Reeling in fresh ideas from a family tradition

Hai Sia Seafood banks on its R&D focus and value-adding to the local market.

IN 1976, Ang Junting's father set up the family business, Hai Sia Seafood, in a wet market at Mei Ling Street. Every day, the family's stall would sell bucket loads of fresh seafood such as red snapper and pomfret, before they moved into the wholesale business a decade later.

Since Mr Ang took over his father's business in 2015, the 29-year-old deputy director has been modernising the company in more ways than one. Aside from its retail outlet at the Jurong Fishery Port, Hai Sia Seafood now also sells vacuumed-packed seafood through online platforms such as RedMart, Amazon, honestbee and Cold Storage.

According to Mr Ang, who graduated with a degree in hospitality management from Les Roches Gruyere University of Applied Sciences in Switzerland, Hai Sia's annual retail revenues have grown fivefold since it started selling its products online three years ago.

"The way people purchase their groceries has changed," said the deputy director of Hai Sia Seafood, who declined to disclose specific financial numbers. "We aim to give people every reason to cook by making it really convenient."

Mr Ang is the only one in his generation in the family who is working at Hai Sia Seafood today.

Under Mr Ang's direction, the 42-year-old family business will also launch an easy-to-cook seafood meal kit - containing both protein and condiments - in the earlier half of 2019, adding to its inventory of online products.

Continuing R&D

Such innovations are possible due to the company's increasing focus on research and development, where capital expenditure on such improvements has increased by almost 30 per cent from 2015, said Mr Ang.

These include renovating the seafood processing plant to improve turnaround time, and setting up a quality assurance department which does in-house product development and research, focusing +on freezing and packing processes.

Mr Ang said the company's staff size grew by 40 per cent from 2010 to 65 employees, with more than half working in its seafood processing plant.

Despite growing online sales, almost all the company's revenue still comes from supplying other businesses, such as restaurant groups, airline caterers, supermarkets, grocers and hawkers, he added.

In 2015, Mr Ang gave up a culinary career and returned to Hai Sia Seafood to help his father run the family business. Previously, he worked as a chef at two-star Michelin restaurant Christopher Coutanceau in France, and Mandarin Oriental's Restaurant Fresh in China.

It was during his stint in China when a conversation with a fellow chef inspired him to take over the family business.

"He (the chef) made a comment saying how if I were to strike out on my own, I'd be building on a couple of years of experience, but if I were to return to help my father, I would be taking over a legacy," Mr Ang reportedly said in an interview in Tiger Airways' in-flight magazine.

The former chef said that his culinary experience has also helped him better understand the demands of restaurant chefs that the company supplies to, and allows him to provide fresh perspectives into the business.

Hai Sia has come a long way from its humble roots in Mei Ling Street. An early turning point was in the early 1980s, when Ang's father, Ang Jwee Herng, decided to go into the wholesale business. The elder Ang, who is currently the director of Hai Sia, shifted the business to Jurong Fishery Port, where it is still at today.

In 1988, he built a cold room and a processing facility to meet the growing market demand for seafood then.

The market for seafood is still growing in Singapore today. Euromonitor, a leading international market research company, reported a 125 per cent increase in consumer expenditure on seafood in Singapore from 1990, with predictions that consumer expenditure will grow by another 12.7 per cent by 2020.

Singapore is also predicted to be one of the top leading fresh fish and seafood growth market in the Asia-Pacific region, said Euromonitor analyst Anastasia Alieva.

Mr Ang said: "This industry might seem very backward, but it is far from being a sunset industry."

"However, we are buying less fish from Jurong Fishery Port itself, due to its declining supply. In fact, we are looking farther and farther for good value imports."

Mr Ang cites New Zealand and Japan as two key countries that the company will be importing more from in the next two to three years, as these countries are experienced with raw and frozen seafood.

Innovation and expansion has come at a cost. Mr Ang shared that the company's net profit has dropped since 2015, attributing it to the processing plant's upkeep and rising labour costs.

CIMB Private Banking economist Song Seng Wun said that it is normal for companies to sustain a fall in net profits during development and innovation, but it should not stay that way for a prolonged period.

"Product research could be done with partners to make it more effective and reduce expenses," added Mr Song.

For now, Hai Sia Seafood has no active plans to expand abroad, or to push for exports of its products.

"There is still a lot of untapped potential here in the Singapore market," said Mr Ang, citing the strict hygiene standards Singapore has for food imports as an example.

Moreover, there are fewer players focusing on the local market, with competitors such as Song Fish and Pan Ocean actively expanding abroad through exports.

"We should stay relevant and value-add to the Singapore market first, as that is where the bulk of the business is," he said. "There is no point in exporting if we can't even win over the local market."

The writer is a student at Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University.