Bessie Toh of Smart And Final Seafoods brings fresh seafood and great service to the table.
Contributed By Jeremy Chua
There is no denying that Singaporeans love food. Even with a plethora of choice readily available to us, one category of food reigns supreme—seafood. In gastronomically-inclined Singapore, we have one of the largest appetites for seafood in the Asia Pacific; it is estimated that Singaporeans voraciously devour one kilogram of seafood for every three to four kilograms of rice.
And yet, while Singaporeans will go wild over the ocean’s bounty, many know very little about how the seafood industry actually works. City News talks to Bessie Toh, 47, managing director of Smart And Final Seafoods, for an inside scoop on the seafood import-export industry.
A rare rose among the thorns in the seafood import-export industry, Toh has over 20 years of experience. Her interest in this line was piqued and cemented when she was working for another seafood import-export company. “It was exciting as I got to meet people from all walks of life. Each time my clients expressed their satisfaction with the seafood items and customer service provided, I felt a strong sense of achievement,” Toh says of why she got hooked (pun intended) on to the industry.
Eventually, Toh left her previous company as “it was a family business, and I didn’t want to get too involved.” Still, she expresses gratitude toward her previous bosses. “I learned a lot about the industry, and made excellent contacts, and I have my former employer to thank.” As a testament to her service par excellence, along with firm friendships forged along the way, many of her former clients were supportive of Toh venturing out on her own. Thus, Smart And Final Seafoods was birthed in 2004.
Today, Smart And Final Seafoods deals mainly with the import of live seafood such as prawns, fish, lobsters and crabs into Singapore for restaurants, after having been a middleperson to the overseas market when the company first started out. “I was dealing with a very good South African contact which provided South African lobsters and crabs. I was exporting these to Hong Kong and China.” So, it was perhaps a fortuitous turn of events then, when her first major supplier did not manage to secure the renewal of their fishing licence and she had to switch her focus to the local market. “It’s difficult in recent times to be a broker for seafood, like what I was doing at the start,” She shared that with the advent of the Internet, the market is much more open to direct selling than it was before, and thus there is now a smaller pie for brokers to share.
As with any companies starting out, maybe even more so in the seafood industry, Smart And Final Seafoods’ path was fraught with difficulties, some of which are present even to this day. “The one thing that we have to contend with continually is cash flow problems. Suppliers of fresh seafood require cash up-front, while the restaurants we supply to will only pay us 45, or even 90 days later,” she shares. “But God is good. Whenever we are facing a problem, such as when the seafood is priced too high, God will open up another way. Suppliers will call us to offer other seafood items that meet the needs of the clients; or we will get better quotations from other suppliers.” Toh also had also to deal with the rollercoaster fluctuations in the supply and demand of seasonal seafood such as razor clams; mistakes could prove to be extremely costly if she does not manage over and under-demand.
|PHOTO COURTESY OF BESSIE TOH|
A typical day at Smart And Final Seafoods starts at the end of a working day at the restaurants. Before the eating establishments close, they will put in their orders with Smart And Final Seafoods for live seafood for the following day. Upon receiving these orders and processing them, the staff will then proceed to the jetties or the airport at 9 a.m. Staff will be at either place to collect the seafood, or in the case of the airport, to clear the cargo with customs. They will then begin delivering the seafood to the clients. By the afternoon, they may receive another set of orders from clients and it’s off to the jetties once again.
The downside to the business, shares Toh, is that handling raw seafood is a wet and dirty job, and one will end up smelling of seafood. Coupled with high stress levels and working with a skeleton crew of just two other staff, running Smart And Final Seafoods may not seem like the most glamorous job for a lady. Yet in spite of the challenging conditions, Toh strives to provide the best for her customers, an attitude which she attributes to knowing God. “Honesty is absolutely crucial in this industry. Humility is also part of the equation. I try to solve the problems that our clients may face to the best of my abilities, and go the extra mile.” She shares about how God plays a major role in her business, “In my three years as a Christian, I find myself becoming more patient, and gaining wisdom and grace. I am able to solve problems that I couldn’t in the past. I am also calmer than before and have become a better listener, especially to my clients.”
Due to the recent financial crisis, the going is slightly tougher than usual, which is saying a lot in an industry that is already very challenging. In the midst of it, however, Toh remains upbeat and is looking ahead towards the future. Smart And Final Seafoods is planning to bring in a greater variety of seafood, and targeting to add larger organizations to their clientele to offset these difficult times. Toh is also looking past the boundaries of Singapore, into her former stomping grounds of China and Hong Kong. “Keeping to a local scale is too limiting, as the prices can get prohibitive. China is still a huge untapped market, where seafood brokers like us are able to explore different options.”
Finally, how can one not ask for a few tips about selecting seafood from the professional? Toh replies half-seriously, “Good live seafood is ALIVE. Nowadays, unlike in the past, suppliers make the effort to select quality seafood before exporting to us. So customers can be assured of getting quality here in Singapore.”
Smart And Final Seafoods
404A, Fernale Lane #10-131 Singapore 791404
Tel: +65 9616 0590