This article first appeared on Medium.
In kuehs and putu mayam (traditional Singaporean local cake desserts), the red jaggery sugar is a key ingredient used for its texture and celebratory color. But these desserts are more familiar with the boomer generation than it is with millennials or the Gen Zs.
This poses a challenge for Cheng Yew Heng, Singapore’s oldest sugar manufacturer, in how it can adapt to the evolving consumer demands.
Fortunately, the company has been passed down successfully to the third generation of Chengs. These Chengs had not only adapted and raised revenues for the company to over S$122m in 2015, but the company has continued to evolve itself to go beyond the original business of manufacturing sugar.
I enjoyed a lunch of Japanese ramen speaking to one third-generation Cheng who runs this family business and his views on sustainability
The life of John carrying his surname Cheng
John Cheng, 37, is the youngest of six siblings and manages Cheng Yew Heng’s group of businesses together with his two elder brothers. Being a typical Singapore Management University graduate, he started his career in the finance industry. But instead of continuing his finance career, he left in 2008 to join his family business.
It was a career path that was already planned out for Cheng and his brothers. When he was younger, he accompanied his father to meet customers. If they were not meeting customers, he would be observing his father manage the business. Though he groused that he would rather not work but have fun, it was through these sessions that he learnt much from his father.
He shared how his father painstakingly built the business with his two hands, working hard even until his last breath. His father will also wait for the last lorry to return to the factory before calling it a night, ensuring the operations ran smoothly.
When Cheng started working officially for the business, he spent the initial years getting his hands dirty, being very operational and learning the ropes. This memory of his father’s hardworking ethics etched in his mind on the importance of understanding the processes of the business, which guides him till today as he spearheads the strategy.
Innovating by tapping into government grants and institutional expertise
Despite having the surname Cheng, it did not give him any added privileges in the business. When he first officially joined the business, he considered himself a young 26 year old and a greenhorn with limited experience. His elders would chide him for suggesting to embark on improvement projects when he has yet to earn any.
This conundrum led him to find ways to prove himself. He found solutions via tapping into expertise from Institutes of Higher Learning and getting access to government grants to improve the business processes.
He cites a project with the Singapore Institute of Technology, which was to understand the chemical process of how sugar crystallization works.
He also collaborated with the Institute of Technical Education and the Singapore Polytechnic on improving and automating the backend processes, in particular to packaging.
Singapore Polytechnic continued further collaborations in helping to formulate Cheng’s new product, Jewels Rock Sugar Sticks, which is sold at Singapore’s Changi airport and high-end supermarkets in China.
Survival instinct naturally birthed sustainability
I asked Cheng what sustainability is to the business and how he perceives sustainability. He explains that sustainability is not a recent thought and has always been in the DNA of the company, though not in the way one would expect.
Sustainability, together with innovation, were outcomes due to survival instincts from intense competition.
During the founding years of the business, his grandfather saw any form of wastage as a loss of profit margins. So any waste should be reviewed and converted to something commercially viable.
For example, while producing rock sugar, a by-product called liquid sugar will be produced. Instead of discarding this, it was converted into red/black jaggery sugar which is rich for their aroma and richness. And these sugar products became key ingredients to many traditional local cakes. And because of this innovation, the company generated new revenues from the wasted by-products.
Even simple things like packaging used to bring in raw materials were re-used as secondary packaging for products. It was not because of sustainability per se, but more of ensuring waste was reduced to increase profitability.
Evolving Cheng Yew Heng into the next level of sustainability
People often mistake Cheng Yew Heng to be the name of the founder of the business, but the actual meaning represents the family and the relationships with its stakeholders would bring prosperity. Cheng shared it was the core value of the company always to collaborate with partners through the spirit of friendship to achieve success.
And he stayed true to this value. In 2019, Cheng proudly launched Innovate360, Singapore’s first food incubator recognized by the Singapore government and a spin-off from Cheng Yew Heng’s core businesses.
He explained that Innovate360 was not only part of the strategy for Cheng Yew Heng, but also for his vision for sustainability and paying-it-forward. He sees sustainability achieved through a collaborative one.
He believes that through incubating new food startups via Innovate360, it would inspire change and create products that will be complementary to his core distribution and sourcing businesses. It was also an opportunity for Cheng Yew Heng to invest into novel and interesting ideas, which builds upon his ideals of sustainability.
And he took a step further on sustainability ideals, where he heads and co-founded the “Feed 9 Billion” initiative, open innovation food-ecosystem platform where we focus on advocating innovation, sustainability through collaboration between entrepreneurs, startups, corporates, and government.
He ends off this article with a saying, “Sustainability occurs when each person or party not only does their duty to think and act sustainably, but also looks at collaborating with each other to multiply the effect of what they do to create an impact.”
This article is part of the Sustainable Future Cities Series, where I interview the next generation of family-owned businesses and thought leaders about their visions and goals for a sustainable South-East Asia by using innovation technologies.