The life of Ong Tuan Seng can only be described as legendary. Born to a family of pig farmers in Singapore and lacking much in the way of formal education, he became a successful businessman, building companies in logistics, machinery and textiles.
In 1993, he founded Golden Bridge Foods Manufacturing, seeing potential in the sector. It was his fifth company.
He started out by developing a single product: XO Waxed Sausage, which would incorporate the fragrant aroma of XO Brandy. It proved a hit as Golden Bridge Foods began developing other lines of meats such as Taiwanese-style sausages, along with Western-style hams, sausages and canned meats.
Nearly three decades later, Golden Bridge is a household name in Singapore with its lines of canned meats, cold cuts and ready-to-prepare products. It’s also entering foreign markets, taking the same commitment to quality and innovation abroad that made it a market leader in Singapore.
Growth gets limited when just functioning in a small market.
Ong Tuan Seng eventually passed the reins to his family and Golden Bridge Foods’ parent company OTS Holdings Limited became publicly traded in 2021.
Ong Bee Chip, his son, now oversees OTS Holdings as Managing Director, alongside his siblings, Ong Chew Yong and Ong Bee Song as Executive Director and Sales Director respectively. He joined the company in 2006, coming over from the family’s textile firm, having been responsible for the sales and marketing department and facilities management for 23 years.
Looking beyond Singapore
Since joining, he has charted an impressive growth path for Golden Bridge. But he’s also been confronted with multiple challenges – starting with Golden Bridge’s product line, which he describes as being, "high mix with low volume".
The mix of products was high due to it serving Singapore’s multicultural population and diverse customer needs, which required products for Chinese and Western palates, along with Halal options. Sales were also entirely local to Singapore, meaning volumes were low.
Upon arriving, Ong set about making changes, starting with the workflow, marketing and emphasizing research and development. In 2009, a new entity and processing facility, Ellaziq, was set up to increase production of halal-certified foods to meet the fast growing demand. It also started working toward opening export markets, including neighboring Malaysia.
"Growth gets limited when just functioning in a small market," Ong observes. "To grow the business, our team knew we had to move beyond Singapore to set up something overseas."
Five years ago, in 2017, Golden Bridge Foods opened an office in Malaysia and established its own distribution channel. The investment has paid off as the Malaysian market demonstrates a strong preference for Singaporean products, according to Ong.
More recently, Golden Bridge Foods established itself in the Philippines and Indonesia. Exports now account for 36 percent of the Group’s sales – a sign of how the future lies abroad for the company.
"When you ask me about short- and medium-term planning, I think, most likely, our plans will be to continue focus more on expanding and exporting out of this country," Ong says.
Product innovation has always been a key focus for Ong. The Group has debuted plant-based products under a new brand, ANEW, which Ong expects will find success in export markets, especially with the increased focus on sustainability.
But any expansion cannot occur without investing in people. As Ong puts it: "You need to have a very strong HR team". OTS has strived to put employee safety first in its plants, along with providing ways to address staff mental health concerns.
Many of the workers come from beyond Singapore, Ong says, "so we need to ensure that we are taking care of them and their wellbeing".
Preparation is key
The COVID-19 crisis brought business challenges such as supply chain disruptions and delays, unprecedentedly high logistical costs and a manpower crunch. Ong says many obstacles were overcome by using enterprise resource planning (ERP) software to better track its inventory and try its best to plan ahead for unforeseeable supply chain hiccups.
"In Singapore, almost all of the ingredients come from overseas," he says.
Supply chains seized up as shipments arrived late. Still, he says, "Even during COVID-19, I think the company realized that everything must be well prepared".
"Of course we have our goal and business targets, but in the meantime we have to be ready for anything. We have learnt how fast the business environment can change. To be prepared, we need to have the hardware, the software, the people, the skills and an adaptable strategy."
As OTS gears up its overseas expansion, Ong knows this preparation will be key.
We have to learn and deeply understand the local market and culture, hire locals who fit the organization and share skills with them to succeed in the overseas market.
"Local is more straightforward," he says, noting the challenge conforming to differing regulatory issues. To tackle the complex navigation of differing countries’ regulatory requirements, OTS has trained a strong in-house committee comprising of Sales, R&D, Quality Assurance and Quality Control (QAQC) and Qualified Person (QP) to ensure it plans ahead and clears any regulatory challenges for the focused export market.
"We have to learn and deeply understand the local market and culture, hire locals who fit the organization and share skills with them to succeed in the overseas market," he adds.
Another part of preparation is to futureproof the company in small steps. One example is how, sensing that the role of industry in environmental sustainability will become a bigger topic in the near future, OTS has already embarked on investing in sustainable energy solutions and aims to achieve carbon neutrality in the near future. In November 2022, it announced a 20-year Solar Power Purchase Agreement (SPPA) with Singapore’s Union Solar.
Ong stresses another imperative for managers.
"Being a leader means that we have to understand the industry," he says. And with decades of experience in Singapore under his belt, there is no doubt that Ong has a whole toolbox of skills he can bring to tackle these new and exciting markets.