A balancing act

As food distributor Teck Sang strives to reconfigure its business operations to meet today’s demands, it is equally vigilant of safeguarding its cherished values and practices which have struck a chord with its workforce .

In the midst of the hustle and bustle of Singapore’s Central Business District lies the quaint, sleepy, and old-fashioned laneway of Hong Kong Street.

There you’ll find a traditional, no-frills grocery store, one that epitomises the thriving trade sector of Singapore in the 1960s and 70s. You’ll also find the headquarters of family-owned food distribution business Teck Sang. 

This importer and logistics service provider for a wide range of traditional Chinese herbs, spices, seafoods, and other traditional Chinese foods prides itself on its close partnerships with suppliers, retailers and customers.

While from the outside in Hong Kong Street, things look like they might be working just as they did in that trading hey-day, Dr Andrew Seit, CEO, says things inside are far more modern. He says the organisation is determined not to let its storied history – having launched in Hong Kong and China 70 years ago and set up home in Singapore over 50 years ago – become its “Achilles heel”.

Teck Sang is hence ramping up efforts to stay relevant in an era where traditional brick and mortar stores are being squeezed by digital e-commerce platforms.

Fusing technology with trust

The organisation currently has around 85 employees on its roster, covering both the office in Hong Kong Street and its warehouses in Jurong. Teck Sang’s overall operations comprise of seven distinct channels, including retail (the traditional grocery store in Hong Kong Street spreads across two buildings) manufacturing and packaging, wholesale, and import and export.

A large proportion of that workforce is made up of “uncles and aunties,” Seit says fondly. While these mature workers are largely from an earlier generation, the company says they are embracing the digital journey it has been promoting for the last six months.

Seit says the business is now working to develop an “Online to Offline to Online” strategy.

With the company having already established a strong brand rapport with its traditional customers, it is now turning its attention towards the younger generation of shoppers.

Ironically, Teck Sang is tapping onto its network of old contacts to win over these new customers.

“For the younger generation, the last place they would want to come to buy traditional items is a place like here. It’s not relevant to them,” he says.

“They’ll probably go to a supermarket and see three or four choices. But if their partner’s mother comes to our shop to buy ingredients, they can recommend them to their children who can then come to our online platform, order items, and drive by to pick them up later.”

Dr Seit says the organisation’s key communication and technological platforms for its employees are WhatsApp and the free instant voice messaging app Wei Xin.

Recently, in preparation for Chinese New Year, Teck Sang employees received training on customer engagement and retention.

Dr Seit says staff are taught that sales is not about pushing products to customers; rather, it’s about service and building rapport and trust.

“We’re very different from supermarkets. If you go there and ask for a product, employees will say, for example, ‘Shelf A21’,” he says.

“Here, when you ask our staff the same question, they want to know why so they can then advise, recommend and suggest other ingredients for the specific ginseng tonic you may want to make for your wife.”

Subject-matter experts

This ability to counsel customers on the finer ingredients does not occur by chance.

Dr Seit shares employees have become knowledge experts over the years spent, developing an in-depth understanding of particular ingredients, such as nuts.

These subject-matter experts are dispatched to trade fairs globally to access the best possible ingredients for customers in Singapore.

“For example, one of them will be looking at beans and will then have to do forecasts. They will then come back and talk to clients about their expectations. They spent years learning, as well as eating,” he says with a laugh.

Old-school recruitment

Despite its digitalisation endeavours, recruitment at Teck Sang is deliberately “offline”. It is predominantly conducted through word-of-mouth and character references offered by current staff.

The organisation also carefully scrutinises candidates to ensure they are of the right cultural fit.

“We require employees who have an appreciation of food, and who like the finer things in this industry. These are people who are in their 30s or 40s and who have families,” he says.

As Teck Sang strives to diversify its business, company employees are also kept in the loop on future job roles, with some expressing a desire to move into new positions and take on different challenges.

Should employees possess good understanding and experience, and can handle the responsibility of working in the company’s different channels, they are encouraged to make the transition.

On certain occasions, those who have previously worked in other retail outlets and even supermarkets have approached the company to explore job opportunities.

“We have actually recruited some of them,” says Dr Seit.

Family culture

There are some aspects of Teck Sang that are still steeped in tradition.

Not only do employees receive an annual wage supplement at the end of each year, they also garner an extra month’s bonus.

“I call this our ‘hong-bao’ bonus”, says Dr Seit, referring to the traditional Chinese red packets given out during Chinese New Year.

Last year, the organisation also handed out gold-bar magnets which were part of its gift packs distributed to staff during Chinese New Year.

The gold-bar magnets represented a blissful blessing for the family, something that employees were deeply appreciative of.

The family-friendly atmosphere also makes up an important part of the workplace culture, with the organisation employing three chefs to cook a daily lunch, complete with afternoon desserts.

Due to space constraints, different meal-times are structured for employees to have their lunch within the company’s kitchen.

“The most important thing is the homely message that the meal is kept warm for you,” says Dr Seit.

“You might laugh at this, but even when I have outside engagements, the chefs will call me to ask if I’m coming back for lunch.”

Packing a punch

Teck Sang was established in Singapore more than 50 years ago, and continues to trade with one eye on the traditional culture of its Chinese heritage. But that doesn’t mean that CEO Dr Andrew Seit isn’t ready to branch out into other fields.

When two close friends, both boxing trainers, saw a business opportunity to run boxing classes on the fifth floor of the business’ headquarters in Hong Kong Street in Singapore, Dr. Seit was happy to get involved.

Teck Sang employees are now entitled to special rates for the classes.

Dr Seit says his younger staff, who enjoy close-contact and vigorous activities, had expressed an interest to pursue this particular passion.

“If you can adopt this into their workflow routine, it makes their lives much easier,” he tells HRM Asia. “We thought about this and we partnered with the two trainers to have their boxing lessons on our premises.”

Being a stone’s throw away from the Central Business District has rubbed off on other employees looking to improve their health.

The organisation’s female employees often partake in outdoor dance activities within the vicinity.

Even Dr Seit enjoys sweating it out, though he says he prefers to jog around the picturesque Marina Bay area.


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