Julie Haw, managing director of Frosts Food & Beverage, relates how she overcame adversity as a young businesswoman and grew the business into the success it is today

SINGAPORE (Aug 19): Even a casual conversation with Julie Haw turns up phrases such as “taste profile”, “pallets”, “containers” and “bulk buys”. Probe further and you learn how mass quantities of edibles are processed and moved here from far-off lands, and the sheer logistics of her business. Our chats are conducted in between Haw’s constant shuttling from her Tuas warehouse to supermarkets, or in and out of the country. She is full of infectious energy as she explains the nuts and bolts of food distribution, and changing the way the food-loving consumer contemplates the shelves at supermarkets. 

The managing director of Frosts Food & Beverage, the sole local distributor of the popular Hong Kong Mei Xin (HKMX) mooncakes — her other notable products include Mission, Ovomaltine, Chobani and Homestyle Two-Bite Brownies — is currently focused on her annual high-stress period. It is the Mid-Autumn Festival period and the company is busy meeting the frenzied demand for HKMX mooncakes, which come in a broad range of flavours including its speciality lava and custard. 

Frosts is inundated with corporate and retail orders during the four-week mid-Autumn Festival period

This is the only time of the year that Frosts turns retailer. Otherwise, it is invested only in volume-driven, business-to-business transactions. It is an adjunct side of the business that is peculiar to mooncakes, which are a favourite on the corporate gift-giving calendar.

Frenzied buying

During the four-week mid-Autumn festival period, HKMX’s booths attract snaking lines. Customers include pregnant women seeking specific flavours, to harassed husbands trying to secure the right haul. Those who fail to procure their choice of flavour often take out their disappointment on the retail staff, but Haw says getting scolded is better than what happens in Hong Kong, where fisticuffs sometimes erupt. “The staff there once told us, you’re lucky you only get scolded. In Hong Kong, we get beaten up!”

To meet this demand, Haw and her team have launched an eshop — www.hkmxproducts.sg. This year, Frosts will pilot a plug-in called TroopBuy on the eshop. TroopBuy automates the process of sharing the discount of a bulk order among a group. As long as customers round up the numbers to form a “campaign” on TroopBuy, the plug-in will manage the discount split, collect payments directly from buyers, and fulfil individual deliveries. 

“It’s really the oldest form of how people share good deals,” she says of TroopBuy. “Quite a few people were doing that together, among friends. But it had to be among people they saw very often, before they dared to coordinate group buys, because of the ease of fulfilling their friends’ orders.”

Corporate orders remain robust because businesses of all sizes still uphold the traditional Chinese custom of presenting mooncakes to associates to show appreciation. There are several legends associated with the festival. In one, the goddess Chang’Er ascended the moon after drinking the elixir of eternal life. In another, rebel forces disseminated messages to overthrow a corrupt government. And there is also a self-sacrificing rabbit involved.

Lesser known, perhaps, is when someone should actually gift mooncakes. Traditionalists abstain from presenting the delicacies until the end of the Hungry Ghost Festival, to avoid the implication that the recipients are themselves greedy spirits. 

While all this makes for great storytelling, it means that Haw’s team has to contend with a deluge of deliveries islandwide — just about all at once. Adding to the madness is the unreasonably cute series of MX-Marvel Mini Heroes Avenger tin boxes holding its lava custard moonies.

Few can resist these MX-Marvel Mini Heroes Avenger and Ironman lava custard mooncake tins

Getting it done

Haw might have found her way into banking and finance, except the food industry got to her first. She started Quix fresh food processing in 2000, then stepped into Frosts Food & Beverage in 2002 to answer a family need, before moving to Cosmopolis Holdings, which operates three Japanese restaurants Shinjuku (Cuppage Plaza) and Nanbantei (Far East Plaza and Chinatown Point).

After graduating from the London School of Economics with a Bachelor of Science in Economics in the mid-1990s, she worked at The Marriott, then sold websites and, in between, married the man she had met as an undergraduate, Leow Tze Wen. While he worked as a reinsurance broker in London, she completed her MBA at Imperial College. Both returned to Singa­pore to join the Citystate Group of companies, then headed by Leow’s father, prominent businessman Leow Siak Fah. (The senior Leow was chairman of the group of service-oriented companies and founder of the Singapore Lyric Opera. He passed away in 2015.) 

Frosts, which had been acquired by the group, turned out to be a nightmare, recalls Haw. She signed on at 29, months after giving birth to their second son. Their elder son was about two. The general manager they hired “turned out to be a crook” who nearly ran the business aground. After he was fired, she inherited the premises with nothing left in it.

“Sales had walked out. Logistics had walked out. They thought it was going to close,” she recalls. “The electricity bill was $15,000 to $18,000 a month. We couldn’t shut down the turbines. It was worse than anything you can imagine.” 

Haw snapped into problem-solving mode and defibrillated the business by at once restaffing, restocking and building relationships with retail outlets and supermarket chains. She identified drink brands such as Esprit and Bickford’s, and began cold calling buyers to take her stock. She realised that she first had to build trust. “We started with brands with less international exposure — they just gave me the things to distribute. They trusted me enough to know I wouldn’t abuse the brand. As time went by, the brand owners invested with me here.”

Options caught up with Haw at one of her restaurants, Nanbantei, for an insight into her world.

How did you wind up in the food distribution business?

I worked at The Marriott, then sold web pages, around 1995. My mother asked me: ‘This internet thing, will it last or not?’ Citystate Group bought Frosts Food 23 years ago, and when I came back from London with my husband at the time, I decided to produce ready-to-eat sandwiches and salads on the premises. We hired a professional to run the distribution business but, when things didn’t work out, I took over. I realised I’d stored a lot of technical stuff in my head, without meaning to. For example, when I was talking to people about pack sizes or grammage. My eyes were always picking up packaging and grammage, the labelling. It’s a habit. I guess I was born an ‘Ah Soh’, haha. So, it was very natural for me.

What are some of the things that keep you up at night?

In the early days, we found out that the business was not what we thought we had bought. The partner that was supposed to be operating the business was very much in the commodities realm. Margins were small and volumes transacted were not large enough for the business to be feasible. We had to change the entire model as the commodities business is very reliant on relationships and we were price takers, owing to the small volumes we were moving. I decided to focus on brand building and set out to acquire sole distribution rights for the brands and products I believed in. Like every start-up, cash flow and credibility issues haunted me for a long time.

If there is one piece of advice you’d give to people trying to start something in the food business, what would it be?

Don’t. Not unless there is a burning reason for you to do so. It is an industry with seemingly low barriers to entry so there are many kamikaze attempts, which often create noise and turbulence in the industry.

Let’s play word association. What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when I say:

Artisanal: Should look hand-made.

Fusion: Few can pull it off without confusion.

Gluten-free: Hyped-up concept.

How did you get into distributing mooncakes?

An institutional customer needed logistics help to bring in Hong Kong Meixin mooncakes in 2006. I thought it would be just us helping with moving a pallet of goods. The brand owners approached us to distribute the brand and, in a blink, it’s been 13 years.

What, to you, is the lingering significance of businesses giving out mooncakes to associates?

It is a great gift just after the mid-point of the calendar year to thank your customers for their support. It is a way to keep up traditions. When you give a mooncake they enjoy eating, they will remember you for the rest of the year.

Given that people are so health-conscious these days, what trends do you see emerging as their way of balancing indulgences with managing waistlines?

I think people are more health-conscious. So, they choose quality over quantity. They choose to make their indulgences count. Thus, they will always appreciate the product that gives them the most satisfaction. The right soul food actually reduces cravings.

What do you consider success?

Clearing hurdles with a margin so wide that it is undeniable.

What do you consider failure?

Not yet achieving success.

How do you cope with the former, and the latter?

Haven’t had a taste of the former and I beat myself up over the latter.

What are the biggest challenges to your industry?

Regulatory changes and the latest food hypes/myths.

Where do you see your business heading in the next few years?

We are looking for like-minded companies around Asean to hook up with for expansion. We believe that the worth of an Asean-wide distribution business with sales and brand building capabilities, based out of Singapore, will be an attractive proposition to brand owners.

If there is one thing you’d like people to associate with Frosts, as well as Quix and the Cosmopolis restaurants, what would it be?

Quality with mass appeal.

What’s the secret for working with your spouse and still getting along after that?

I’d say we’re an extremely good relay team because we have different strengths. When we go into any business discussions, I think it’s very clear to everyone we have different strengths. My eyes are very clear when it comes to operations, while his brain and eyes are very good with finance, and he can see structures very easily. It’s just the way he’s built, maybe because of his father. As a result, there is very little crossover. We see each other’s point. We see things quite differently, but our basic values are very similar. It’s easy not to clash when your basic values are the same; it’s about whether to say yes or no to something — we are the sort of people who are very utilitarian.

Because, in a day, most of our decisions are about transactions, it helps to have a less emotional or sentimental approach to things, because it makes it easier not to clash.

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