Business

Singapore's Mr Fish: I'm a big fish in a small pond

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Media caption"Kenny the Fish" describes his swim to the top

Well known in Singapore as "Kenny the Fish", Kenny Yap is unlike any other chief executive you're likely to meet.

For one, he runs a niche business, dealing with his self-proclaimed moniker, fish. But the 1,000 or so varieties he breeds for sale and export, are not meant to be eaten.

They are ornamental fish that end up in aquariums in over 80 countries around the world. That's how many countries his firm, Qian Hu Corporation, exports to and from farms in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and China.

Calling himself a small fish who has to swim with other little fish, Kenny says he couldn't run the business without the help of his four brothers and two cousins.

Started by his father and uncle, the business has transformed from near bankruptcy to one of the leading exporters of ornamental fish in the world in over 20 years.

Part of this has been achieved by Kenny's tireless self-promotion. At his farm in Singapore, ponds filled with fry are flanked by pin boards where hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles feature him and his business prominently.

He also poses nude on the cover of a book he wrote on Asian entrepreneurship, called, What the Fish, The Makings of an Asian Entrepreneur.

Singapore, in spite of its small size, is one of the top exporters of ornamental fish.

It currently exports just over 20% of the world's supply, of which Kenny reckons Qian Hu accounts for about 5% - and he has ambitious plans for that share to double in about five years.

Image caption Qian Hu exported 4 million fish last year. Preparing fish for the rigors of a long plane ride is key to the success of his business.

From pigs to fish

It has not always been easy. His father and uncles started off as pig farmers but had to change their focus when pig rearing was designated a polluting industry by the Singapore government in the 1980's.

Enter guppies, which Kenny says had already been a popular fish to rear. They were introduced by the British during the colonial era to eat up mosquito larvae.

Image caption "Kenny the Fish" is unlike any other chief executive you're likely to meet

Yap Brothers Fish Farm was born, but the brothers, who had roped in the younger generation at this stage, were faced with many trials according to Kenny.

"In 1989, there was a prolonged period of rain, we used to have primitive earthen ponds to breed the guppies, but because of the rain, all those little ponds became a big pond when the water from the river came in and washed away all our fish.

"Like any Asian, if you lost confidence, you seek confidence somewhere else," says Kenny.

"So as typical Chinese we went to consult a geomancer, a Feng Shui teacher.

"He advised us to change our name to Qian Hu, which means a Thousand Lakes," he says.

The name is considered auspicious. Lakes are filled with water, and in Cantonese, it means wealth. But the firm's fortunes were yet to take a turn for the better.

Shortly after the guppy episode, Kenny and his brothers, on the advice of friends decided to breed a popular fish from Sichuan province called the high fin loach.

But unbeknown to the brothers, this was a fish that was very sensitive to noise, and disturbances from building new tanks at their farm caused their entire stock of 4,000 fish to die.

They were nearly bankrupted by their loss but learnt the importance of diversifying and researching their products.

The high fin loach is now the Qian Hu logo, to serve as a reminder of that valuable lesson.

Image caption The most expensive fish Qian Hu ever sold was a dragon fish worth worth $50,000.

High-tech fish farms

Research and development now makes up such an important part of the business that Qian Hu employs a research head, who looks into ways to increase the number of fish the company can breed while also addressing Singapore's space constraints.

Image caption Qian Hu has spent close to $10m on research and development since the company was listed in 2000.

Dubbed as the "next generation fish farm"', innovation is a key part of Kenny's growth strategy.

At his Singapore farm, tanks specially developed by Qian Hu, are stacked up in rows of four. They are supplied with freshwater every hour by a complex network of pipes fixed above the tanks.

In them, swim hundreds of gold and orange koi or Asian carp - popular among collectors who keep them in garden ponds.

Boosting productivity

At first, the tanks, appear overcrowded with the fish and packed in more densely than usual.

Image caption Qian Hu exports to over 80 countries around the world. Last year turnover was $67 million.

However, Kenny says this is fine, due to the constant supply of fresh water the fish receive and a filtration system that was designed so that they could hold a high density of fish in a smaller volume of water. This enables them to boost productivity three-fold.

Even though the company doesn't face space constraints on its other much larger Chinese, Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian fish farms, it has exported these tanks and systems to boost output on these farms as well.

The farm in Singapore remains the company flagship. There, customers buying fish can also step into a fish spa - a series of ponds filled with tiny fish called Garra rufa or doctor fish, which revel in eating the dead skin and calluses on human feet.

The use of these fish as a spa treatment is widely debated, but here for a small fee, you can wash your feet, grab a towel and dip them into the pond, and if you can endure their ticklish tiny bites, emerge with soft callus-free feet.

'I like being in small pond'

Image copyright Qian Hu Corp
Image caption Singapore's Mr Fish: I'm a big fish in a small pond

Qian Hu may be a household name in Singapore, but the future is not without challenges, says Kenny says.

A big part of the business is in manufacturing and distributing fish tank accessories, a side of the business which is currently flagging. The rising cost of plastic raw materials has eaten into profits in recent years, even as fish breeding flourishes.

However, Kenny is optimistic: "For every dollar spent on fish, someone would usually spend one to five dollars in aquarium accessories and fish food."

"For such a small niche industry, I have a chance to be world's number one.

"I like being a big fish in a small pond, because I can swim more easily than by being one of the big fish in the big ocean -because there you'll usually encounter sharks," he laughs.

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