Fortune favours the bold: 10 SMEs that rose above the pandemic

EVEN as Covid-19 continues to batter Singapore’s economy, some homegrown companies have bloomed in the adversity. Ten towkays talk about how their firms navigated the crisis with a combination of luck, persistence and foresight; and what lies ahead in the Year of the Ox.

Lunch Actually: Hearts grow fonder amid Covid-19 isolation

Lunch Actually’s pivot to virtual dating services in 2020 took off mid-way through the circuit breaker, said chief executive and co-founder Violet Lim.

A pandemic is hardly conducive for a business as dependent on human interaction as a dating agency. However, movement and meeting restrictions have also underscored the need for interpersonal connections, which could explain why Lunch Actually’s pivot to virtual dating services in 2020 took off mid-way through the circuit breaker.

Said the dating agency’s chief executive and co-founder Violet Lim: “Our Annual Dating Survey in 2020 revealed that the pandemic caused singles to feel a longing for a real, meaningful connection with someone, so there was a demand to intentionally get connected, for them to seek a potential partner through dating services like ours.”

In total, Lunch Actually arranged more than 800 virtual dates last year with positive feedback. 

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Far East Flora: A blooming online business

Ryan Chioh, managing director of Far East Flora’s e-commerce business, said online sales for the garden and wholesale businesses surged 300 per cent on the year during the circuit-breaker period. 

Digital readiness on both the front and back ends helped Far East Flora push through the difficult circuit-breaker period and pandemic pressures in 2020, said Ryan Chioh, managing director of Far East Flora’s e-commerce business FarEastFlora.com. 

Although the company’s various business units were impacted unevenly, the group got a welcome boost from 300 per cent year-on-year growth in online sales for the garden and wholesale businesses during the partial lockdown.

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Prime Group International: Stockpiling, shortages test supermarket’s reflexes

Tan Yong Shao, chief executive of Prime Group International, said panic buying during the pandemic fuelled sales, but also put the company to the test. 

Like most Singapore supermarket operators, Prime Group’s sales jumped by 15 to 25 per cent as people stockpiled groceries and necessities at the peak of the pandemic last year. 

Group chief executive Tan Yong Shao said the company found itself being put through “a series of maximum-stress tests”, such as the safety of its frontline staff with the surges in short-term demand creating a huge pressure on its supermarket operations.

Critical decisions, such as whether to keep the 24-hour outlets open or to close them due to manpower shortages, had to be made quickly, with “very real impact to operations and general perceptions”, he added. 

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The Cicheti Group: Oven-baked pizzas make for fiery sales

Oven-baked pizzas were a runaway success for the Cicheti Group, run by cousins Liling Ong and Lim Yew Aun (left to right). 

This group of Italian restaurants has a food item to thank for its success in 2020: pizza. 

Most of Cicheti’s food-delivery menu items were well received, but pizza was far and away the most popular. The group tweaked the recipe to make it more suitable for delivery, and included reheating instructions so customers could still get that “fresh-out-of-the-oven experience”, said Cicheti co-founder Liling Ong. 

“I cannot thank our pizza chef Iman and his amazing team enough for their tireless focus and dedication to their craft,” she added.

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X-Inc: After surviving, it is time to thrive

X-Inc's only objective last year had been to survive. Now, it is looking to thrive, said co-CEO Nichol Ng. 

It is full steam ahead for X-Inc, after having branched out from its food-services business FoodXervices to enter the co-working spaces and shared kitchens arena last year. 

This year, the group has already secured three new distributorships and plans to expand with a new building and projects in local produce and alternative proteins.

“2020 has made us more determined to execute and expedite all our innovative ideas and plans,” said co-CEO Nichol Ng. Now, “it’s time for us to thrive and seek new horizons for the future; it is not the time to rest on our laurels”.

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Top International Holding: Diversifying business streams is key

Top International Holding was emerged largely unscathed by the pandemic, thanks to earlier moves to diversify business streams, said chief executive Victor Tan. 

The company, which counts mining as its core business, was largely spared by the pandemic, even though demand for commodities was hit by lower economic activity globally and supply-chain disruptions. 

It managed a more than 10 per cent growth in revenue last year, and chief executive Victor Tan said, “The pandemic taught us that it is important to strengthen the resilience of our business by diversifying into different business streams.”

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SF Group: Staying on track for growth

The crisis did not get in the way of expansion plans, said Collin Ho, chief executive of SF Group. 

SF Group recorded double-digit topline growth last year, even though the pandemic halved the 40 per cent growth rate it had enjoyed over the last five years. So far, the F&B operator has not let the crisis get in the way of expansion plans, including opening two new Collin’s restaurants in 2020. 

Group chief executive Collin Ho said: “Strategic planning is critical to the success of a business as it navigates the business cycle. While there were certainly challenges to be evaluated, concurrently, there were opportunities that allowed our company to spearhead the opening of our restaurants in Great World and Jurong Point last year.”

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Phoon Huat: Riding a pandemic-fuelled baking frenzy

A baking frenzy during the pandemic may have boosted Phoon Huat's performance last year, but the company initially did not know how it would fare, said chief executive Shuichi Sato. 

“Lockdown baking” took the world by storm in 2020, and Singapore was no exception. “Circuit bakers” snapped up ingredients such as flour, sugar and vanilla from grocery stores and Phoon Huat outlets.

To ensure safety at its stores, Phoon Huat implemented measures such as shorter operating hours, no cross-deploying of staff, limited shopping time and queue management systems. In addition, it set up an online store and started offering online baking classes.

All that helped the baking supplies specialist to successfully keep its doors open through the pandemic and achieved its target of about S$100 million in revenue in 2020; despite chief executive Shuichi Sato saying the company initially had little idea how the year would turn out, as the pandemic situation was fluid.

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Ninja Van Singapore: E-commerce surge was both a boon and challenge

Muhammad Alif bin abdul and Nithiya Harithas (left to right in foreground), fleet first-mile executive supervisors at Ninja Van, and their team worked to meet the surge in e-commerce deliveries during the pandemic. 

For courier company Ninja Van, the transformation of e-commerce into a lifeline for companies and consumers in 2020 was a boon for business, but a headache in the initial stages of Singapore’s partial lockdown.

The company faced a three-fold increase in parcels, many of which were bulky items such as keyboards, telecommunications equipment and furniture that required special handling. At the same time, it had to keep staff and customers safe and improve communication throughout the delivery process.

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Secretlab: Gaming chairs draw new following

Demand for Secretlab's chairs was so great that the chairs were on pre-order for most of the year, said co-founder and CEO Ian Ang, with fellow co-founder Alaric Choo (left).

Gamers have been Secretlab’s traditional market since it launched in 2014, but work-from-home arrangements propelled its ergonomic chairs from cult status to mainstream, as non-gamers snapped them up as well.

Demand was so great that its chairs were on pre-order for most of the year. The company sold its millionth chair last year and has grown 30 times from three years ago.

Not only did Secretlab record yet another year of significant year-on-year growth, its pre-tax earnings also “exploded” multi-fold, said chief executive Ian Ang. 

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