Amidst the bustle of the crew setting up for the interview and the soft humming of the cold room compressors in the background, Mr Hauw Wee, 66 and his son, Mr Jeremy Hauw, 39, exchange thoughtful glances as they familiarise themselves with the interview questions and it proved to be quite a trip down memory lane as they revisited the history of their company, Tuck Lee Ice Works, Singapore’s largest ice distributor.

“Tuck Lee is the English translation of the words “德利 derived from “道德” (principles) and “利润” (profitable venture), explained Mr Hauw Wee with pride in his smile when asked about the significance of the name  chosen by his grandfather, Mr Hauw Kiat, when he founded the company officially in 1957. Since then, the name has been a part of the family heritage first passed down to Mr Hauw Wee’s father, Mr Hauw Sing King, and to his own son, Jeremy Hauw, the fourth generation heir to manage the family business.

Mr Hauw Wee (right) sharing memories of Tuck Lee’s early days with Jeremy Hauw (left). Photo by Terence C. Fong

The success of Tuck Lee Ice Works is not only built on the strength and conviction of its founder and his heirs; the drive to succeed and innovate in the business are also vital contributors.

Beginnings

If its present success is any indication, Tuck Lee Ice Works has surely been built on the strength and conviction of its founder and his heirs from the Hauw family. The drive to succeed and innovate is instinctive amongst them when one traces the evolvement of its illustrious growth.

“From 1935 to the early 1950s, Tuck Lee Ice Works was located at Outram Road, founded by my grandfather, Hauw Kiat, who came from China,” recalled Mr Hauw Wee. Hauw Kiat had owned a traditional ice factory in China before he came to Singapore and started building Tuck Lee Ice Works from scratch when he arrived in Singapore in 1925.

While the company was founded in 1935, it was only officially recognised 22 years later in 1957 after a period of state re-organisation of private and public companies. “Then the government wanted to move the factories to the industrial areas and we were awarded the Alexandra industrial area at Boon Chong Road and we were the first factory building there. At that time, there were a lot of grass and trees and I remembered flying my kite around there, because I stayed at the factory since I was a small boy,” reminisced Mr Hauw Wee in a sentimental note as he looked back at his childhood days.

His father, Hauw Sing King, was also born in China and arrived in Singapore in the 1920s to help his father. He was an Honours graduate from Jinan University and was in the national diving team but despite his notable educational achievements, he chose to help his father. This filial piety turned out to be a common thread among the men in the Hauw family.As the interview unfolded, it would soon be discovered this was an undying filial trait of the men in the Hauw family. Sing King took over the family business in 1961 when Hauw Kiat passed away. As his only son, Mr Hauw Wee was next in line and took over the reins in 1983 when Sing King himself passed on.

Old Tuck Lee ice factory at Outram Road. Photo courtesy of Tuck Lee Ice Works

“From the 1970s, I started in the ice factory by doing basic repair works, learning and carrying out maintenance works and slowly worked my way up to the management level,” said Mr Hauw as he embarked on what turned out to be a nearly 40-year journey in Tuck Lee since.

However, he did not begin working at Tuck Lee immediately after he completed his education as one might have expected. Instead, he took on mechanical jobs elsewhere until his father asked him, “You have been going everywhere to work, here and there, why don’t you help me to run the business?” At that point, Mr Hauw knew his father was a traditional man with his own opinions and requested that he wanted a free rein if he were to help out in the business. Mr Hauw also described himself as one who is more “mechanical-based”, as he prefers  the hands-on work of basic welding and maintenance that defined his job scope initially.

“I started from the bottom focusing on welding and maintenance, building cabinets and repairing machines. My father sent me to a British company to learn welding and subsequently to Germany to pick up other industry-related mechanical skills such as learning how to build insulation panels. I was always flying to other countries to view exhibitions and new equipment,” as he looked back at his eventful journey on learning the ropes in those early years.

The importance of innovation

In the spirit of innovationMr Hauw understood that if the business did not keep up with the times and produce innovative products, their business would become obsolete in time to come. , Mr Hauw put those years of exposure to good use because he knew that if their products did not improve, the business would be obsolete in time to come. Following his trips to ice production facilities in Australia, the United States and Germany, he returned  after six to nine months brimming with ideas. By the end of 1994, his plan for the induction of new machinery was installed as Tuck Lee embarked on a modern approach to promote its products.

Manual freezing of ice blocks in brine tanks at the old facility. Photo courtesy of Tuck Lee Ice Works

Mr Hauw elaborated on the tedious and back-breaking work then, “in the past, “we had a very big brine, just like a swimming pool where the ice tanks were soaked in saltwater. Because of the freezing point of water (0 degrees Celsius), there was a need to use salt brine to help in the production of ice blocks. It took 48 hours to freeze just one block of ice that weighed about 120kg. It was kept frozen until the dealers arrived, and then it was hoisted up and soaked with normal water to separate the ice block from the its container. It was not easy to do as each block was heavy and after emptying, the container would be refilled and returned to the brine.”

Today, with the help of modern machinery, ice blocks can be harvested every 20 to 30 minutes. In a further contrast to the past, the modern ice production also involves passing the ice through UV and bacterial tract filters to produce food grade ice, which were industry practices adopted in the early years. The modern facility now produces 100 tonnes of ice effortlessly in just a span of 24 hours, a far cry from the meagre production of individual ice blocks he recounted earlier. The innovation of the food grade ice had also led to the securement of the IS0 9002 award and halal certification for the company, and accolades such as being the official supplier to the Singapore Formula One Grand Prix since 2008.

True to the relentless spirit of his predecessors, Mr Hauw also went on to modernise the distribution process. “We had our own refrigerated trucks, 50 to 60 of them island-wide. We formed a distribution team, [hired] a manager to run the process and oversee the fleet of drivers. In 1994, [in order] to create public awareness of our company, our trucks had the logo, service, product description and some pictures [printed on its façade], running around the island. At that time, I felt a bit proud because my friends would tell me they saw my trucks about two to three times in a day,” he beamed with joy at this recollection.

In the same spirit of innovation, after returning from his overseas studies in 2002, Mr Hauw’s son, Jeremy, is credited for introducing ice sculpting into the business so as to diversify the products of the company.

Tuck Lee’s current facility at Defu Lane. Image courtesy of Tuck Lee Ice

Challenges and obstacles

Mr Hauw’s journey to its present- day achievements was not all smooth-sailing. For example, in 2003, the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic caused Tuck Lee to lose between 60 to 70 percent of its business when  a majority of the population stayed indoors to avoid infection. This resulted in a dip in patronage of local F&B businesses thereby causing a drop in demand for Tuck Lee’s ice.

Mr Hauw also faced a hard time persuading reluctant local coffee shop owners to switch to using Tuck Lee’s more expensive food grade ice blocks. He recalled how they eventually changed their minds. To save cost, the coffee shops had initially made use of galvanised containers to freeze tap water for ice and then used ice picks to manually break up the ice blocks with a pick when necessary as the cost was low as compared to buying ice from Tuck Lee. However, they changed their minds after witnessing their staff injuring themselves and realising how hazardous the preparation process actually was, the coffee shop owners made the switch to Tuck Lee’s ice products. Tuck Lee’s product and position in the market were further cemented when a government initiative on food hygiene practices and guidelines kicked in during the late 1990s.

As the interview came to a wrapped up, father and son shared a warm hug. This heartwarming scene evoked images of what could have similarly transpired between Hauw Kiat and Sing King, and between Sing King and Mr Hauw. The next chapter of Tuck Lee’s history would be written by Jeremy and we anticipate that, in time to come, Jeremy and later generations of the Hauw family would take the company to greater heights.

Written by: Terence C. Fong

This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign

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