How Spritzer’s Lim Kok Cheong turned 100 ringgit a month into Malaysia’s largest mineral water firm
- The son of impoverished rubber tappers, entrepreneur Lim rose from a humble background to launching the famed Red Eagle cooking oil and meeting Xi Jinping
- In a rare interview with This Week in Asia, he reflects on a journey that began with his grandparents leaving China in the 1920s and has since come full circle
Spritzer, which is listed on the Malaysian stock market, has had a wholly-owned trading company in Guangzhou since 2016 – and its business licence runs until 2045.
Lim knows all about growing businesses. He also founded Yee Lee Group, which manufactures Red Eagle cooking oil, a staple in Malaysian households for more than four decades.
Speaking to This Week In Asia in a rare interview, Lim recounted with wit and humour his family’s history and his own struggles, a man defined by the odds which he has beaten and not the hardships he was born into.
“My grandparents came over to Malaysia on a ship – it was not a nice ship, mind you, but a cargo ship where they occupied the lower deck,” said Lim with a grin during the interview at a beautiful colonial bungalow which his wife Jun Chua converted into a restaurant named STG Tea House Cafe.
Back then, life in Fujian was very difficult – the province was reeling from the aftermath of the Chinese revolution which had overthrown the Qing dynasty and created a republic. Amid the ensuing turmoil, his grandparents decided to leave.
Upon arriving in what was then British colonial Malaya, his grandparents settled in Kuala Kangsar in Perak state.
“I was born on January 24, 1945, in Batam. The second world war was still going on,” Lim recalled.
As conditions worsened during the war and work became scarce in Batam, his parents moved back to Malaya to Kuala Kangsar where they again found work as rubber tappers.
After the war, there were food shortages everywhere. Then came the communist insurgency in Malaya that prompted the government to impose a state of emergency that lasted from 1948 to 1960.
During this period, the British uprooted 500,000 people living and working on the fringes of forests and resettled them in an attempt to stop them from being recruited by the communists.
Lim and his family were among those uprooted and once more they had to move, this time to a town called Taiping also in Perak state.
Undeterred by their displacement, his parents found work as agents selling and distributing biscuits in Taiping.
Lim finished his education at 18, by which time Malaysia had gained its independence, and went to work in the capital of Kuala Lumpur in the mid-1960s for a company selling edible oils. His first job was delivering cooking oil in a van; later he was promoted to salesman.
“In 1966, my salary was 100 ringgit a month,” Lim recalled. That amount is roughly equivalent to 600 ringgit (US$143) in today’s money.
His sleeping quarters were on the empty floor above the office which he shared with colleagues. They slept on foldable canvas beds which they had to put away every morning. “We had no bedrooms. It was a shared space where we slept for the night.”
Lim worked long hours and diligently saved his money every month until he had enough that – after teaming up with friends and relatives – he could start a business. “There were around 20 people. I put 5,000 ringgit into the company. There were those who put in more.”
In 1968, Lim founded the Yee Lee Company. Its core business was repacking edible oil. “I entered into this business as I was familiar with it.”
The Ipoh years
In 1974, Lim started building his own factory to refine palm oil in the city of Ipoh, the capital of Perak state. A year later, he launched Red Eagle, the company’s cooking oil that would become a household favourite.
Surrounded by beautiful limestone hills, Ipoh is in the Kinta Valley which once held the richest tin deposits in the world. At the beginning of the 20th century, Malaya produced more than half of the world’s tin and Ipoh, with its rows of old heritage shophouses, was known as the “city of millionaires”.
But in 1985, tin prices crashed in international markets and the mining industry in Perak collapsed. Many tin miners lost their fortunes overnight, businesses shut and the city’s economy went into a depression. The city’s youths had few employment opportunities.
In the mid-1980s and early 1990s many Ipoh residents left in search of work overseas.
“Ipoh had the highest rate of people who ‘jumped from aeroplanes’,” said Lim, using a term for those Malaysians who left the country in search of any jobs they could find.
But Lim survived. “I was not in the mining industry so I was not much affected.”
The birth of Spritzer
In the late 1980s, he hit upon the idea of selling bottled mineral water after noticing the only brands available in Malaysia were imported ones like Evian and Volvic.
Many people scoffed when he set up Spritzer mineral water in 1989. Today it is the best-selling mineral water in the country.
“Everyone laughed at me and told me that I was crazy. At that time, Malaysians mostly drank tap water. Even when you went to a restaurant, you would get served tap water,” said Lim, adding that he had to spend “a lot of money” to promote Spritzer.
The farsighted and quick-witted Lim found his first customer when he managed to convince nightclub owners to buy his bottled water.
“I told the nightclub owners that they had paid a lot of money for their whiskies and other alcoholic drinks. And that it would be a waste if they then mixed their alcoholic drinks with tap water as the taste would not be so good,” Lim recalled animatedly.
From then on, he slowly built up his customer base.
“It took three to four years to get sales going and we had to spend a lot of money on marketing. It started taking off in 1992 to 1993,” Lim said.
Spritzer extracts its water from a source at a 330-acre site in Taiping, Perak, from a depth of 130 metres.
As Lim’s eldest son, Lim Ee Young, points out, that depth is as great as a 40-storey skyscraper.
Ee Young is now managing director of the Yee Lee Group – which has a controlling stake in Spritzer. He admits that Spritzer has not made much headway into the Chinese market despite opening a sales office in Guangzhou, but says the company remains undeterred.
“We have had little success in China but we have not given up hope as good mineral water is getting very scarce,” he said.
Ee Young believes Chinese consumers will appreciate Spritzer’s mineral water when they learn how it is produced.
“China is the place to be as it is the world’s second-largest economy with a large consumer market. We will continue to walk this path,” Ee Young said.
The Spritzer Group currently has eight subsidiaries involved in the manufacturing and distribution of bottled mineral water, sparkling water, distilled water and also carbonated fruit-flavoured drinks.
Spritzer also exports its products to Britain and the Netherlands.
Ipoh, Malaysia’s third-largest city, is about 190km from the capital where Lim is based. For several years before the pandemic, it was touted as an up and coming destination for tourists, with its street murals and hipster cafes serving artisan bread and modern Malaysian cuisine.
Stretching even further back is a trend in which colonial-era houses have been conserved by turning them into dining establishments – as Lim’s wife did with the STG Tea House in 2013. She says she has another old building that she bought many years ago but has not yet decided what to do with it.
STG Group plans to open a deli in Ipoh in 2022. It currently has eight other restaurants spread around Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur and other parts of the country.
Lim chose to base himself in Ipoh as the city was “peaceful and nice to live in”.
Today, the Yee Lee Group has grown from its early days as an edible oil re-packer into a producer and distributor.
The company, via its subsidiaries, also manufactures corrugated paper and aerosol cans and owns tea and palm oil plantations and refineries. It also operates hotel resorts and distributes international brands like Campbells, Kleenex, Dettol and Red Bull.
A few years ago, Lim decided to take a step back.
Ee Young, 49, a chartered accountant educated in Australia and Britain, became managing director in 2019.
“If my son hadn’t taken over, I would have sold the business,” Lim said.
Ee Young joined his father’s company in 1993 as a trainee and worked his way up.
Asked whether taking over his father’s business was his career goal, the quiet and unassuming Ee Young said it was always “expected of him” to join the family business.
“I am often asked what I would have done had my father not been a businessman. I never really thought about it as it was sort of expected of me to join the company,” said Ee Young, who has a younger brother and two sisters.
With Ee Young entrusted with running the company on a day-to-day basis, before the pandemic Lim had spent most of his time travelling the world with his wife and friends.
“[Lim] still plays an advisory role, providing guidance and setting the business direction,” Ee Young said.
The interview ended close to midnight, with the restaurant all but empty.
Asked whether he had a driver waiting to take him home, the elder Lim stared as if in misapprehension. “Driver? I am the driver,” he said, before getting into his car and driving off.
It was a fitting metaphor for a man who, through sheer willpower, has always been in control of his own destiny.