Distributor goes from importing Tao Kae Noi to making its own snacks

San SeSan Global's Christine Lim has gone from importing snacks to developing and manufacturing her own munchies with a turnover of S$12 million today.

IF some of your favourite nibbles include seaweed snack Tao Kae Noi or rice biscuit Want Want, you have homegrown small and medium-sized enterprise San SeSan Global to thank (or blame, if your waistline has expanded after all that nibbling).

San SeSan Global, which was established in 2003, is a food marketer, importer and distributor. It may be a relatively unknown name in Singapore, but many of the brands that it imports are instantly recognisable to those who grew up here.

To date, it has grown its stable of brands to 16, including some of its own. Most recently In 2011, managing director Christine Lim has moved the business up the value chain by developing and manufacturing its own brands of snacks and beverages for export, which include vegetable chips and bird's nest.

Ms Lim shares with The Business Times how she grew its annual revenue from S$50,000 in 2003 to S$12 million in FY2016.

Party beginnings

Before San SeSan Global was acquired by Ms Lim for S$30,000 some 14 years ago, it was initially a distributor of balloons and party paraphernalia in Singapore.

She leapt at the opportunity to combine both her passion in marketing and the excitement of the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) industry.

"Though the company I bought over was small and a one-man show, it had a good network. I thought it would be interesting to take over, and see how we get on from there," she explains.

While Ms Lim had no prior entrepreneurial background, she was a chartered accountant who first started her career as an auditor.

It was after four years of grappling with numbers that she decided accounting was not her cup of tea. So, she went to Australia to do her second degree in advertising, before returning to take on various sales and marketing roles.

Ms Lim added that all her experiences leading up to the acquisition, coupled with the boldness of youth, gave her the confidence to start her own business.

"That's why when I first started my business at 30, I felt ready. When you're young, you just have a lot of courage. I felt I could do it."

In her first year running the business, she tried to continue selling balloons and party items for a year as there was a large inventory of stock. How she expanded into food distribution was a stroke of luck.

One of the firm's customers at the time was the convenience store chain 7-Eleven, who was approached by the Thai owner of the seaweed snack Tao Kae Noi to export its products to Singapore.

As the buyers at 7-Eleven could not converse in Thai, they roped in Ms Lim to help. The multi-talented lady boss had learnt Thai many years ago out of interest. After some discussions, she successfully brought in Tao Kae Noi into Singapore in 2005 as its sole distributor and importer - the start of a whole new change in direction for the fledging business.

After that, San SeSan Global started bringing in more brands into Singapore, such as the Malaysian dried fish snack DahFa and Thai peanut snack Koh Kae.

Ms Lim says: "We had to do a lot of awareness building for a product to work well. A lot of products will come and go; bringing in the products is not difficult, but it is difficult to have them stay (on the shelves)."

Not only is the company in charge of importing the brands, it was also in charge of building the brands so that people will become familiar with them. This was done through sampling offers and promotions, with customised marketing strategies for each of the 16 brands it represents in Singapore

"I find myself being very excited about growing a brand. Because of my marketing and advertising background, I like to use my creativity," adds Ms Lim.

The next step was to expand the distribution network. What started in 7-Eleven has since expanded into some 2,000 retail outlets comprising 100 per cent of the modern retail network, which include supermarket chains and convenience stores.

New developments

Due to the fickle palates of Singaporeans, Ms Lim realised quickly that remaining stagnant even when a brand gets established is not an option.

As a result, the company has been actively co-developing new flavours with the Tao Kae Noi factory in Thailand, even creating some local flavours such as chilli crab.

She says: "Developing new flavours is something we have to keep doing as people are expecting something different all the time."

Now that the firm is relatively established, many companies go to San SeSan Global to carry their products. But Ms Lim also actively sources for new products as well.

She likes brands that are different from the rest, in areas that are not too competitive, so that they can fill a certain space in the market.

It is also no coincidence that San SeSan Global's brands are mostly Asian snacks, as Ms Lim personally finds them more interesting compared to those from the US or Europe.

After distributing for several overseas brands, Ms Lim decided that the next step was to develop its own brands. "We realise that the Singapore market is really small. A natural expansion plan is to get out of Singapore."

The firm decided on chips as its first snack product, as chips are more "marketable" in European countries, she says.

"In places like Europe, people are not too adventurous with their snacks. So I realised that we got to do things that are familiar," explains Ms Lim.

The only difference is that their chips are from root vegetables like cassava, grown from volcanic soil in Java. As these are "healthier" versions, she believes that they are riding on a global trend as people pay more attention to nutrition and wellness, even in something as indulgent as snacks. The company has a joint venture in Indonesia to produce its chips, and a joint venture with a factory in Thailand to produce its KIM brand's bird's nest.

Ms Lim has pumped in almost a million to invest in the firm's own brands, and expects to break even in a few years' time after the firm penetrates the East Asia market. There are also plans to increase more of their own brands as well.

Online reach

In addition, as digital disruptions come fast and furious, San SeSan Global also has to keep up. The company now has an omni-channel strategy, where it covers not just modern retailers, but also general retail (including minimarts and kiosks), schools, institutions, canteens, cafes, restaurants and even airlines. It also uses online platforms such as Redmart and Qoo10 to sell its products.

Even the way the firm builds its brands has now changed. In keeping up with the times, the company has embarked on digital marketing to reach out to its customers. Many of its campaigns and contests are now on a digital platform, and the company is also active on social media.

San SeSan Global may specialise in snacks, but some of its brands include a fabric care product and playing cards, as part of its strategy to move into non-food related products.

Ms Lim explains that the company dabbled in the former because the former is a personal favourite of hers - "not very logical, I know," she quips. Playing cards was because the company already had the distribution network in place.

After being in the business for almost 15 years, she says that the company is now ready to move on to its next phase of expansion. While organic growth is always something the firm strives for, Ms Lim says she is open to work with companies to see how it can grow beyond distribution.

As more companies try to get a foothold in the region through Singapore, the company could work with partners to see how they can progress together, perhaps in the form of a joint venture or contract manufacturing, she suggested.

The company name "San SeSan", which actually means "Growing with time" in Chinese, was retained by Ms Lim when she took over the business. It has turned out to be particularly apt as the company continues on its growth trajectory.

"People are quite fickle about snacks. It's like fashion - people always want something interesting. If I can do snacks, I probably can do other things. In fact, it could be easier," she says.