WHERE there once stood crates of soya drink and chilli sauce in Yeo Hiap Seng's (YHS) Singapore factories, now sit smartly-dressed property negotiators dealing in high-class condominiums and town houses. There are even a couple of luxury show-flats sprouting up behind one of the factory walls. Since Robert Ng Chee Siong became chairman just over 1.5 years ago, after one of the most colourful take-over struggles in Singapore corporate history, YHS has undergone a radical transformation. While food and beverages remain fundamental to the group's cause, it is its rapid diversification into real estate that steals the imagination. From nowhere, YHS has fast become a serious player in the Singapore real estate business, with more than 1.6 million square feet of prime land to its name; this will produce 10 quality residential developments. The arrival of the Ngs and Alex Chan Meng Wah as chief executive has brought a strong sense of direction to a group that had been floundering on the rocks amid a family feud. 'The whole company was falling apart,' Crosby Securities (Singapore) analyst Michael Ong said. 'It is a welcome change to have a professional management in under Mr Chan, who has a good reputation.' The first two property projects, including a 234-unit condominium scheme on the site of one of its factories, have just been placed on the pre-sale market and, despite the slowdown in the Singapore property market, both are 30 per cent sold. YHS's fledgling property division has not even had a chance to complete a show suite for one of them, such has been the rush. Within just weeks of taking over, YHS bid and won the rights to develop three urban real estate landed residential properties. More recently, it won development rights for three Housing Development Board land parcels. The Dunearn Road and Bukit Timah Road factories are to be demolished to make way for large condominium developments once a hi-tech factory in Senoko Way is completed next year. It is a feat befitting a man who has already made his name as one of the most aggressive and bullish property developers in Hong Kong while at the helm of Sino Land. Robert Ng is the son of Ng Teng Fong, owner of Singapore's biggest private property developer, Far East Organisation. Mr Chan stood out as a high-flier while the managing director of Singapore-based Hewlett-Packard, before being brought in to take over the day-to-day running of YHS. 'We have made a very concerted attempt to become more lively,' Mr Chan said. YHS is one of Asia's oldest companies boasting one of the region's most famous home-grown brand names. It was founded by Yeo Keng Lian as a small family soya sauce business in the early 1900s in China's Fujian province. The company's first factory in Singapore was set up in 1935. By the 1950s, it started diversifying into canned chicken curry and bottled soya bean drink products. It became a listed company in 1968. Its heyday was the 1980s, when it went global, with factories extending from Mauritius and Malaysia to the United States and China. Its wide range of food and drink products were being sold and distributed in 50 countries. It was also around this time that it tried branching out into strange new areas, from Singapore stock broking to investing in a company called Chun King to manufacture Asian foods in North America through RJR Nabisco. It is this diversification that proved the group's undoing as far as the Yeo family was concerned. Chun King was making heavy losses, thanks to sluggish growth in the North American consumer market and a strong Singapore dollar, and Yeo family shareholders were said to be at loggerheads over the group's direction. This made YHS vulnerable to a takeover. The problem then was that the Ngs were not the only interested suitors. The Kweks of Hong Leong fame were also interested, and a fierce takeover battle ensued in 1995. After a long struggle, the Ngs emerged victors with an 85 per cent stake. The arrival of the Ngs and Mr Chan has brought back the company's focus. One of the first things they did was offload Chun King in October 1995, shutting off a huge drain on the group's financial resources. The new owners intend to stick to two main engines for growth: food and beverages, and real estate. While many other manufacturers may harbour dreams of entering the more glamorous world of property development, they do not have the expertise. Mr Chan admits YHS would leverage off its parents. YHS has already teamed up to take a minority stake in a project with its new big brother, Orchard Parade, and Mr Chan says it is highly likely that will happen again. While real estate is expected quickly to overtake the food and beverage business as the main engine for growth in Singapore, the new owners do see considerable scope for expansion for the food and drinks business in the region. A new factory will open in Shanghai in a couple of months, adding to the two joint venture operations it already has in Guangdong. Next in line will be a factory near Beijing. 'We do feel that China can be a substantial market for us,' said Mr Chan. 'However, we will not have a blind expand-everywhere-in-China approach.' Regionally, new factories are in the works in Indonesia and Thailand. The group also is looking at the Philippines, Burma, Vietnam and perhaps even India. As for real estate, Mr Chan said YHS would be looking to further expand its land bank. It recently bid for, but failed to win, rights to develop two of Singapore's new-style executive condominium sites. He said that where YHS saw opportunities it would go for them, but would not make excessive bids. 'We have to live within our means and walk before we can run,' he said. 'It is not a question of win at all costs. We will initially focus on the residential developments and will be looking at good locations. 'We want to prove ourselves as a quality builder.'