The tears and smiles of a Chinese grocery emperor

The tears and smiles of a Chinese grocery emperor

Wing Yip, chairman of the UK’s leading Oriental supermarket chain, is a great example of how immigrants can create business success. Steve Dyson reports.

A large sign above the door to Wing Yip’s reception in Nechells, Birmingham displays the famous Chinese proverb: ‘A man without a smiling face must not open a shop’. Yet within minutes of meeting the founder and chairman of the giant Oriental supermarket group, he’s shedding a tear. Unbeknown to BQ, Woon Wing Yip lost his younger brother, Sammy Yap, just before Christmas, and the family held a traditional mourning ceremony only days before this interview.

Questions about Yip’s birth, childhood and upbringing therefore trigger understandable waves of emotion from the 78-year-old, who briefly buries his face in his hands. But within seconds he brightens up and announces we’ll be having “lunch first, interview after” – and leads the way to the neighbouring Wing Wah restaurant.

“A hungry man is an angry man,” adds Yip with a smile, and probably a nod to his interviewer’s girth. Henry Yap – son of the late Sammy, and Yip’s nephew – explains it’s obviously “a difficult time” for his uncle, not only because of grief but also facing up to the “transitional period” of handing over control of the family-owned business to “the second generation”.

Yap is managing director of Wing Yip, and other directors include Yip’s own sons, Albert, Brian and David. Lee Sing Yap, another of Yip’s brothers, also has a son, Ennevor, who is part of the business structure. Having Yips and Yaps in the same family, by the way, is down to how various UK immigration officers wrote the surnames down when the original brothers arrived in different decades.

Of the second generation, Henry Yap is “first among equals”, but he’s insistent that the family work closely as a team.  We’re walking through the Wing Yip supermarket now, and out in front of us Yip is bending down to straighten mats around the door, picking up discarded receipts as he goes.

“He’s always doing that – setting an example for everyone, staff and directors,” Yap says. “As a result, we all do things like bringing trolleys in, showing staff we’re prepared to do anything they do.”

It’s a noticeable theme that drives the Wing Yip business, which has a £100m-plus annual turnover and employs more than 360 staff at its supermarkets in Birmingham, Manchester and Greater London – with stores in Cricklewood and Croydon.

Yip overhears us and agrees: “One of our staff in London, he told me: ‘You must be the only supermarket owner who pushes trolleys!’ I said: ‘I’ve done it for years!’ Your business is everything – including your car park. Making sure it’s clean and ready for customers is as important as the shop.”

We’re sitting in the restaurant now, where the interview continues over lunch. Tentatively, we pick up on Yip’s background – the origins of the family and how he came to be here. He was born into a Hakka family in Dongguan County, Guangdong, in December 1937 – a time of great strife and poverty in China.

Yip’s eyes gaze into mid-distance as he recalls: “War, lots of moving, then more war, more moving.” He’s referring to what was first the Chinese Civil War in the 1930s, then the Japanese invasion before the Second World War, and the resumption of civil war from 1946 to 1950.

Yip recalls being a refugee as a child, always on the move, amid violence and poverty. “When I was a baby someone carried me from Hong Kong to China on their back. Then the Japanese came, and someone carried me back to Hong Kong. Every time I see the refugees on TV my eyes go red, because it reminds me.

“We were very poor in my grandfather’s time. They were not educated. My father went to school for one year. My uncle went to Jamaica as a labourer and sent money for the family to open shops and for me to learn English. By then we were in Hong Kong and I thought: ‘Where do I go to spend my life?’

“For a young man poverty is the biggest driving force. Like tigers and dogs, when a man is hungry he can fight an animal three times bigger! I promised myself: ‘I can’t be poor again.’”

Yip used his Hong Kong citizenship to enter the UK where, as a much-told story goes, he arrived with just £10 in his pocket in 1959, quickly making a fortune. The real story is more complicated, of course, but essentially it’s true – he arrived with little cash and no plans, somehow finding his way from London to East Anglia.

“I always say I’m lucky,” says Yip, upset again while remembering his days alone in the UK. “When I was a waiter in staff quarters, everyone would read their letters from home out loud. I couldn’t. I’d save them until night time and read them. Why? Because if I opened the letter I cry.”

Eventually, Yip’s brother Sammy followed him to the UK, and they set up a Chinese restaurant, before realising this wasn’t their forte. As Yip says: “I told my brother: ‘We can’t run a restaurant anymore. Neither of us can cook!’ So instead of competing, we decided to supply.”

The brothers set about opening their first shop in Birmingham. Why Birmingham? “A client told me: ‘Young man, London is like a jungle, no grass, no sunlight, and big roots that suck up all the water.’ So where should we go? I spent a long time travelling to Liverpool and Manchester to look, and kept passing Birmingham on the motorway. Every journey was either starting in, passing through or ending in Birmingham.”

And so Birmingham’s central location saw the first Wing Yip opening in a former record shop in Digbeth in 1969. As the business grew, it moved to larger premises on the Coventry Road in 1975, the Manchester branch opening when the third brother, Lee Sing Yap, joined the business in 1977.

Ten years later, the company expanded into London, and then in 1992 the Birmingham store and headquarters relocated to the current base in Nechells. This site’s now become a mini-Chinese village, called the Wing Yip Business Centre, with tenants like solicitors, a doctor and accountants all serving the local Chinese community.

Yip and his wife Brenda brought up their three sons and daughter Cindy at their house in Edgbaston, and now have seven grandchildren. He’s proud of being an immigrant – but is even prouder that his family both made and reinvested their wealth in their adopted country. “We didn’t bring anything with us – what we made, we made here,” Yip says.

“A lot of Chinese, although they’re here, their heart and minds are somewhere else, and they send half their money back home. But when I came I brought my heart with me and said: ‘This will be my country and for my children.’ So everything we make stays here in the UK.”

Wing Yip is now widely recognised as the UK’s leading Oriental grocer, supplying more than 4,500 product lines, ranging from Chinese to Korean, and from Japanese to Thai. Customers include Tesco and Waitrose, although Yap’s quick to play down these brands.

“We don’t really gauge our success on how big the customer is,” says Yap, aged 47 and married with twin sons and a daughter. “There’s a Chinese saying: ‘The smaller the fish the sweeter the meat.’ We much prefer lots of normal-sized custom. As a cash and carry, we have people shopping here three and four times a week, families as well as businesses. We’ve always served Chinese families, but now have British families as more and more people get into Chinese and other Oriental foods.”

The success brings the conversation around to refugees again. Yap is philosophical: “We’ve seen what our first generation went through, and they were very, very fortunate to have the opportunity to come to England. The second generation are very grateful they did, otherwise we couldn’t have the life we have now.

“But every situation and era is different. Everybody wants to do the right thing for today’s refugees, but it’s got to be done in a sustainable way. Now there are so many people from different situations, and the system is just not set up to cope.

The Wing Yip business now promotes international cooperation, currently funding several students each year – both Chinese students studying in the UK, and UK students in China. As for the future, Yap has plans: a new store in Cardiff, redevelopment of the Croydon branch, a small expansion in Cricklewood and a search for a new site in Manchester.

“We carry on,” Yap says. “We have to keep working at it. Just because we have £100m turnover this year doesn’t mean we will next year.

“The foundations are there. But obviously time changes, and we have to change as well to meet customer expectations and market demands.”

Yip, who received the OBE in 2010, nods approvingly: “You love the business; you care for it.” Does he have more advice for would-be entrepreneurs? He does, and he delivers what feel like a series of semi-Chinese proverbs.

“Find out what you want and dedicate yourself to it,” he says. “Some people fail because they want to do too many things at one time. God is very fair. He only gives you certain abilities.

“Never turn your back on trade, however educated you become. The biggest company in the world is still a trader. And the world can only turn out as good as you are.”

Then Yip shares advice that the late Professor Sir Roland Smith – once a leading businessman, academic and government adviser – gave him 30 years ago. “He told me success in life is simple: One, vision – know what you want. Two, ambition – for money or power. Three, dedication – try and try again. Four, financial discipline – you’ve got to know about money. Every year since, I’ve written those words in my diary.”

Yip whips out his diary and the words ‘vision’, ‘ambition’, ‘dedication’ and ‘financial discipline’ are indeed scribbled on the first page.

Finally, Yip’s favourite joke: “Someone once asked me my religion. I said: ‘Bank of England’. They said: ‘You mean Church of England.’ I said: ‘No, I mean Bank of England.’ You see, I came here to better myself, and for my family. But I couldn’t have done it without the Bank of England.”

And like the good shopkeeper he is, Yip’s smiling again.