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FEEDING STOMACHS AND MINDS

KELVIN TAN, CA (SINGAPORE), CO-OWNER, FFL GROUP

At 36, Kelvin Tan fits squarely in the millennial, keen-to-try-new-things demographic – and he has the varied, multisector career arc to back it up. His first 12 years in the workforce have already been packed with a diverse range of experiences covering both the public and private sectors, and in roles spanning information technology (IT) and accountancy to business development and academia. Now, Mr Tan is putting all his experiences and skills to use as one half of the husband-and-wife team behind the food and beverage (F&B) business – Fresh Fruits Lab (FFL) Group.

FIRST-TIME RESTAURATEURS

He may have pursued an Accountancy degree during his undergraduate years, but Mr Tan’s first love was, and still is, IT. He studied IT at the polytechnic and later on – while working in his first job as an IT auditor at the Auditor-General’s Office – took up a part-time Master’s degree in Information Systems. “Back when I was in poly, IT was experiencing a ‘peak’ of sorts with the e-commerce boom. My switch to studying Accountancy in university came about because the two fields are complementary. IT is everywhere, across all business sectors, so naturally, accounting has to change with it,” says Mr Tan.

By the time his wife opened the FFL eatery in Changi in 2015, Mr Tan had spent nearly a decade in the working world and had built up his business acumen on the job. After the Auditor-General’s Office, he had joined a statutory board and then moved on to Singapore Polytechnic (SP)’s School of Business. The then-full-time lecturer played a supporting role from the sidelines as he helped his wife get her restaurant up and running.

It was not plain sailing, however, especially at the start. “I helped my wife out a bit in strategising how to improve the business, but things were quite tough during that first year,” Mr Tan admits. So it was a stroke of luck that about nine months in, a blogger came to the restaurant and wrote a positive review about it. Almost overnight, customers started coming in and, through word of mouth, the restaurant grew.

Motivated by the success of FFL, Mr Tan decided in 2017 to scale back his teaching load at SP and join the business full-time. The last two years have seen the couple expand the Group to its current three outlets, each with a unique concept and a different customer profile. The original Changi outlet, with its bright, fruit-inspired décor and offerings, pulls in mostly parents with young children. Platform 1094, also known as the “Harry Potter-themed café”, draws a fair share of curious tourists and fans of the book series to its Serangoon Road location. Herit8ge, which was launched last year at Jewel Changi Airport, tends to attract more mature customers.

“Because of our prior experience with the first Fresh Fruits Lab, things were smoother the second and third time around. We knew how to attract customers better, for example, by sending out press releases and posting on social media. We’ve also become more active in the networking scene, which has helped us gain valuable feedback and investment,” says Mr Tan. Being an ISCA member is a plus point during networking sessions, he adds. “The Chartered Accountant (CA) qualification is like a badge of honour. By having this printed on my name card, I’ve found that it’s easier to gain people’s attention and respect. People are more willing to talk to me.”

The day-to-day running of the business is shared between Mr Tan and his wife. She manages the operational side of things, while he handles administrative tasks such as marketing and looking for new business opportunities. He has also utilised IT to optimise front-end and back-end operations. “Using government grants, we set up an iPad ordering system and a cloud-based point-of-sale system. Our accounting and social media marketing systems are also in the cloud,” says Mr Tan.

Data analytics is another important technology for the business. For example, run charts created from sales data have enabled Mr Tan and his wife to identify peak periods, to help improve manpower planning. They have also used data analytics to determine which dishes are selling better than others, so that they can tweak the menu accordingly.

Like all F&B businesses, the main challenge for FFL Group is bringing customers through their door. “New outlets are opening and closing all the time, and to some extent, the economy also influences whether people eat out or eat at home,” says Mr Tan. There is also the “time-consuming” work involved in managing three distinct concepts, which requires as many menus, marketing strategies and other business considerations. On that score, the insights gleaned from data analytics can help them make more informed decisions.

NURTURING YOUNG MINDS

While Mr Tan’s efforts are now concentrated on FFL Group, he is not ready to quit teaching altogether, which explains why he continues to teach in an adjunct capacity. “I love working with young people. As a lecturer, I get to teach them relevant skills based on my own experiences. I teach them how to run a business and the skills they will need,” he says.

Mr Tan’s teaching career began in 2012 on the recommendation of one of his Master’s degree course mates – a lecturer at SP – who told him about a job opening there and encouraged him to apply for it. “At the time, the poly was looking for someone to teach Accountancy as well as run its Student Development department. The latter involved organising student leadership camps and interacting closely with students, so they felt a younger person like myself would be more suited for the role,” recalls Mr Tan. He believes that having the CA qualification also helped him land the position.

It did not take long for Mr Tan to discover that he enjoys connecting with young people and preparing them for the future. He has, to date, taught various courses including Accountancy, Analytics and more recently (after becoming a co-owner of FFL Group), Entrepreneurship. His teaching commitments usually take up about 10 hours a week. Coupled with his responsibilities running FFL Group, Mr Tan certainly keeps a busy schedule. Nonetheless, he manages to find time for leisure pursuits such as travelling with family and friends, typically during semester breaks. “Many of the part-time waiters and waitresses at our restaurants are actually my students. I also engage interns from my class, to expose them to the business world and show them what SMEs do. For example, I bring them with me to business meetings and involve them in marketing campaigns,” says Mr Tan. “This creates a win-win situation – the students get to learn from me and at the same time, they also contribute to my business.”

In particular, he hopes young and aspiring accountancy professionals will absorb two key pieces of advice. The first is to be open to learning new things. “Data analytics is very exciting and there is a lot of use of analytics in the working world these days. However, I don’t see many young professionals – especially in the accountancy field – who are willing to learn the technical or IT skills required for analytics. They need to embrace learning and upgrade their skills,” says Mr Tan.

The second is to define success on their own terms. “To many people, success is about money or climbing up the corporate ladder. But that’s not necessarily true. If it were, I would’ve joined a Big Four firm,” he points out. “To me, success is about setting personal goals and working towards them so that when you retire, you can look back with pride on all that you’ve done. Ask yourself what you really want to achieve at the end of the day; set your own goals, and aim for that.”

So how would Mr Tan evaluate his efforts thus far in reaching his personal goal to nurture and guide the young? “I would say I’m about halfway successful, but I still have a long way to go!”

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

2008
IT Auditor, Auditor-General’s Office

2011
Business Development Assistant Manager, Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (now Infocomm Media Development Authority)

2012 to Present
Lecturer (now Adjunct Lecturer), Singapore Polytechnic

2017 to Present
Co-owner, FFL Group