Mr Woon Tien Yuan (Business ’12) is the Director of Killiney Kopitiam, a family business that is one of Singapore’s most-recognisable brands. He talks to The AlumNUS about taking a traditional enterprise into the future.
WHO HE IS
Mr Woon Tien Yuan, 33, is the Director of Killiney Kopitiam. A Singapore icon, the brand began life as Kheng Hoe Heng Coffeeshop in 1919. In 1992, the eatery at 67 Killiney Road was bought over by the Woon brothers, who turned it into a successful chain across Singapore, and has branched out overseas. The son of one of the founders, Mr Woon — who is married with a daughter — now looks after the expansion of the brand.
What are your earliest memories of the business?
I fondly remember helping my mother at our former Turf Club outlet on weekends — I was probably about 16. It was a memorable time — I witnessed horse racing events, and also got to serve older customers. When those uncles won their bets, we would be treated with huge smiles, but when they lost, they would get upset and impatient. But it was fun, and it taught me how to handle good and difficult customers.
At the time you were in university, did you already know that you would be taking over the business?
Honestly, no. On the contrary, I faced no pressure to join Killiney and my family elders did not raise the topic. In fact, my father used to discourage me from doing so, citing the huge challenges that F&B businesses typically face. However, I could see the effort put in by the elders to build the brand and that they would love for it to be carried on as a family business. As such, I always made myself available for
the challenge to join Killiney one day.
How did your university education influence the way you run your business?
I had always wanted to pursue a Business degree because I looked up to successful entrepreneurs and aspired to become one. I witnessed how my father and uncles worked hard to set up the businesses, and it was rewarding to see how we became stronger through working together. At NUS, there were two modules that had a lasting impact on me. One was called Social Entrepreneurship which was taught by Professor Albert Teo (Arts and Social Sciences ’86), and I did my final-year project with a Malaysia-based social enterprise, eHomemakers, under the guidance of Professor Wu Pei Chuan. These professors taught me
the importance of marrying business with social responsibility. It has inspired me to transform my business by adopting technology practices to provide affordable food to customers while reducing wastage.
Tell us about your progression through the ranks.
After graduation, I joined the family “business”, the Woon Brothers Foundation, which promotes art and culture and assists the needy. Throughout, I helped with the Killiney business — as with family businesses, things are not always “official”; we just help when there is a need. I officially joined Killiney in 2019 as a Director. It was a twist of fate that led me to officially join Killiney, and it was linked to Hoow Foods, a foodtech startup. One of its founders, Yau Png, was my primary school classmate and neighbour. In mid-2018, we met for lunch, and I happened to share that Killiney was facing some supply issues for
our instant beverages. Yau Png said his team could help us out — within three months, they created
an improved formula that won over our family elders. Our previous formula had taken three years to materialise! From this, our family realised the advantages of utilising food technology. This led to
Killiney and Hoow Foods forming a joint venture in early 2019 to set up Killiney’s own instant beverage manufacturing facility in Singapore. It also led Killiney to invest in Hoow Foods. Because of this partnership, it made sense for me to join both firms as Director. We launched our first new product, Killiney Premium Milk Tea, just before Chinese New Year this year, and have received very positive feedback. In early May, we launched the Killiney e-commerce store — reception has been very encouraging and we have plans to expand our product offerings. We are also in talks with several online platforms to extend the reach of the Killiney brand.
I’ve always been inspired by this Gloria Steinem quote: “Rich people plan for three generations; poor people plan for Saturday night.”
What are the most important lessons you have learned from your family elders?One would be the value of long-term investing. I appreciate this even more so now that Killiney’s survival lies in owning its properties, akin to McDonald’s, whose success is strongly tied to its growth and acquisition of property assets. Also, when I first joined, my father advised me not to spend too much time doing the jobs that are already being done. For example, our outlets are mostly self-sustaining, and at our headquarters, we have a general manager who runs the show well. So, I was told to explore new avenues to expand the business. “Think beyond just the traditional brick-and-mortar stores” were the golden words told to me. Our family elders also taught me the importance of being decisive. For example, they made the bold decision to set up our own manufacturing facility to produce our premium beverages. We wanted to ensure quality products, so we decided right away not to outsource production. Next, we had to decide where to set it up — Malaysia would have been cheaper cost-wise, but we chose to set up here because that would give us full quality control, and allow us to build our Singaporean brand heritage.
What is your vision for Killiney in the next five years? I wish to keep the brand a family business for as long as we can. My vision is to look beyond our outlets;
we have already taken to expanding online, which will allow us to penetrate overseas markets in a quicker manner, complementing our plan to grow our physical presence overseas. We also have a series of products in the pipeline, such as healthier versions of our beverages and sauces. These are being created through our R&D collaboration with Hoow Foods. Ultimately, our vision is to grow Killiney into an international brand, while maintaining our Singaporean heritage.
How do you define excellence and how does it apply to Killiney and other areas of your life?I’ve always been inspired by this Gloria Steinem quote: “Rich people plan for three generations; poor people plan for Saturday night.” When I joined the family foundation, I gave up the opportunity to enter the lucrative field of commodities trading. I saw my friends having fun on weekends while I worked tirelessly with my uncle on our first art monograph. But it was worth it. The tough years of training have allowed me to better appreciate our family’s art collection, and how the elders have worked so hard to plan for the next generation. All these have inspired me to do the same for the generations to come. At Killiney, the plans we effected gave us the opportunity to stay ahead of competitors and put ourselves in a position to grow beyond brick-and-mortar eateries.
I believe that long-term planning should be applied to philanthropy too. Giving back should not be done only when one becomes older, established or has retired. I recently set up a bursary at NUS Business School to provide support for needy students going on student exchange programmes. By doing so, I hope to encourage my peers to give back to society as soon as they can.
Finally, what is your favourite meal at Killiney?It has to be our Curry Chicken – the gravy is on point. Over the years, it has proved to be one of Killiney’s classic meals and it can be eaten with either toasted bread/baguette or rice.
COVID-19 & KILLINEY
Mr Woon reflects on how past lessons have served the company well in this time of massive disruption.
This current COVID-19 period is difficult for businesses, especially SMEs. What are the greatest challenges Killiney is facing right now and how are you coping with them?
WTY: Killiney has always focused on delivering the heritage experience via our traditional brick-and-mortar coffeeshops. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has adversely affected this business model to a certain extent. But even before the pandemic, most of our outlets have, over the past years, begun to tap on the various delivery platforms to cater to a wider consumer group. COVID-19 has spurred us and some of our franchise operators to consider working with even more delivery channels and online partners to soften the blow. Truth be told, even with increased sales from these delivery platforms, the revenue figures still do not make up for the loss of sales from the usual walk-ins.
However, if we take a long-term view of this situation, I think there are several positives. For one, traditional businesses that are accustomed to the old ways are now forced to re-think their business model: it seems inevitable that most F&B businesses have to consider the adoption of technology and online channels as a revenue stream. This is a huge game-changer for our Singapore F&B scene. For Killiney, the COVID-19 situation has accelerated our move into the world of e-commerce — several of our products have turned out to be very popular, such as our ready-to-cook curry chicken and laksa pastes. The popularity of these products has allowed us to reduce our reliance on our physical outlets and enabled us to move into e-commerce quite smoothly.
Dealing with outbreak is not a new thing for Killiney — the bird flu outbreak in 2002 affected businesses as well, but was well-handled by your company. What lessons from that experience have benefitted you in dealing with COVID-19?
WTY: What we learned from the bird flu outbreak was that with food supply issues and concerns, prices of raw materials will increase. However, just as we did in 2002, we have tried our best not to increase the selling prices of our food during this crisis. In order to achieve this, we have pivoted our business strategy into one key area to diversify our risks — that is, long-term investment in real estate. The 2002 crisis and the subsequent growth of our economy also taught our family the importance of being our own landlord, so we aren’t at the mercy of others. For most F&B operations, the high cost of rental has always been the “killer” in determining the survivability of the business. This current pandemic has further highlighted the impact rental can have on F&B businesses and we have, unfortunately, seen several F&B businesses call it a day. Fortunately, our family has been blessed with first-generation leaders with great foresight, who expanded our real estate portfolio during the early 2000s. Because of this, we are now in a position to say that this business model of building property assets has given us a safety net in this pandemic. Owning the properties has allowed us to have better control over our major costs and thus, we are able to maintain our food prices at an affordable rate.
The other lesson we learned from the bird flu outbreak of 2002 is the importance of giving back to society, especially in times of crisis. This has led to a deeply rooted family and corporate responsibility that has driven us to help others during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, we collaborated with Gojek to offer our coffee and tea to their drivers. We also donated our coffee in convenient sachets to healthcare workers in various hospitals. Some of our Killiney franchise operators have also kindly provided food to the frontline workers in various sectors. Aside from Killiney’s initiatives, our family foundation has, throughout the years, been donating to other charitable causes such as the century-old Sian Chay Medical Institution.
Text by Theresa Tan. Photo courtesy of Woon Tien Yuan