SG 50 Special #42: Bengawan Solo, Have kueh will survive

Anastasia Tjendri-Liew (b. 1947, Bangka Island, Indonesia – ) is the founder and managing director of Bengawan Solo, one of Singapore’s most successful bakery chains. Under her leadership, Bengawan Solo grew from a single store to a chain with over 40 outlets and a turnover of S$43 million in 2008. She took up Singapore citizenship after moving from Indonesia in 1970.

Early life
Born into an Indonesian-Chinese family on Bangka Island, Tjendri-Liew was the third of eight children and grew up in Palembang. Her mother was a homemaker while her father ran a provision shop. She did well in school, usually finishing within the top three in class, but civil unrest in the city curtailed her education during her teenage years. Her interest in food was clear from childhood, when she sometimes walked to school and used her bus fare instead for food such as fried noodles and pempek, an Indonesian fishcake.

After leaving school, Tjendri-Liew took up baking and cooking classes to hone the culinary skills that she had already picked up from her mother and aunt as a teenager. She improved on the recipes she was taught and conducted her own culinary classes from home, using the income to take up an even wider variety of classes.

In 1970, Tjendri-Liew arrived in Singapore to improve her English language skills. She had two suitors, one of whom was accountant Johnson Liew, who was also of Indonesian-Chinese origin and whom she eventually married in 1973. They have a daughter, Rissa, and a son, Henry.

The beginnings of Bengawan Solo
In 1975, Tjendri-Liew was a homemaker when she started making butter and chiffon cakes and kueh lapis at her four-room flat in Marine Parade. She sold these cakes to friends and acquaintances, and the popularity of her confections grew through word of mouth. The demand rose so much that she began to supply them to supermarkets and shops, with one department store in Lucky Plaza even setting up a retail counter to showcase her confections.

Tjendri-Liew did not have a food manufacturing licence, however, and in 1979, government officials visited and instructed her to stop supplying shops from her home kitchen. Tjendri-Liew duly stopped operations from home, but customers continued to ask for her cakes and kueh. This prompted her to open a shop at Marine Terrace, near her home, a few months later. As previous tenants at the location had not done well, she succeeded in securing a low rent of S$1,200, and named the shop Bengawan Solo after a favourite Indonesian folk song.

The popularity of Bengawan Solo grew and demand for her cakes became overwhelming, helped by a newspaper review that emphasised their homemade taste. Customers urged her to open another shop in a more central location, and she obliged in 1983 with a second outlet at the Centrepoint shopping mall on Orchard Road.

The number of Bengawan Solo outlets increased every year as the business registered profits and turnover growth annually. The company had grown on the strength of Tjendri-Liew’s recipes and baking skills, but she was also showing the other qualities needed of a successful entrepreneur. She took charge of every area of Bengawan Solo’s operations, such as production, sales, personnel, accounting, finance, product design and development, advertising and purchasing. Her efforts were recognised in 1998 when she became the first recipient of the Association of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises’ Woman Entrepreneur of the Year Award. She later received the Public Service Medal in 2008.

Business philosophy
Tjendri-Liew’s business philosophy was to use the best ingredients possible to ensure the quality of the final product. She addressed quality control issues by personally overseeing the manufacturing processes and taking customer feedback seriously. An incident in the 1990s resulting in customer feedback about falling quality at Bengawan Solo led to a tightening of the manufacturing and operational processes. While the success of Bengawan Solo meant that Tjendri-Liew received many bids to buy over or invest in the company, she maintained tight control of the business and its operations.

Despite her wealth and Bengawan Solo’s success, Tjendri-Liew has been described as unassuming and modest. She treats her employees like family, and they attest to her generous nature. She has assisted employees in financial need and extended financial help to employees during medical emergencies. She is also known to host Chinese New Year dinners, held on separate days and for up to 200 people at a time, where she cooks personally for friends and staff. Factory staff address her affectionately as “Auntie”.

Alvin Chua

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