He may have moved from the kitchen to the boardroom but Mr Neo Kah Kiat can still be found in wholesale produce markets in the early hours of the morning.

"I still go to the market - on Tuesdays and Wednesdays - Pasir Panjang for vegetables and Jurong Port Road for fish," says Mr Neo, the founder, chairman and chief executive of catering firm Neo Group.

"I used to go four to five days a week and we still have a few suppliers that we have used for 20 years. The market sellers know me, everyone knows me."

Mr Neo, 44, who is married with two sons aged six and four, listed Neo Group on the Singapore Exchange Catalist board two years ago, but the new corporate responsibility has not altered his hands-on approach.

He still makes it a point to visit the market with his staff, and he personally teaches them cooking techniques in the kitchen, although he does not cook at home.

"I started out from the kitchen. I'm a food man, so I know everything about my food - I can tell you what type of fish is nice, where it is from."

This knowledge was hard won for the son of a metal machining businessman, who did not even know how to cook before he set up his catering company.

"I had no cooking experience but I learnt," said the third of four children.

"I wanted to be a rich man so I told myself there is no U-turn, 'die, die' must make sure the business succeeds."

His opportunity came when he attended a buffet held by one of his friends from the army, where Mr Neo had enlisted at the age of 17. "I noticed the food was not very good. At that time, ordering a buffet meant that you could afford it. The caterer would choose the location - after you had knocked on his door - and the food arrived cold. I saw that there was a gap, an opportunity (to offer more)."

With $15,000 loaned from friends and relatives, Mr Neo registered his catering business, then called Neo Garden, in 1992 when he was just 22 years old.

It offered both buffet catering and tingkat, or tiffin, delivery.

The company started life in a shared kitchen in Joo Chiat with only about eight staff, including relatives who helped out.

"I had to do everything by myself - deliver, take orders, cook. I once took one whole hour to take down orders because I had to explain each dish."

In the initial stages, Mr Neo had to buy all the raw materials himself because "I could not get the suppliers to deliver to me".

He purchased his supplies from wet markets at first but later got help from the produce sellers to find a way to buy from the wholesale markets. "I asked the sellers, can you lead the way? From there, I learnt and did my own tests."

The young businessman also faced some early issues. "I had to pay my chefs in advance and I even borrowed money to pay them, but there were times they didn't turn up after that," he recalls.

But he persevered, despite the long hours. "I spent 18 to 20 hours a day. I had to wake up at 3am, 4am, go to the fish and vegetable markets, do prep work, help the chef, deliver the tingkats, and answer calls. I was so tired that I would lie down on the floor while on the phone. On Saturdays and Sundays, I also had to cook."

He promoted the company's services by advertising in the newspapers, distributing fliers and faxing menus to people's homes, making use of addresses in the Yellow Pages phone directory.

That went on for more than a year as the company grew and Mr Neo learnt cooking techniques from his chefs.

He also developed his own recipes for dishes such as lemon chicken and curry chicken, which he calls his favourite dish today partly because of all the effort that went into making it - nine months' experimentation and at least 15 different ingredients.

Although he had had to copy other catering companies' menus when he started the business, Neo Group's menus now mostly contain recipes Mr Neo cooked up himself.

"The kitchen is a passion. You must love it. Before, I would do R&D (research and development) on the ground, but now I supervise and do more planning, strategy," he notes, quipping: "As chief executive officer, if you are in the kitchen, you will be scolded by the independent directors."

Neo Group is no longer in Joo Chiat. It moved to a coffee shop in Jurong about a decade ago and recently moved again to an industrial building - 1 Enterprise Road in Boon Lay.

Mr Neo says he had wanted to list the company to gain more public recognition and give himself a challenge.

"I wanted to retire at the age of 40, so I asked my neighbour - is that too early? He said 'yes', so I continued to drive my business."

The company branched out into various market segments as it grew. It launched Deli Hub Catering, which offers halal food, in 2004, followed in 2008 by Orange Clove, which targets the mid- to high-end market. It also started sushi chain Umisushi in 2007. It made $28 million in revenue and $2.5 million in net profit for the six months ended July 31 this year.

"To me, the company is still very small," Mr Neo says, adding that it plans to go into other countries in Asia if it can find the right partners.

He aims to grow its market value from $130 million or so now to more than $1 billion.