Walk into the factory of Nanyang Sauce at the weekend and one might be greeted by an increasingly rare sight: a family of four generations working under the same roof. The eldest is director Ken Koh’s grandmother Ng Soh Lian, who’s 94 this year. The youngest are his children, aged one and four.
Started in 1959 by Koh’s grandfather Tan Tiong How, Nanyang Sauce is a soya sauce factory doing things the traditional way: slowly fermenting its product under the Singaporean sun instead of taking the fast route of putting soya beans under acid hydrolysis. Consequently, the time difference is nine months compared to a single day – and, of course, the old way produces a richer, more flavourful product.
While Nanyang Sauce isn’t the only one still traditionally brewing soya sauce in Singapore, the 37-year-old Koh has been constantly breaking new ground with how the brand presents the product since joining the business in 2017.
“I originally wanted to come in and just do a quick turnaround. Make the business more profitable and then leave to do my own thing,” reveals Koh, who earlier ran his corporate team building start-up for 13 years. In the past three years, however, he realised that this was something he wanted to dedicate his life to.
“I see Nanyang Sauce as painting the masterpiece of my life. You wouldn’t rush something like that. My whole view of the business has changed,” shares Koh. Since joining, he’s introduced new ideas to the company, like packaging its premium-grade soya sauce as gifts, increasing the number of stockists, starting a Sauce Academy where he holds workshops and sauce tasting sessions and opening a boutique that also functions as a small restaurant selling soya sauce chicken as a way to showcase the flavours of the company’s sauces.
Koh’s latest brainchild takes the luxury angle even further: creating bespoke soya sauce for clients. Just like how whisky distilleries offer a private cask service, Nanyang Sauce allows clients to customise a recipe of soya sauce brewed with organic beans from Bhutan and Himalayan pink salt in a ceramic vat. It is then left to mature in the factory. The more aged a sauce, the more concentrated and fragrant it becomes. “It’ll then become like a family recipe and the sauce can be bottled for personal use or be given out as gifts. Only the client will have access to that particular sauce. We even sign a non-disclosure agreement with them,” elaborates Koh.
Each vessel holds about 100 litres of sauce and prices start at a very auspicious $8,888 that covers the brewing, care and attention to the ageing of the sauce for a year and the bottling. Already, several big families and companies have taken up the offer, with interest for the service coming in from Japan and Hong Kong.
These ideas haven’t been easy for Koh to implement though. He faced some resistance from the older generation when he first entered the organisation. Having spent the last 50 years in the family business, Tan Poh Choon, Koh’s 63-year- old mother, had some initial concerns about whether Koh’s ideas would work.
“I have to constantly prove myself,” shares Koh, who notes that trust is hard to gain but easy to lose. For him, taking over from the older generations has been a journey of learning to strike a balance between giving and taking – especially after realising that certain seemingly outdated processes were being done that way for good reason. Koh draws on the example of how the sauces are still bottled and labelled by hand, allowing the company to do a final quality check on the bottles. At the same time, this creates more jobs at the factory.
Having seen the results of Koh’s efforts, Tan is now more supportive of his ideas. With two generations having spent most of their lives building Nanyang Sauce, it seems like Koh is heading down the same path. This experience has him offering sound advice to others entering their family businesses: “Don’t get involved unless you are ready to stake it out. Family businesses need more patience and love.”