28 March 12 The Straits Times by Melissa Tan
HOME-GROWN soya bean eatery Mr Bean will open 12 stores across the region by the end of this year to add to its five outlets in Tokyo, Seoul and Shanghai.
It already operates more than 60 stores here, where the menu ranges from regular soya bean milk to more items like soya milk chendol and soya milk ice cream.
'These are the strategic locations that we need to open in to provide convenience to our customers,' said co-founder Kang Puay Seng yesterday, noting that Mr Bean expects to have 34 overseas outlets in Asia by next year.
It also plans to expand into the United States in two to three years.
'We buy our soya beans from Canada and the US, so we get very excited when we can promote the concept of 'fresh from the farm'. We just need a unique model to present our finished product to consumers there,' Mr Kang said.
'If Mr Bean is able to be seen in the advanced countries of the world, we're one step closer to our dream of being a global brand.'
The company held a signing ceremony with 11 regional partners from Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines and China at Marina Mandarin hotel yesterday. The event was attended by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean.
Mr Bean relies on a franchise model in all of its overseas markets except China, where it also has a joint venture.
The process of finding and selecting franchisees began early last year and took about a year.
'Through franchising, we are able to forge alliances with international players and tap into a deep pool of innovative resources, one of which is research and development,' noted Mr Kang.
He added that international trade agency International Enterprise Singapore helped Mr Bean screen potential franchisees.
While he declined to specify target revenues, he said he was aiming for 10 per cent growth in turnover a year.
The company has no plans to go public.
Expanding overseas also means understanding the culture and finding a market niche, Mr Kang noted.
'Take Japan as an example - the Japanese drink a lot of soya milk. Our niche is that we sell freshly brewed soya milk; they find it very refreshing.'
He said that Mr Bean seeks to project a modern and innovative image to appeal to the younger generation.
The retailer also customises its products for different countries so Japanese consumers might see soya paninis on the menu while those in the Philippines could get mango soya milk.
It is a far cry from when the firm began as a hawker stall in People's Park Food Centre in 1995.
'Our business concept of freshly brewed soya milk around the clock was very new, and our primary objective was to survive,' said Mr Kang, who met co-founder Loh Jwee Poh when they were schoolmates at The Chinese High School.
The two had wanted to expand into shopping malls early on, but 'a lot of landlords were not comfortable with the concept. They were convinced that our revenue would not be enough to pay for rental'.
Mr Bean's big break came when the Asian financial crisis hit in 1997, said Mr Kang, forcing many shops in malls to close down and allowing Mr Bean to move into Hougang Mall in 1998.
Mr Kang credits its subsequent rapid growth to the company's focus on consistent quality and service.
He said that in 1996 or 1997, Mr Bean approached Spring Singapore - then known as the Productivity and Standards Board - for help in improving its product quality and service standards.
'A lot of staff were surprised. They said, 'Soya milk is soya milk. Why do you have to do all these courses in quality and service?' But now that we look back, we find that we did the right thing.'
Mr Bean has outlets in prime retail locations abroad, such as Shibuya train station in Tokyo. It opened its outlet there in January 2010.
It also opened its first dine-in store at Yaesu station in Japan last May, which the company said was the busiest train station within Tokyo's Marunouchi business district.
Mr Kang said that while Mr Bean would continue to open outlets in Singapore, it would be 'very selective'.
'We are very careful and conservative in terms of opening stores,' he added. 'Keeping product quality consistent is always the greatest challenge for a chain store. We don't want to open new stores too fast and lose the stability of the management.'
At the same time, it has to maintain its image - 'We still have to be seen as a Singapore brand, that's something we're proud of.'
'We buy our soya beans from Canada and the US, so we get very excited when we can promote the concept of 'fresh from the farm'. We just need a unique model to present our finished product to consumers there. If Mr Bean is able to be seen in the advanced countries of the world, we're one step closer to our dream of being a global brand.'
Mr Bean co-founder Kang Puay Seng. The eatery plans to expand into the US in two to three years.