Kenny Yap was 14 when the Singapore government decided to exile "dirty" industries and closed his father's pig farm. Not one to brood, the elder Yap replaced the pig pens with fish ponds and began raising guppies. Today, the family's Qian Hu Corp. boasts 4% of the global market for ornamental tropical fish.
Since taking over the business in 1995, Yap, 36, has further transformed it into a multinational with subsidiaries across Asia. Last year, it made $1.8 million on revenues of $19 million, and Yap pulled off an initial public offering--mainly, he says, to keep his siblings' children from taking over the company as well as forcing Qian Hu to adhere to transparent business practices.
All along, Yap's strategy has been to modernize and raise standards. After a potential customer demanded, "Why should I buy from you?" Yap knew he "had to do something different." First, he imposed fixed prices. Then he started selling aquariums, air pumps, fish food, and other accessories. After discovering that leaves falling into the breeding ponds help fish survive the transition from fresh to tap water, Qian Hu began grinding up the leaves and selling them in powder and tonic form.
Not everything has gone swimmingly. In 1990, when Qian Hu moved to its present 4.2-hectare farm, vibrations from the power tools used to install new fish tanks killed 4,000 four-inch High Fin Loaches, worth a total of $270,000. Says Yap: "We've learned from our mistakes."