60 yr old Ray Cheng (former mini market operator) tells us what it's like to have your kids education plans shattered by Speedmart 99 and his amazing changeover to a kopitiam

It’s not always the strongest that survive.
Written by: Ray Cheng

Six years ago, on a beautiful sunny day not unlike this one - I stopped on the street overlooking my shop - blinking and shading my eyes in the bright afternoon sun. I was looking at Speedmart 99 undergoing renovation. It’s a new store and just two stores away from my mini market (SubangGrocer.com) at USJ16 in Subang Jaya. I shifted my gaze back to my own shop. My heart fell! At my store, shelves that had held Gardenia bread and canned stuffs were sparse or empty. At the end of the aisle, tins of Milo stacked in cut-out cases were offered at cost price or less. I was closing down. I’m behind on payments and suppliers were threatening to sue. All this is a getting to my wife, (Elaine) and at fifty-four years old, she thinks there’s not much I can do, to change destiny.

“Why don’t you just quit,” said my wife “and retire?”
“Retire? I still have Jasmine and Lynette in college.”
“Eugene (eldest son) is already working, plus your savings leh?”
“Aiyooh! can survive only, no quality mah.”
She was silent.
“Anyway, the problem is not with me.”
I wrapped my arm around her shoulders.
“I didn’t fail it’s the business model that failed.”

The thing about commodity retailing is that as soon as your competitor has deeper pockets and starts to buy in bulk – you’re dead. That is why Speedmart 99 is bad news for a mini market operator. They drive prices down, so much so that you can’t sustain your margin. I am not saying this is a good or bad thing but to me, it makes better sense to switch to a service industry. And given my wife - who had the air of someone blessed to be born in Penang - it’s hardly surprising that she loves the idea.

“Lang si Penang lang, (We’re from Penang)” as she puts it in Hokkien.
“And you know Penangites…”
“They expect a certain level of quality in their food, if not…
“lu tan boh chiak,”(You can’t earn a living) I completed the sentence for her.
“So either you can - or cannot - char koay teow?”
She squeezed my hand and said.
“And I know we can.”
It goes without saying - immediately after closing down the mini market - we started Sisters Char Koay Teow Kopitiam at USJ16.

Fast forward today, I am sixty now and if you drop by my kopitiam, you’ll be amazed by the crowd. There are Malays, Chinese, Indians and a smattering of other races - a truly Malaysian crowd. We have packed them in - in fact, it has been ever since. Looking back, the most remarkable thing I have learned over the years is that we truly can take control of our own destinies. How we accomplish this, is up to us. What really counts is the ability to confront what went wrong honestly and adapt to shifts in market forces or demands. I guess Darwin was right all the while when he said, “It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.”

Note: Following the success of Sisters Char Koay Teow at USJ16, father and son (Gene) team is opening another kopitiam , Sisters Place at Ara Damansara, just across the new Evolve Shopping Mall.

Sisters Char Koay Teow
11 Jalan USJ16/2G
47630 UEP Subang Jaya
Mobile: 012-2249947, Tel: 603-80241373

Sisters Place (opens 1 Oct 2015)
Unit 01-02, Block D
Pacific Place Commercial Centre
Jalan PJU 1A/4A
47310 Damansara
Mobile: 012-2855526