My mum’s a Teochew and that meant lots of fishball soups during dinner while growing up. Our consumption supply came from two main sources – Tiong Bahru market, or the packaged ones from the supermarkets. The balls were either from BoBo or Dodo.

BoBo also reminded us of Zoe Tay (for those who grew up in my era). Making this ‘study trip’ to Ha Li Fa’s factory to see how BoBo fishballs were made was an eye-opener.

I imagined the maker to be a small factory with say 20-30 aunties in a row conveyor line squeezing, shaping and arranging fishballs (or chit-chatting). I must have watched too many drama series.

There were a few huge machines, with an occasional worker at each station calibrating, scooping, deep-frying, sorting, and operating.

When I casually asked how many fishballs BoBo produced a month, my answers were, “We do not have the exact numbers, but it can probably fill up 6 Olympic sized swimming pools.”

My eyes went slightly bigger (though not yet bigger than their fishballs), surprised at how a home-grown outfit has grown this big despite the smaller local demand, tighter manpower supply and global challenges.

Their secrets to success? Here are 5 of them.

You Can’t Just Sell One Thing
Selling just one product in the past may be sufficient to survive. In today’s markets where customers crave for variety, product innovation is the way to go. Other than an extensive variety of fishballs and fishcakes, Bobo went on to deep fried bean curd rolls, prawn, crab & cuttlefish balls, fish dumplings and other recent innovations such as cheese seafood tofu and thai fishcake snacks.

It’s true. I think the kids nowadays don’t just eat fishball. They love their cheese meatballs more.

Learn From Others
The company will look at product offerings at overseas markets, especially in countries such as Japan and South Korea to get inspired. So they looked at German sausages, wondered and came up with a line of ready-to-eat sausages. You just need to twist the sausage packaging open, and pop into the mouth. Stored at room temperature, no cooking needed.

Getting The Right Machines
Machines are costly – yes. But it is about finding the right machinery, and getting the right resources. Some of their R&D required a 6-figure sum which was partially funded by e2i’s Inclusive Growth Programme (IGP) and Spring Singapore.

Ha Li Fa purchased 6 machines over the last few years, and productivity also multiplied. One of their best buys is a multi-head weigher, a fast, accurate and reliable weighing machine. The worker can calibrate a ‘target weight’ (say 100 grams) and the machine will dispense accordingly, which integrates with the packing machinery.

In the past, workers have to manually weight portion by portion. Imagine the effort needed!

While manual weighing and packing used to take 10-14 days for a batch of products, using the machine takes maximum of 3 days. This ensures product freshness, and workers can be deployed to do ‘more valuable jobs’ such as overseeing of product safety and operational management.

The Workers Are Priority
Being an SME, Ha Li Fa found it a challenge to attract blue-collared workers, because factory jobs weren’t the most glamorous ones to do. Yah, most Singaporeans would choose to work in a comfortable air-conditioned office rather than in sweltering fishball factory.

As NTUC advocate for low wage worker, Mr Zainal Sapari, said “it is important to professionalise as many jobs as possible to make them more respectable.”

Providing their workers with more sense of ownership and additional incentives helped reduced turnover. Workers who were able to meet certain targets set were also be rewarded with extra cash on top of their basic salaries.

Listen to The Workers
(Okay, note for bosses.) On a related note, the management also said “You must listen to the workers.” Some of the workers suggested having a conveyor belt. The old practice was that they had to accumulate products in batches and physically push the goods to another part of the factory.

For the workers, they got what they wanted and working hours were effectively shortened per day (they literally worked less). For the company, the process improvement led to cost savings, “We can also save on 2-3 hours of aircon and electricity everyday!”

If I can add one more, it would be listening to the customers and the trends. Since ‘health’ is all in the rage, Ha Li Fa has produced a range of healthier fishballs and fishcakes with low salt and no MSG under the Sakura brand.

You may have already heard of this buzz word “Progressive Wage Model” popping up recently. Various forms of the “Progressive Wage Model” are already practised in companies like Ha Li Fa where they help workers to increase productivity by investing in machineries to make jobs easier, smarter and safer, giving workers the chance to upgrade their skills and take on more value-added career responsibilities.

It’s a win-win situation where the company becomes cheaper, better and faster through a more efficient production line, while workers enjoy shorter working hours and increased wages.

The next time I have a BoBo fishball at the dinner table, I will tell my mum this fishball is made by a machine, and also with lots of study, research and heart



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