COMMITMENT to quality is what drives SMC Food 21, a company specialising in the blending of basic food ingredients such as sugar, milk, and cocoa. These blends are incorporated in food products such as chocolate, ice cream, yoghurt, soup, and sauces.
"We believe very much in giving very good quality products to our customers," says Cheng Liang Chye, managing director of SMC Food 21.
The company also believes in selling their blends to customers who know how to appreciate the quality of the product, adds Mr Cheng, quoting the company's mission statement, "Quality Blends for Quality Customers".
From its early days, SMC Food 21 has kept the same group of quality customers, and it seems that this practice has paid off. Its production volume into Japan, its primary market, was 90,000 tonnes last year, a huge growth from 2,000 tonnes in its first year. In addition, its annual turnover in 2013 was more than $200 million.
Besides being one of the major suppliers of blends into Japan, SMC Food 21 also has a market presence in Korea, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines, and is still "actively looking out for and sourcing new customers worldwide", according to Mr Cheng.
Going the extra mile
SMC Food 21's history of high quality standards goes back to when it first started 15 years ago.
One of the initial challenges, admits Mr Cheng, was "learning how to produce a good quality product".
He said that 90 per cent of SMC Food 21's production volume comprises orders from big Japanese companies, whose standards vastly differ from the international norm.
For international food hygiene standards, Mr Cheng explains, a total bacteria count of 50,000 would be considered "good quality". However, some of their Japanese customers have required total bacteria counts of as low as 1,000.
To adhere to such standards, SMC Food 21 implements quality control methods ranging from audits to careful testing of each batch of products in its in-house laboratories and test centres.
But the practice of keeping clean extends to the office as well, where employees are told to toe off their shoes at the door, preventing bacteria and dirt from being tracked into the office.
"If you don't have a clean environment to start with," says Mr Cheng, "the people will not understand what (it means to be) clean."
He adds that since his workers hail from a variety of cultural backgrounds, each with their own notion of cleanliness, it makes sense to instil respect for a certain standard of cleanliness in the office, so that they will be more willing to practise good hygiene, especially around the production lines.
The practice of taking off their shoes also helps turn the office into a "homely environment", adds Mr Cheng. As employees often spend more time in the office than at home, it is important that the place becomes like a second home to them. Office politics has no place here - in fact, one of the company's core values is open communications, and Mr Cheng feels that by encouraging employees to be more direct and open with each other, it will promote a healthier office culture for everybody.
Another of SMC Food 21's core values is continuous improvement - which it strives for not only in product quality, but also productivity.
In an effort to combat the labour crunch in Singapore, and also in response to the government push for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to raise productivity, SMC Food 21 aims to fully automate some of its production lines by this month or next, according to Mr Cheng.
Not only would this result in an estimated 10 per cent reduction of manpower from 80 to 70 - easing SMC Food 21's difficulty in renewing its workers' work permits - the automation is also expected to increase output by up to 2.5 times.
Additionally, SMC Food 21 intends to outsource more of its operations overseas - it already owns a factory producing cocoa blends for chocolate in Malaysia and another producing sugar blends for making vinegar and sauces in Thailand - in response to the rising costs in Singapore. Currently, they produce milk blends in Singapore, to be used in products like ice cream. Last year, 45,000 tonnes of milk blends were produced in Singapore, but now, according to Mr Cheng, they plan to move some of the milk blend production to a new factory in Malaysia, which is expected to be completed in July.
"Singapore has become a very expensive place for us to just produce blends," Mr Cheng says. "So internally we're going to restructure which country to produce what products, and keep only the very high value-added products in Singapore."
Having overseas factories is a boon to SMC Food 21, as its factories are strategically placed near the sources of raw materials, allowing them to keep prices low.
"We have always put ourselves as ... a competitively-priced supplier with lots of flexibility," said Mr Cheng, adding that staying competitive helps keep an edge over rival companies in Singapore and Korea.
That flexibility gives it an extra edge - it is able to take last-minute orders, and is free to choose who to work with because it is an independent company without any shareholders from trading houses.
More product offerings
To further boost their competitiveness, SMC Food 21 plans to expand its product offerings in the near future, utilising the space freed up in its Singapore facility. According to Mr Cheng, they will be venturing downstream into the manufacturing of finished products, such as the production and packaging of soup for export to Japan. They already export instant soup mix to Japan, and aim to complete this new line of products by the end of this year.
Another project, currently in the research and development stage, and expected to be launched in the third quarter of this year, is the production of infant milk powder and adult nutritional powder. SMC Food 21 is looking to sell these products in other markets - not just Japan, but the rest of the region, including India, China, Myanmar and Indonesia.
It is certainly new turf for SMC Food 21, but Mr Cheng has confidence in the venture. "With all the experiences and the capabilities that we have acquired over the last 15 years," he says, "we believe we can penetrate this market."