Mr Bean's latest adventure: Vietnam

Five stores open in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City; home-grown firm aiming for 200 in 10 years

Home-grown company Mr Bean has ventured out of Singapore with both hits and misses under its belt.

Super Bean International founder and chief executive Loh Jwee Poh is hoping that his latest venture into Vietnam will boost the number of successful ventures he has embarked on. The score stands at three hits and three misses, including Singapore.

Mr Loh and Vietnamese partner EGroup have now taken Mr Bean's signature soya milk, among other products, to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Five stores - two in the capital, and three in Ho Chi Minh City - opened yesterday.

EGroup is an education and technology company that runs English education programmes for children and leadership classes for corporations, among other programmes. It is listed on the Ho Chi Minh City Stock Exchange.

Mr Loh, 58, said: "Markets overseas are bigger than in Singapore and chuan zong jie dai (carrying on the family line) has always been my dream."

Over the years, he has tried to build up the brand in Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, China and the Philippines. He has only been successful in Japan, South Korea and Singapore. He did not go into details about the failed ventures, but said he should have researched his overseas partners better.

CARRYING ON THE FAMILY LINE

Markets overseas are bigger than in Singapore and chuan zong jie dai (carrying on the family line) has always been my dream.

MR LOH JWEE POH, founder and chief executive of Super Bean International, on his long-term business goal.

Each loss, he said, is a blow to the brand which he has painstakingly built over two decades.

"We lost money but the pain comes from the tarnish to the brand. We took years to build the Mr Bean brand. The brand is more important... money can always be earned again," he said.

Mr Bean came from humble beginning sas a stall in a hawker centre in Chinatown which he had set up with his Chinese High School schoolmate Kang Puay Seng in 1995.

Their first shop in a shopping centre was in Hougang Mall in 1998. By then they had introduced products such as soya ice cream.

Mr Loh eventually bought out Mr Kang's share in the company.

NON-GENETICALLY MODIFIED BEANS

What sets (Mr Bean) apart is the fact that (Mr Loh) works with contract farmers in North America to ensure a consistent supply of non-genetically modified soya beans used for their products.

MR NGUYEN NGOC THUY, president and founder of EGroup, on the source and quality of Mr Bean's soya beans.

Mr Bean now has about 70 stores in Singapore, two in South Korea and one in Tokyo, which he described as "doing very, very well".

Japan, which Mr Loh described as being "the most demanding country", was his first overseas venture. He opened the store in Shibuya in 2010 after local government agencies recommended Tokyu Gourmet Front as a prospective business partner.

"If we can survive Japan, we can definitely survive other countries. Service and quality demands there are high," he said.

Mr Loh plans to open 200 Mr Bean stores in Vietnam, one of Asean's fastest growing economies, within the next 10 years, as part of a franchise agreement with EGroup.

EGroup's president and founder Nguyen Ngoc Thuy said: "What sets (Mr Bean) apart is the fact that (Mr Loh) works with contract farmers in North America to ensure a consistent supply of non-genetically modified soya beans used for their products."

Vietnam's gross domestic product grew 7.08 per cent last year, according to news publication Nhan Dan. Its population was about 95 million in 2017, according to the World Bank's estimates.

Considering that Singapore has about 70 stores for a country with about 5.5 million people, 200 stores for Vietnam is a modest estimate, Mr Loh said.

Venturing into a new market with the right partner is paramount, he added. Sharing a "similar mindset, (the) same business direction" and having "good human chemistry" are among the traits Mr Loh looks for in an overseas partner.

Being well-financed is also important. "Running a chain store needs deep pockets for sustained periods to wait for customers to come," he said. Not all malls overseas are opened with near-full tenancy.

"A mall in China may open with very few tenants, so it takes a while to draw in the crowds... In Singapore, mall management ensures that every shop is ready for the grand opening," he said.

But even if there is no crowd, the shops have to stay open so the operators can understand local tastes better and adapt, he added.

While the stores in Vietnam will start by serving the same items as those available in Singapore, that may change as the operators there come up with items more suited to local taste buds.

For example, while the fresh and unsweetened soya milk that the Vietnam stores produce taste exactly the same as Singapore's for now, they may be sweetened "120 per cent" to fit the local taste.

Mr Loh said financial stamina is also needed to buy time so the products can grow on the customers.

The Japanese did not immediately take to fresh soya milk as they were used to drinking those that had undergone UHT (ultra-high temperature) processing, he recalled.

The overseas collaboration also benefits customers in Singapore. The concept for Mr Bean's "eggwich" - comprising a pancake, an egg and options for a filling - originated from Japan. The product was localised to integrate Singapore's flavours and now offers options such as vegetarian bakkwa (mock meat) during Chinese New Year.

No company venturing overseas can guarantee success but he hopes his move to Vietnam will be like his product - smooth.

"I hope the venture will "kuai gao zhang da, shun li cheng zhang (and) gan kuai zhuan qian (mature quickly and smoothly and become profitable soon)," he said.