The 43-year-old founder of Marine Life Aquaculture, Frank Tan owns part of Pulau Ketam, an island between the Singapore mainland and Pulau Ubin, where his 80,000 sqm farm produces three species of fish (the black spot threadfin, red snapper, and the most popular product, the Asian seabass) — from spawning of eggs to fingerlings to full-grown fish. About 2 tonnes of fish are harvested weekly and sold to wet markets and supermarkets such as NTUC FairPrice and Giant. Frank may be passionate about the industry, but it doesn’t mean his five-year-old daughter has to inherit the business. “I want to establish a business platform for the next generation. I want someone who is passionate and has the know-how to do it, rather than just give [the business] to my children,” quips the jovial boss of 22 staff.
You were working in a Japanese oil and gas MNC as a regional sales manager before you set up Marine Life Aquaculture eight years ago in 2009. How did you pick up the necessary skills to make this change?
It had been a dream of mine to set up a fish farm for a long time, so I studied on my own for many years. I didn’t do any formal courses, though now there are courses in the polytechnics. I learnt through the hard way — trial and error. A few years before I started this company, I’d started another smaller fish farm for two years and it was a nightmare. I only went home to sleep for two nights that year [and spent the rest of the time on the farm]. But that failure spurred me to start this new company and I had learnt from my mistakes and knew what worked and what didn’t work.
Your wife handles the accounts of the company and your daughter loves fish. Is this something that runs in the family?
My daughter visited the farm twice during the last school holidays. She loves it here and didn’t want to go back. She loves Finding Nemo and whenever she sees fish in the aquarium, her eyes will light up. But it doesn’t necessarily mean she has to inherit my business or be in this industry.
You work with quite a number of millennials in your company.
The age range of the team here ranges from 25 to 29 and they’re team leaders on the cages, nursery, life prey, and agri-technicians.
In the early days of the company, how did people react when they found out you were a fish farmer?
They’d be stunned or would laugh. So for some time, I kept telling people that I was an aquaculturist. (Laughs) After two or three years, I decided that I was proud to be a farmer. Now, I tell people that I’m a farmer, and a very successful one at that.
How has life changed since you started working in a farm?
It was common for me to wear a jacket and tie to work when I was working as a regional sales manager. Over here, I wear bermudas and polo T-shirts every day. (Chuckles) Life has changed a lot. Some of the staff stay here on the island, but I live very near one of our berthing places in Punggol, so I can go home every day. In the past, my office was in Suntec and I’d know what was going on, where there were sales and new stuff. But now, sometimes you don’t know what’s trending outside. (Laughs) I work 365 days a year. But it was worse in the earlier days.
I had to do everything myself — from driving the boat here and harvesting the fish, to building the farm. Yes, literally building it. The part from the jetty to the office building we’re sitting in right now, I built it with one or two staff back then. It took a year to build, but we were producing [and selling] fish at the same time.
Do you make it a point to order fish each time you eat out?
No, we are very picky about our fish. I’ll order whatever fish my daughter wants to order!
Any pet fish at home?
(Guffaws) No! I don’t have any pets.
What are your hopes for the farming sector in Singapore?
At the moment, for us to reach overseas markets like the Middle East and Australia isn’t an issue. So I hope that the farming sector can be a key contribution to Singapore’s economy one day, to be [on par] with other industries like petrochemical and biomedical.