are some of the challenges you faced when you first went into business? How did you overcome these challenges? Please share some specific examples of the action you took to overcome the challenges.
The main challenge is the lack of track record, so we have to convince our clients with our sincerity. I tried to appear at places that our clients always visit until they are eventually moved by my sincerity and decided to work with me.
Question: Challenges faced during this journey of expansion
Currently I am the only salesperson in the company. Our unique business model makes it difficult to create a sales team because our services are very diverse and our solutions are highly customised. It is not easy to train a sales force. We recruited some sales staff before but it is not efficient. Eventually we plan to standardise our product offerings and implement staff trainings by the end of next year to create a sales force to scale our business. Our eventual goal is build a scalable model that can expand into Malaysia and China.
Question: What are some of your proudest business achievements to date? And why are they so important and meaningful to you?
I guess developing a 1 Stop Solutions Provider concept for the food industry which encompass the complete chain of activities from designing a premise, fitting out, licensing, implementing of any systems related to the food industry (be it regulatory or commercial), machinery, cleaning and sanitation program and upgrading the activities to achieve operational efficiency and heightened productivity has been a simple achievement that I am proud of.
FoodNet Consultants group of Companies, which encompass FoodNet Consultants Pte Ltd, has its headquarters in Singapore. It is s a one stop solutions provider for the food Industry. Since its incorporation in 1998, we have served our clients as a turnkey project administrator, designer and builder, fitting out specialist, trainer and consultant serving food manufacturers, restaurants and food services, logistics hubs and cold chains, food caterers, canteens, packaging materials manufacturers, food grade sanitizing chemical manufacturers, pharmaceutical manufacturers, supermarkets and farms in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines, Australia and China.
To capitalize on its competencies to offer 1 Stop Solutions to its portfolio, FoodNet Consultants Pte Ltd has been restructured as FoodNet Consultants Group of Companies.
Question: Can you describe the company culture that you have? What is your relationship with your employees?
We have an informal culture. Being a consultancy firm, we cannot operate on standard operating procedures given the nature of the business. We appoint department heads to make sure that the consultants operate within the project scope.
The company operates on a partnership model. We treat them as partners. Back in my working days, no bosses would give you the opportunity to become a partner with the exception in accounting and law firms. Over here, we want to offer them an opportunity to own part of the company – a win-win situation.
We worked with our employees to set a mutually agreeable KPIs. When they achieved it, they will get to own a percentage of the company. Some employees have part-owners of the company. We created a point system to administer that.
Question: What do you see for your business in the next 5 years, and does it include any plans for expansion?
Our group will continue to build on and develop our team’s capabilities to be a One Stop Solutions Provider for the Food Industry.
There are three routes that we will be adopting to build on it. First, through organic growth, second by partnering with able specialists and third acquisition of other entities.
We will continue to assist our clients in the design and fitting out of their food premises to meet the various statutory and commercial standards, implement food safety management systems and quality management systems. We will also seek to assist our clients in enhancing productivity and operational efficiency in manufacturing and handling through our specialists in Solutionspack Machinery Singapore.
We are currently working to assist our local food companies in their expansion plans. We have plans to promote our Singapore’s food zone concept and build on Singapore’s reputation as a food safety centre of excellence and have these attributes evidence in the Asia pacific region.
We are also planning our entries into Thailand, Cambodia and China.
Question: Do you have any competitors, and how do you differentiate yourself from them?
There are other competitors that offer some of the services that we offer. No competitors have the capability to offer an end-to-end solutions. Most of our competitors are 1-2 men operations. We take care of licensing, fitting out, machinery and food safety management. I always tell my staff that we must always upgrade ourselves.
Question: What does entrepreneurship mean to you?
Entrepreneurship is the ability to think out of the box and sometime doing things others normally do not do and sometimes even doing things that may face some opposition and to steadfastly and persistently pursue your dreams
Question: With the changes in the market today, do you think it has become harder or easier to succeed in business? Why do you say so?
Today, we are in a global village. One day, we expect others to adopt these models. With the liberation of information and improved accessibility to information, it has also helped us a lot in our business.
Question: What are the qualities you need as entrepreneur to succeed?
I am a firm believer that every problem has a solution and challenges are meant to be surmounted so I use the principle of fighting, like a warrior or a general in the army. Simply, it is a “ never say die” attitude that I always adopt. When I first started with only two people, I have to go around food factories knocking on doors, sharing with the food companies the merits of a food safety management system. I did these for years and of course I have met many who slammed the door and say “I do not need a food safety management system”. After much persistence, those who did that in those days, in actual fact today are my clients as well as good friends.
Question:What advice would you give young people who want to start their own business?
You must be single minded about what you want to achieve and no matter what challenges. You must never give up your faith or be discouraged. Continue to press on till you meet your goals, aspirations and dreams. Dreams are the inspirations, then it is sweat and blood, and toil to make your dreams come true. Persistence and perseverance are the cornerstones to achieving and harnessing success. Entrepreneurship will fail if persistence is lacking.