By his own admission, Lim Hock Chee has a stressful job.
The 60-year-old co-founder and chief executive officer of the Sheng Siong Group not only works with numerous members of his family (his brothers, his wife, his sons, nephew, and niece, just to name a few), he in essence looks after the end-to-end needs of his more than 2,500 employees.
And what, might you ask, are these end-to-end needs?
But some employees also receive bursary awards for their children's education, others have gotten scholarships for part-time degree programmes (from Lim's own pocket), and many also know anecdotally of the generous support the company provides in times of bereavement.
At the supermarket group's corporate headquarters and sprawling warehouse building in Mandai, all employees enjoy complimentary lunch cooked in-house, in a no-frills dining hall. Staff at Sheng Siong's 63 stores receive bentos, adding up to a reported S$7,000 daily expense for the company too.
Lim, a car mechanic by training, is known to play an active role in all parts of the business — having previously attended to power failures at the shops, welded supermarket trolley handles and till today also frequently spends hours at the warehouse helping his logistics teams.
But what is his secret to all this success, all this money and rewards going round and all this welfare the company provides to its staff?
We sat down with this charismatic and popular business leader at his office to gain an insight into the thinking behind all of it.
The blue pocket pamphlet
Our focus on education in the first two examples is deliberate, though — Lim, who speaks Mandarin, says he basically obsesses himself with educating his staff from the first day they are hired.
He's likened the company to a "school" before, and takes particular personal interest in every employee's formation in values and principles.
Hence the blue pocket pamphlet that every employee carries around in their pockets — which turns out to be five pamphlets folded concertina-style, the shortest detailing Sheng Siong's mission, vision, purpose, values, style, principle and belief, and the rest laying out six philosophical sayings each (in English and Chinese).
These 24 sayings touch on life, mindsets, work ethic, leadership and approaches to other people, like:
The best method
The shortest amount of time
The most efficient way to achieve
Time is not managed by us,
We allocate the time to manage ourselves.
We cannot manage time, we can only manage ourselves.
10 Daily Principles
Be more gracious. Make fewer excuses.
Be more courteous. Take more action.
Be quicker in your work. Have a mild temper.
Be more efficient. Speak with a gentle tone.
Have more flexibility. Smile more often.
These are the fundamentals of humanity.
And once an employee has internalised these 24 sayings, there is still a bowl of rolled-up insights one can tap into at the company's second-floor reception:
Now, Lim is the first to say he knows not every single member of his staff is going to read or agree with, much less internalise these sayings.
But those who do, he does strongly feel, will have the ability to cultivate leadership qualities in themselves that are desired at the company — and in so doing, can become leaders in their own right.
Which brings us to the first of Lim's biggest beliefs about doing business: that the single most important factor is the people you have in your employ.
The 5-day management course that changed his life
It was the year 2002, and a 40-year-old Lim was in the thick of aggressive store expansion and the group's newly-opened warehouse and logistics arm when a friend of his told him about a course he simply must not miss.
"Previously this friend always attended a lot of courses; if it is good, he will ask me to go — if not, he won’t. This one in particular he said, you MUST come, you definitely must attend. You definitely will gain a lot.
It was a five-day course, and cost S$888. And on the first day I sat at the back with my friend — when the prof finished talking, I also finished talking to my friend, and I had no idea what the teacher had said at all. The next day I told myself, no, I must sit in the front. This course cost me S$888. I’ve already paid it, so I better make sure I reap back more than my money's worth.
And on all five days, every day he talked about the human heart. Every day he talked about the heart. Heart this, heart that, five days every day heart heart heart. And at the end of the five days he said to me simply, read more. S$888 and my takeaway was to read more.
And then there was a sixth day. We were asked to return to participate (参), but I heard it as returning for a meal (餐) and was so disappointed when there was no food to be had. He wasn't treating us to a meal. As it turned out, he wanted our opinions and reflections on the course and what he had told us."
He relates that he didn't know what to say at first, apart from pitching a clarification on what the prof meant in his lessons about the heart. Was it, he asked, him saying that the human heart is a filter?
And here came the revelation: no, it was the human conscience that is the filter, and it is the conscience that guides us to make better decisions.
"Attending this course made me take a good hard look at myself, to see where my conscience is alerting me to parts of me that are not so good, and where I might have made a mistake here or there."
This also motivated him to be a better person in general — noting the example of religious figures like Buddha and Jesus Christ, who not only spoke truth and wisdom, teaching people to be good, but also set an example in the way they lived.
Lim said he had to adjust and improve how he lived and related to others, as he instructed his subordinates to do things in certain ways.
The philosophy of 'humans' (人), 'big' (大) and 'sky' (天)
Which brings us to one of the first of Lim's philosophies on life and people — illustrating to us how three Chinese characters come together to explain the human condition, its development and growth into significance.
Tracing his finger on the table we were seated together at, he showed us how a human has to be brought down to earth (humbled) first, using the first left-hand stroke on the word 人 (rén for human in Chinese), which visually cannot stand on its own. A person, for instance a newborn baby, needs to be empowered with the second right-hand stroke in order to be able to stand up and come into his or her own.
Strengthening it further with a horizontal stroke (with the nurturing of family or people close to the baby or young person) makes 大 (dà for big in Chinese), and the young person becomes 大人 (adult in Chinese), who is then empowered to make decisions on his own.
Where 天 (tiān for sky in Chinese) comes into this is the notion that the sky is empty until you think of it as an entity that contains 人, hence the importance of man in making meaning of everything under the sky.
The philosophy of decision-making in leadership
And the idea of decision-making moved him to realise that as a leader (which can be interpreted as 天人), it is crucial that he makes and acts on decisions quickly, for the benefit of quick adaptation and first-mover advantage to changing circumstances.
By extension, where an incorrect decision is made, Lim says it is important that he acknowledge the mistake and change tack quickly, if that is possible.
“Once I make decisions, I act on them quickly because it is only after you act that you know if it was right or wrong — then you slowly tweak your actions. What you decide might not be 100 per cent correct but you can tweak or refine things to make your decision better along the way. Because if you decide on something but don't act swiftly on it, it will cause a mess down the chain.
... But sometimes policies change and you will have to make adjustments. Some people tell me ‘Mr Lim, you sometimes make changes to your decisions very fast.’ And I say, I have no choice, because things can change very quickly these days and if we don’t act fast, there might be consequences.”
Speed aside, Lim also stresses that as a leader, he is responsible for making decisions that make his employees' lives easier, more convenient and work more effectively.
"So every day I think about how to improve their workflow — when work gets easier, they will be happy at work. So the things I do must benefit the majority, my employees...
And even though I have many problems from my staff to solve and spend days cracking my head over them, I have to solve them one by one, find good solutions so that they can live better. Then they will have to learn to solve other people's problems too, after their lives improve."
(Aside: Lim shares the inspiration behind the names of his businesses Sheng Siong and CMM with us here:)
The philosophy of earning and sharing money freely — and also finding the right people, while weeding the wrong ones out
It is Lim's fundamental principle of valuing the people who work for him that drives the almost-unheard-of generosity he and his brothers (Hock Eng, who is older, and Hock Leng, who is younger), all of whom are at the helm of Sheng Siong's management, show toward their staff.
His logic is very simple in this regard: the saying "财聚人散、财散人聚" (When you gather fortune, people scatter; when you scatter fortune, people gather).
Basically, you share the money you earn with your staff and they will continue to be motivated to perform well for the business; a win-win for all:
“As a leader, it’s our responsibility to ensure employees earn money. It is only when they earn that they will continue to follow you — if not, they will become disheartened. Right?
So while money is not everything, we can’t live without money either. And that’s why we have to spend our money wisely, so we allocate part of our earnings to our employees. After fulfilling their needs, they will be more willing to cooperate and work hard for you.”
This is also why loyalty is rewarded handsomely — while the company gives employees who hit the five- and 10-year milestones weighted (20g and 30g) solid gold coins, the Lim brothers fork out their own money to give those who hit 15 and 20 years with the company 40g gold coins and Rolex watches respectively.
Naturally, such positive company policies would attract the interest of all and sundry to join the hallowed ranks of Sheng Siong's staff, bringing us to the next question of how Lim and his management team find the right people.
Sadly, he doesn't have a secret to share here — he responds with mirth, "if I can, I would be God-like!" — but he does say, however, that generally those who aren't right for the company will weed themselves out soon enough.
"If you can't fit into the culture here, you will not be able to work well with your team. If we are a bunch of sprinters, for example, and you are not, you won't be able to keep up and you will leave eventually. If you force yourself to hang on nonetheless, you won't survive either because this pace just isn't suitable for you.
We also look at the poorer performers — it could be someone who takes MC quite often. But there's nothing wrong with taking MC, although it could be that their health does not allow them to keep up with the demands of work."
The philosophy of working, and passing skills and values to the next generation
Lim isn't all that unique in being a firm believer that a leader must work harder and do more than his staff.
At Sheng Siong, he stresses it is crucial that he knows and does everything from cashier duties to discharging goods, pushing trolleys, sweeping the floor — right down to figuring out which-sized hydraulic systems are suitable for moving goods in his warehouses.
This extends to what we now see as the Sheng Siong work ethic — which he explains most clearly:
"If I say you work until 6pm, you better work until 6pm and not start washing your hands and packing to leave at 530pm. If you have that kind of working attitude, we will definitely not have the bonuses we enjoyed this year in the future. We work till the very last minute, then we wash up, sweep the floor, give a little more time and maybe leave at around 6:15pm.
There’s no other way if you want to get the best [bonus]. It's simply impossible to work less and expect more bonuses. You go and ask your coworkers who is willing to give you more, they surely won't either."
It is at around this point that we invite him to reflect on how and if, with the immensely valuable mindset he and his brothers, as well as the rest of management, take to the company, he hopes to preserve the work and company culture that currently exists for the next generation.
(Ahem, one of Lim's nephews and two of his sons are currently employed as his executive assistants.)
First, he jokes that he cautions them against distributing their business cards unnecessarily. But here's something that isn't a joke — his sons and nephew do six-day work weeks, which funnily enough they are grateful about because Lim himself works every day.
"We are all relatives... I’m their father or uncle so I told them, you need to help make it easier for me to run this company. If you want to join this company, you will have to report to work earlier and leave later than others. You have to be more hardworking than others — if not, I cannot run this company.
If you don’t believe me, take my place and see for yourself. If this person wants to come late, and another person wants to leave early; others will say your relatives or children can do so, why can’t we? This will make things very difficult. So you don't have a choice.
So we don’t have to avoid hiring relatives or family, and we don’t have to hide that either. It’s just that they must be more hardworking than others."
In conclusion, Lim says he neither encourages nor discourages his descendants to join him in the company — only stressing that if they do choose to join, they must bear the heavy responsibility of running the company on their shoulders; "just like Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, you must take up the responsibility the job entails".
A Chinese High drop-out, an ITE-equivalent graduate, former pig farmer and billionaire who shuns e-commerce
There's plenty more where all this came from, of course — Lim, for instance, is the equivalent of an Institute of Technical Education graduate (except it wasn't called that during his time in school) who dropped out of The Chinese High School, and eked out way more than just a living from rearing pigs and learning how to fix cars and other machinery.
We asked for his take on the stigma ITE graduates continue to face despite improvement over the years, and his advice is not to limit yourself to what you have studied — whether it's to be a lawyer or doctor or pig farmer or car mechanic. There is a master in every trade, and you might not find success immediately, but work at it slowly but surely, and you'll find opportunities to build up the business, he says.
Sheng Siong and e-commerce
It's also quite remarkable how stubbornly against e-commerce Lim is. Yes, Sheng Siong does operate online too, and serves a few hundred customers that way, but eventually he insists that e-commerce is a loss-making venture ("the more you expand, the more cost you incur") unless you are a platform like Alibaba that collects money from sellers for providing online real estate.
It's remarkable to him how many companies are willing to burn millions of dollars just to expand their presence online, when "I can't bear to make any losses" — besides, to his mind, the e-commerce business model will only succeed when all physical shops have died, and that's way less likely to happen in Singapore, which is small and has many nearby shops competing for business in the neighbourhoods.
And there you have it — some of the many profound philosophies that drive Lim in his enterprise and his life. He told us he hopes to impart some of this as his legacy for his children and/or the next generation of Sheng Siong's leaders to pick up from and continue.
"As human beings, we will depart this world one day — what do we leave behind? If it’s just wealth or assets, it’s easy. But if it’s particular skills or leadership, passing them down will not be that simple."
We really hope he succeeds.
Lessons on Leadership is a new Mothership series about the inspiring stories of Singapore’s business leaders and entrepreneurs, as well as the lessons and values we can learn from their lived experiences.
Stay tuned for our next interview with Sports Hub CEO Lionel Yeo later this month.
Top photo by Zheng Zhangxin