Orchid entrepreneur Koh Keng Hoe makes failure a blooming success, mastering the full cycle of orchid growing through trial and error.

He makes failure a blooming success

Sunday, Aug 11, 2013

Judith Tan, The New Paper


SINGAPORE – Life had thrown Mr Koh Keng Hoe lemons and instead of wallowing, he grew orchids. He has gone from an unemployed man in his 20s with a bleak future to one of the top growers worldwide. The Kovan boy, whose nursery did not even have a proper road, is now living in a bungalow in Dunearn Road. But back in 1954, life was tough as he had just been sacked from his job in The Straits Times after taking part in a Singapore Printing Employees’ Union strike. “I only had that one skill, nothing else,” he said of his $160-a-month job as a linotype operator. So he sold his BSA motorcycle for $100 to buy a Vanda merrillii, a red jungle orchid with a distinctive scent, from a Simon Road grower. “I had no money. I had to ride a bicycle there,” he said. “I knew nothing (then) about growing orchids. I was told that they grow well on coconut husks. People throw out the husks, making that a zero investment for me,” he added. Mr Koh applied whatever little knowledge of vegetable farming he had and his plants blossomed. That was the start of his six-decade love affair with the flower. He even mastered the full cycle of orchid growing – from cultivation and pollination, to the preparation and perfecting of nurturing seedlings – through trial and error.He was justifiably proud of his Dendrobium collection, one of the region’s largest selections of the exotic tropical hybrids.

The tanned 83-yearold orchid pioneer has won many awards locally and overseas, including the Gold Medal for his hybrid Aranda Ossea 75th Anniversary at the 20th World Orchid Conference in Singapore in 2011.

Last Friday, he was presented the Tan Hoon Siang Master Hybridiser Award with nine others at the 85th anniversary celebrations of The Orchid Society of South East Asia.

Yet, a humble Mr Koh said he was lucky as he was at the right place at the right time.

“It was during the rubber boom. Many people made their fortunes then. These rich tycoons were also fond of orchids. They last for a long time, not like other flowers. One day, two days, they die. Orchids can last for weeks and months,” Mr Koh said.

His well-known customers included prominent Chinese businessmen and philanthropists.

“Many had the money but no orchids. I had the orchids but no money,” he said.

Took a risk

That was when Mr Koh decided “to break his piggy bank to take out an advertisement in The Straits Times”.

“The thing I learnt from working there was if you want business, you have to advertise,” he said.

“Mind you, my place was difficult to find. It was at Kovan Road. There was no road, but a mud track.

Yet these rich tycoons and businessmen could make their way to my place,” he said, laughing.

A then naive Mr Koh had not set any price for his plants and did not know how much to charge.

“When one businessman asked how much I wanted for my plant, I told him, ‘Uncle, I don’t know.’ After speaking sternly to me about doing business, he offered to pay me $80. Wow,” he said.

With $80 in his pocket, Mr Koh was ready to close shop but that customer was not ready to go.

“When he asked for the second plant, I didn’t want to sell. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing before he asked for just two buds and was willing to pay another $80. I thought to myself ‘$80 for a whole plant and $80 for just two buds, I might as well just sell buds and keep my plants’,” he said.

So when the next customer showed up, he charged him $110 for two buds.

“Those were the heady days of orchid madness,” he said.

In the 1956, Mr Koh even flew 18 hours on a now-defunct Pan-Am twin-propellor plane from Singapore to Tokyo, from Tokyo to Guam and from Guam to Honolulu.

All in all, he spent three months visiting different nurseries and private collectors; living with growers and learning from them. He bought a Vanda Nellie Morley, an unusual, deep-pink spotted plant, for US$1,500 (S$1,900), and took it home to cultivate.

His nursery soon grew into a booming business.

Mr Koh, who is semi-retired, declined to say how much his business was worth. “Having little education, I dared not dream. I dared not dream that I would get married and have children but I did. I dared not dream that my children would finish university but my two daughters and son did,” he said.

Mr Koh’s life could be described as being as colourful as his orchids.

From living hand to mouth, Mr Koh now lives with his family on a plot of land along Dunearn Road – which he bought for $65,000 – that is worth millions today.

“I want my family to continue to live on this land,” he said. “Ask this old man anything about orchids and he would be able to tell you.

But ask this old man anything about other affairs of the world and he would be just a silly old man,” Mr Koh said.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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