Udders founders on staying crazy, their cheesy higher purpose, & giving 21-month 'bonuses' after partial cash-out

Most would consider David Yim and Wong Peck Lin to be the successful founders of a ice cream business with 6 shops and 400 retail points, but they are careful not to take themselves too seriously.

Nigel Chua | November 13, 2021, 09:59 AM

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I meet the husband-and-wife duo behind local ice cream brand Udders in their cozy little corner of the Commonwealth Capital building, in a less-travelled part of what I think might be Tuas.

I find out later that we were actually closer to Jurong Island than the nearest MRT station (Boon Lay, by the way).

The F&B investment company's sprawling headquarters houses the offices of brands under its portfolio, along with purpose-built facilities for food production, cold storage, and a state-of-the-art multi-storey warehousing system.

Udders' office and ice cream production facility are housed in the building as well.

Pints of Udders ice cream in cold storage at their Buroh Lane production facility. Photo by Brian Low.

I settle down for this interview in the building's sixth-floor boardroom opposite Udders co-founders David Yim and Wong Peck Lin, a long way away from where their journey first began — both literally and metaphorically.

As older ice cream fanatics in Singapore might know, it was at Udders' very first shop in Novena, halfway across the island, where Yim and Wong welcomed their earliest customers in 2007.

That single ice cream shop has grown into a familiar local brand.

Philosophical people

Wong and Yim have agreed to a bit more of a philosophical interview about their values as leaders in their company, and how they've built Udders into what it is today.

"We are philosophical people," says Wong, flashing her husband an almost-conspiratorial smile, before quickly turning back to me to throw in a self-deprecating qualifier: "Sort of. Shallow philosophy."

Shallow or not, the founders spoke about how they are counting on their philosophies — which take the form of witty catchphrases and irreverent sayings — to keep the company on track, even as it continues to grow.

Indeed, Wong candidly points to the fact that the couple increasingly needs wisdom "to compensate for the physical energy" which they had in their thirties, when they started the business 14 years ago.

After all, Udders is going strong with six outlets across the island, over 400 retail points across petrol kiosk stores and supermarkets, and plans for overseas expansion — starting with Southeast Asia.

Going global

Yim and Wong have their sights firmly set on expanding into international markets, with an Udders shop in Jakarta due to open soon, with specially-created fermented cassava with cheese, and Sumatran coffee flavours.

They also have distribution agreements confirmed in Malaysia, Vietnam, and China — a market which they think will be receptive to Udders' "Emperor Mao" flavour, containing almost twice the amount of durian that goes into their normal durian ice cream.

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Yim candidly shares that the international plans "have been hit quite badly", but the company is pushing ahead through logistical hurdles and Covid-19 travel restrictions.

"It's like giving birth ah, I think can see the baby's head already ah. But still very tough. Need to push the baby out," says Yim, drawing an "Oh man, so gross" from his wife.

Keeping in touch

With all of this expansion on the horizon, Wong concedes: "We don't always have a direct line to the customer, [unlike] when both of us were in the shop."

In light of that, the founders have some practical ways of staying in touch with their customers.

For one, Wong reads every piece of customer feedback (whether it's a Google review, an email, a comment, or even a direct message on social media), working with her team to respond where needed.

"When we reply to the customer, I'm hoping that a lot of the care and concern and love for our product does still come through, even if in written form," she says.

But even technology and connectivity have limits.

Building a team

"As we grew, we felt that one of the things we have to learn to do was to infuse that culture and those values into a team, rather than direct to the customer," says Wong.

How do the founders influence company culture? Lots of facetime, apparently.

Yim, who takes charge of outlet operations and production, spends "a lot of non-work time" with his staff, and sets aside one day a week to have dinner with outlet staff.

He's tried to keep up this habit even amid Covid-19 restrictions, sharing that back when gatherings of up to eight persons were allowed, he went on a fishing trip with some of his staff.

"I try to make the whole environment as informal as possible so that they are not afraid at any time to give me feedback and talk to me about any issues."

Wong, who oversees the business development, branding, marketing, and sales teams at Udders, has regular coaching sessions with her team, where they discuss issues they are facing, both at work and in life.

"I value [these sessions] very much, because I can see that deposit into the team members — over time — paying off in their growth, and therefore that benefits everyone in in a sustainable manner."

"They actually have the answer"

Wong says that she's reaped results from this regular facetime and mentoring, in the form of better decision-making by her staff.

They are, she says, increasingly able to raise issues to her using a four-step process she came up with, and simplified into the acronym "BIRD": "B" for the "Background" of the situation, "I" for the "Issue" that's been identified, "R" for their "Recommendation", and "D" for the "Decision" that they think she would make, out of all the possible options.

As Wong says:

"There's no other way to learn to think and to grow in confidence, other than doing it yourself. If the boss does it, actually, you don't really gain much, you just get the decisions, and you just do lah. But it's the thinking process that matters, you see."

Yim quips pithily: "I don't have a complicated 'BIRD' thing that she has, I just answer them with the same four words, which is, 'what do you think?' And after a while, they get the message... they realise that they actually have the answer."

Having not been through the process of being asked what I think, I ask him what "the message" is exactly.

"The message is if you have a problem, before asking your boss what to do, think about it. And think about it enough to give a recommendation of what to do to your boss."

"They know those four words will come back," adds Wong, as the two share a laugh.

Udders' open-concept office at Buroh Lane. Photo by Brian Low.

Unlike ice cream, there is no secret recipe for culture

Reflecting further on the idea of building and shaping company culture, Wong says, "I'm not sure that there is any specific formula to get it correct."

Instead, Yim and Wong stress the importance of simply being their authentic selves. As Wong says:

"A lot of the culture obviously comes from the leader, you kind of set the tone, [and] create the culture by being who we are... It's actually a day-to-day lived experience for culture. And I think it starts with the leader."

Indeed, an attempt to pull together some of the "key people" in the company to think about their corporate vision and mission ended up being rather uninspiring. Wong recalls:

"The usual things came out lah. Integrity, [and so on], which to me is is a given lah, I mean, if you don't have integrity, I don't know lah, you have a problem with you. It's kind of a given, right?"

Yim groans at the memory, recalling that he was "falling asleep" through the process that was "very long!"

Three simple corporate values

Thus, instead of the usual corporate jargon, the company adopted a simple set of three corporate values.

The Udders Corporate Values in the toilet of their Upper Thomson Road outlet. Photo by Nigel Chua.

"It's in the toilet for a reason," says Wong.

To Yim and Wong, the three values ("get shit done, make shit happen, no bullshit") emphasise quick action ("Yes we need to think, yes we need to talk. But let's get shit done first, and then we see how we can adjust the shit later"), seeing things through ("If it's something that's difficult, let's think of a way. It's about being creative, being resourceful. And seeing it through to making it happen"), and staying away from distractions like politics, or giving excuses ("No bullshit is basically no bullshit lor").

"Words are just words, anybody can put words there. So it's about the lived experience. It's about how, in particular, I think, the two of us behave."

Staying crazy

Even as the business grows, one thing that the founders have sought to retain from the early days of Udders is their "spirit of exploration and experimentation, and a bit of craziness".

Back at the Novena outlet, customers might have recognised some of that spirit in a large blackboard on a wall, on which customers would scribble both wacky and sincere requests for Udders' next ice cream flavour.

Today, exploration, experimentation, and craziness takes the form of having a culture where all ideas are welcome.

Some years back, an Udders chef decided to create kimchi ice cream, complete with garlic, as a joke which nonetheless made a brief appearance in Udders' Bukit Timah store before being retired.

That joke turned into a golden opportunity when the Trump-Kim summit in 2018 came to Singapore, and Udders was among the local brands invited to cater for the 2,500 visiting journalists at the media centre.

Udders ice cream freezers at the Trump-Kim summit media centre. Photo by Mandy How.

The unconventional flavour earned Udders some new fans — Korean journalists who actually liked the kimchi ice cream — as well as valuable international media exposure, says Wong.

"And all that came up from this joke, and just wild experimentation."

Is this a joke?

As if to prove that very point, I'm later asked by some of the staff to sample a new flavour: Century egg ice cream — whether or not this is also a joke, I still can't tell.

How do Yim and Wong rally their team behind unconventional ideas?

Yim has a simple answer: "Just do it lah."

"Just do it. Support a few weird ideas. And when you start to support a few outrageous ideas then no one will be hesitant to bring out more far-flung ideas."

Yim cites the example of the Lorong Kilat outlet, which is decorated with red "emergency" boxes offering cheeky, irreverent solutions for various exigencies — among them, a packet of Viagra, "in case cannot mari kita".

Udders' Lorong Kilat outlet at Upper Bukit Timah. Photo via Udders.

Wong shares that most of the ideas for what to put in the red boxes came from Udders' staff, who submitted their suggestions as part of an internal competition.

"When they finally see something real that is in the shop, that is their idea, and they got a prize for it, it can be quite happy lah. Little joys like that are quite important!"

Yim adds:

"Everybody chipped in. And it's definitely unconventional. But let's just do it lah! And it was quite fun. And even up till now, it's quite iconic... for the first time that they walk in, people will smile, or chuckle a bit, and that's what we want."

Red emergency boxes at Udders' Lorong Kilat outlet at Upper Bukit Timah. Photo via Udders.

"Our team (members) are not penalised or blamed if an idea doesn't work... some ideas just will not work, right? But you need a few ideas that really will work and will fly, and that makes all the difference," adds Wong.

Out of a hundred ideas, there may only be one good one, she says. "But if you don't let the one hundred come out, you won't get the one good one."

    Fun things that are "un-corporate"

    The Udders office has a giant surf board in place of a standard meeting room table, custom made by a surf shop.

    "Just do some things for the sake of doing it, creating a bit of fun and cheer," says Yim.

    It's not something you'd imagine in a larger, more corporate office environment, not least because of its sheer impracticality — after getting shipped over from Bali, it had to be carried up six floors because it wouldn't fit in the lift.

    In short, "we're not afraid to be different," says Yim.

    He lets on that he's now working on renovation plans for Novena, and promises "something very different" by early 2022.

    Udders at Goldhill Plaza in Novena. Photo by Nigel Chua.

    But being "un-corporate" is not just about having fun, or being different for the sake of it.

    It also serves a "higher purpose" that Yim and Wong had in mind from the very beginning.

    "Higher purpose"

    Wong shares that the couple had three main reasons for starting Udders back in 2007.

    The first reason was to fulfil their shared dream of doing something creative, while the second reason was simply to earn more for a better life.

    The third reason — which Wong admits "sounds so cheesy", was a desire to do something good for others.

    "We were trying to find a way in which we can create something that can bless a lot of people, more people than we could do in our [previous] jobs lah."

    The founders had in mind from the start that if they were to succeed in business, they would want to "bless" their staff financially, and with a work environment that is "healthy and affirming".

    Wong says that this was partly borne out of their experiences in their previous workplaces, which she would only describe as "challenging".

    This made them want to create a work environment that would be different. "We wanted to create a place where people could thrive," says Wong.

    "It's the higher purpose for us that actually, to some extent, keeps us going through the pain," adds Wong.

    "[In business], there's a lot of things that come in that you cannot control. And it's about how much you can take and just keep walking, you know, keep going.

    Because you never know when you turn the corner. Nobody knows where the corner is. So it [takes] a lot of stamina, I think, to grow a business and stick with it. That's where the pain is."

    Running a F&B business amid Covid-19 restrictions has definitely been one of their recent sources of pain, but there have been darker times as well.

    Yim recalls a stressful period of working to ramp up production dramatically, to fulfil a large order for a corporate customer.

    Three months of sleepless nights took a toll on his health:

    "One day, just [driving] to work, and I didn't pay attention and just hit a bus. I would consider that the most challenging period of my life."

    Still on the way

    Pursuing this higher purpose in day-to-day operations is not enough for Yim and Wong, who say that they are "still on the way" to fulfilling it.

    A milestone in this journey, however, came in 2018, after Commonwealth Capital invested in Udders, acquiring a 50 per cent stake.

    "We cashed out some, and we shared quite a significant percentage of that with the staff," says Wong.

    Employees were assessed on their aptitude, but also their attitude and loyalty, with some taking home the equivalent of "between one and a half to two years' bonus", Yim says, with the largest amount adding up to 21 months' salary.

    Yim and Wong's sharing of their proceeds from cashing out some of their Udders shares marked the fulfilment of a personal promise they had made to the staff before.

    The extraordinary distribution, of course, had to be done in a grand, yet "un-corporate" way, at a swimming pool event (instead of a formal dinner) where staff took turns to walk through two rows of their colleagues while getting splashed with water, before Yim and Wong handed them their "bonus".

    Yim explains that some of their staff earn "a very basic income" which mostly goes towards living expenses and makes it hard for them to save.

    The effect of this was to "give them a boost in their savings, whether for rainy days, for retirement, whatever it is."

    Being able to share their returns with the employees in this way made their higher purpose "something real, not just an aspiration," says Wong.

    "If I die tomorrow, I should be quite happy. I mean, I think I've done what I wanted to do with the business so far."

    Top photo by Brian Low