Boss of multimillion-dollar firm was once doubted for her youth and gender

FOODXERVICES' turnover has grown about five times to surpass S$60 million since she took charge of the business in 2007, but Nichol Ng was doubted for her young age and gender at the start. 

Ms Ng, a National University of Singapore graduate who majored in economics and Japanese studies, had set up FoodXervices with her younger brother in 2007 to take over and modernise Ng Chye Mong, a food distribution business started by their grandfather in 1939.  

At that time, Ng Chye Mong operated out of a shophouse in Rochor and distributed products such as groceries and Teochew-braised ducks to roadside hawkers. Ms Ng's uncles and her father later expanded the business into other areas. In its heyday, the company was involved in making movies and ran a duty-free shop in the Maldives; turnover hit US$250 million by the 1990s.

But all of that was swept away by the Asian financial crisis in 1997, save for the original food distribution business. 

When Ms Ng, then about 29 years old, took over the business in 2007, one of the challenges was convincing large brands to work with them. She was also the youngest employee back then.

She recounts: "Not only was it a male-dominated industry, most business owners were older men in their 60s... So to some people, gender alone could have been one of the challenges already. I had to try harder to prove myself somewhat."

To do that, Ms Ng says she did the tedious work herself, from delivering orders to data entry when the company migrated to an enterprise resource planning system. She also served as an informal human resources manager, speaking to employees about their needs and rolling out training programmes. 

To get more ideas for the business, she also flew to the US to visit one of the larger food services companies. Some of the new ideas she has implemented include branding and marketing for FoodXervices. 

Today, FoodXervices employs about 190 people and works with 5,000 customers, including the likes of hotel group Accor, Shake Shack and The Privé Group.  

Ms Ng shares about her management style and plans for the company. 

 

What are some of the skills that you have had to develop and that you think are most crucial to your role? 

Humility, resilience, creativity, compassion, daring to dream and being able to be that beacon of light to everyone in the company. I also had to develop the ability to smile and move on in the face of adversities.

How would you describe your management style?

Many times, I reach for the maternal side of myself when handling matters related to people. We have to remember that we're not just a company, but also "family".

I also try to inspire my team as a business leader and on a personal level. I'm not perfect, but I show others that I try my best and that they can also be the best versions of themselves.

What do you think was your worst bet for the company?

I don't think of any project as the worst bet; each failure has ended up opening doors to other businesses. 

And your best?

Building XPACE, our brand new 250,000 square feet building at Pandan Loop. Having our own building has made a difference to our team, as they take pride in coming to work in a place like XPACE.

The management team put a lot of thought into making the place feel like home, from having a gym and restaurant to cosy pantries. We also plan to set up a nursing and child-minding room for mothers.  

What are your plans for FoodXervices going forward?

We are further expanding our portfolio of offerings to include kitchen utensils, technology and other consultancy services. We are also building a dedicated team to conquer the 15,000 hawkers in Singapore.

By the end of the year, we should also be witnessing the opening of our first overseas office. But over and above that, we are looking to redesign all our employees’ job scopes to enable them to be flexible enough to work multiple roles, making them less at risk of being displaced in today’s fast-paced world. 

When you are not working hard in the office, where are you to be found?   

As a mother to four rascals with ages ranging from three months to seven years, I'm usually cooking or baking in the kitchen, or taking them on field trips. 

Also, as the co-founder of The Food Bank Singapore and president of ONE (Singapore), I give talks on food insecurity and poverty.