More than just keeping local heritage crafts and traditions alive, millennial, second-generation business leaders are making waves in their fields. In this series, Annabel Tan finds out how they are taking carpentry, local coffee and bespoke gifts to the next level.
Killiney Kopitiam is a household name that needs no introduction. Founded in 1919, the Hainanese coffee shop was bought over by regular customer Woon Tek Seng in 1992 and is known for serving the quintessential Singaporean breakfast of kaya toast, soft-boiled eggs and freshly brewed kopi. But for second-generation business owner and director Woon Tien Yuan, it is not enough to be recognised as a local heritage brand; he wants to take Killiney Kopitiam to the international stage.
“Singapore is such a developed country, yet there are not many internationally well-known Singaporean brands,” the 34-year-old laments. “We need to be pushing Singapore heritage brands to the level of international names, and this can only be done with the help of Singaporeans, the government and the brand itself. This is what we hope to do with Killiney in the long term.”
Growing up, Tien Yuan helped out at the shops during the school holidays but was never pressured to join the family business. In fact, his father used to discourage him from it, citing the challenges of the tough food and beverage trade.
“I never thought too much about joining Killiney, let alone taking over one day,” he says. “However, I realised that our elders had put in so much effort to build the brand and that they would have loved for it to be carried on as a family business for as long as we could. Thus, I have always made myself available for this challenge of joining Killiney one day.”
Proof in the pudding
Interestingly, it was a challenge Tien Yuan posed to a friend that led him to enter the Killiney business two years ago. Over lunch with Yau Png, his neighbour, primary school classmate and founder of Hoow Foods, a Singapore-based deep-tech food reformulation company, Tien Yuan shared the issues Killiney was facing with its instant beverage formulas. “I challenged him to come up with a new formula for us, and Hoow Foods pulled it off in just three months! By comparison, we had spent over two to three years to settle on the previous formula.”
The family elders approved of the new recipe and were convinced of the advantages of utilising food technology. This led to a joint venture between Hoow Foods and Killiney in early 2019 to set up the latter’s instant beverage manufacturing facility in Singapore. And that was when Tien Yuan officially joined the business. “It was a huge validation for my efforts and is one of my happiest memories thus far.”
Since then, Tien Yuan’s main focus has been the setting up of Nanyang Beverage, the manufacturing facility for Killiney’s premium instant beverages, as well as the ongoing research and development partnership with Hoow Foods. Killiney currently has five new products from this partnership, including instant coffees and teas, with plans to export them worldwide.
“Before I joined the company, my father advised me not to spend too much time doing the tasks that we have already been doing in the past like running the outlets,” he says. There are about 30 Killiney outlets in Singapore, of which three are owned and operated by the family. “The simple reason is that we already have staff who are managing these aspects and I am not there to replace someone. Instead, I joined to explore new avenues to expand the business.”
“Art collecting has taught me to appreciate the intangible yet valuable lessons of having a long-term vision and the importance of commitment, since forming a collection is a long journey and endeavour,” he says. “The beauty of such lessons lies in the fact that they can be applied to all businesses, and they constantly remind me to stay grounded, patient and committed for the long-term good of my business.”
He shares that his father and uncles have always owned the properties that house their three Killiney Kopitiam outlets, a strategic move that would be a safeguard from issues with landlords and rental costs, especially in tough times, such as the past year. “Without having to worry that one day we will be forced out by landlords, we can then focus on growing the brand and business,” he explains.
“One of my favourite quotes is: ‘As a family business, we think in generations, not quarters’. In every sense, having this belief constantly reminds me to think in the long term for any decision we make for Killiney. At the end of the day, our vision for Killiney is to grow into an international brand, while maintaining our proud Singaporean heritage.”
(Main and featured image credits: Photography: Alecia Neo | Art Direction: Audrey Chan | Hair & Make-up: Benedict Choo)