With his family mired in poverty during the 1950s, Ng Yiu-ming, the founder of Chinese herbal food chain Hoi Tin Tong, was unable to further his education after finishing primary school. Although he faced an uncertain future, little did he know that what he learned from selling freshwater turtles, teal and partridges in the 1960s would ultimately help him pave the way for his business success. After finishing school in 1965, Ng was offered a job as an apprentice by a relative whose business was selling wild animals to Chinese eateries in Hong Kong where, at the time, there were no rules regarding the import and export of exotic wildlife. The turning point for Ng came when, after working in the shop for 15 years, he got an unexpected break. 'My relative passed away and I was offered the opportunity to take over the business. After 15 years of apprenticeship and training, I was already quite knowledgeable about the business and established a group of loyal customers,' Ng said. He changed the business strategy by concentrating on only selling turtle jelly products instead of exotic wildlife. This change came when his mother was diagnosed with cancer in the early 1980s. 'I was devastated to learn about my mother's illness, so I sought advice from friends and relatives and, through self-study of Chinese herbal medicine, I managed to make herbal soup [by mixing] freshwater turtles and various Chinese herbs that are believed to ease pain and [slow] the growth of cancer [cells],' Ng said. The loving son's efforts paid off when his mother recovered after eating turtle soup over a period of time. It later dawned on him that selling turtle jelly might be a new direction for his business because Chinese believe in the efficacy of herbal medicine in detoxifying the human body, and its medicinal value in treating chronic diseases that Western medicine is less effective in curing. His mother's illness triggered his desire to study in a Chinese medicine practitioner programme that helped him learn more about the value of Chinese herbs. Armed with this knowledge, Ng was able to focus on developing his retail business of Chinese herbal products, with turtle jelly becoming the signature product of Hoi Tin Tong today. 'I did not always want to rely on outsiders to provide me with the know-how and I knew it was quite vital for me to have good knowledge of what Chinese herbs can bring,' said Ng, who, at 38, obtained his certificate as a qualified Chinese herbal medicine practitioner from the Association of Hong Kong and Kowloon Practitioners of Chinese Medicine. Ng opened his first retail outlet on Jordan Road in 1991 and subsequently several more within the first year. His business continued to flourish and that gave him the confidence to open a string of outlets in the following years. The other side of Ng's success is his business strategy. The average size of most Hoi Tin Tong retail stores is between 200 and 300 sqft. Depending on the traffic at the location, only a few have more retail space. 'Rents already suck up a significant portion of my sales, so I have to be very cautious with my business strategy. I don't believe in expanding my business too fast, even though I realise herbal food always have their market among Chinese people. I have seen many businesses fall by the wayside because they were too aggressive,' Ng said. After the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department banned the import of exotic wildlife to Hong Kong, Ng set up his turtle jelly manufacturing plant in 1997 in Dongguan, Guangdong, where he found an ample supply of these reptiles. Ng said that it was not an easy task to set up a manufacturing plant because no one had ever set up such a factory in Dongguan. 'Numerous meetings with local officials were held to reach a consensus for food standards. In hindsight, I would not have done it if I did not have patience and perseverance,' Ng said. Being the sole owner of the chain, Ng leaves the day-to-day operation of the retail business to his eldest daughter and his management team, while he mainly stays in Dongguan to oversee the production process. 'I can't stress enough the importance of monitoring the entire process to ensure product quality,' said Ng, 57, who has two daughters. Paying back to society is a philosophy Ng adheres to while doing business in Hong Kong and on the mainland. Every year in September, the company organises a free dinner party for 1,000 senior citizens from elderly homes. It also makes donations to the Community Chest and sponsors events organised by non-profit organisations. 'I grew up in a poor family in the '50s and fully realise the kind of hardship in life the less privileged people are going through, so I am doing it not only from the company's point of view but also from a personal standpoint,' Ng said. Hoi Tin Tong has more than 80 outlets in Hong Kong, 200 on the mainland, two in Macau and four in Malaysia, all solely owned by Ng, who employs more than 1,000 staff. Ten things I know 1 Seize opportunities Life is full of surprises and, as long as you are hard-working and have confidence in yourself, there are always different opportunities arising at different stages in life, so grab them before it's too late. 2 Have patience and perseverance Doing business on the mainland requires a lot of patience because people there have a different interpretation of efficiency. Failing to understand it may lead to frustration. 3 Equip yourself To become successful in running a retail business, it not only takes exceptional management skills but also a good knowledge of the products you sell. I spent 12 years learning Chinese herbal medicine and that has given me the qualification required to ensure the quality of my products. 4 Understand your staff I have more than 1,000 staff and it's important to ensure they have a sense of belonging to the company. 5 Don't neglect your family I stay in my manufacturing plant in Dongguan from Monday to Friday, but the weekend is always the time to be with my family. Business is important to me, and so is my family. 6 Be innovative Being a retailer of herbal food products, it is important to keep introducing new products to consumers every now and then or the business will become stale. I have introduced more than 60 types of products. 7 Look after the elderly Old people have worked all their lives and have contributed in one form or another towards the success of Hong Kong today. I am happy to organise a dinner every year for people from elderly homes across Hong Kong and let them know they still are being cared for. 8 Take full responsibility I put great emphasis on supervising the production process every step of the way to ensure product quality. I simply take no chance of shifting the responsibility to someone else unless I am totally confident of that person's experience and ability. 9 Research new markets Expanding business to overseas markets is always a dream for any entrepreneur, but at the same time it's a huge decision. I carry out feasibility studies on a new market before making the decision. 10 Plan for succession I see putting a succession plan in place as inevitable because even the most capable person in the company has to step down one day.