Things hit a snag in 1995, however, when the sale of its old factories to finance the purchase of the new space stalled and the main contractor for the new factory ran away with the money for renovation.
It did not help that she was pregnant then with her first child.
Nonetheless, she worked around the clock to resolve matters, pausing only to deliver her son before returning to work immediately, holding meetings with her managers at home while she was on post-delivery convalescence.
It was with the help of the banks, she says, that the company was able to tide over the cash-flow problem and break into the export market the next year.
The first overseas market was Taiwan and its Kee’s brand of sauces – named after her father, Chng Kee – was sold in supermarkets and to food businesses. Today, the company is a multi-million-dollar business whose sauces are exported to more than 30 countries.In 2001, she started a new food business, JR Foodstuff, with her husband Richard Wong.
An entrepreneur himself – he ran a successful education centre – he would lend her a hand with the sauce business when she needed help and he would join her on trips to F&B trade fairs overseas.
On one such trip, he saw the potential of ready-to-eat meals and was keen to launch them in Singapore. Persuaded by his vision, she co-founded the company with him, although he was the one mostly driving the business, selling ready-to-eat dishes such as herbal chicken and yam paste with ginkgo nut to hotels, restaurants and caterers.
In 2003, at another trade fair, he caught a whiff of the promise of hot food vending machines and was convinced it would take off here.
But he never had a chance to get started on the business. He was found to have lymphoma the next year and died two weeks after being diagnosed.
Ms Chng says: “It was my family that kept me going. I was always the eldest sister looking after them, but at that time, they surrounded me and looked after me.”
She realised, too, that she “couldn’t drown in sorrows and not care” because she is responsible for her staff and is now both mother and father to her three sons. Her youngest son was two years old then.
Raising three sons – now aged 21, 18 and 14 – and running a business has not been easy, she admits, but she makes sure she spends time with them, including attending their competitions and performances, blocking out work trips to be with them when they have examinations and bonding over weekly family meals.
In 2008, with her siblings running Sin Hwa Dee day to day, she turned her attention to JR Foodstuff, growing the business into JR Group, a group of four companies that includes restaurant management and the hot food vending- machine business her husband had envisioned.
She says: “I felt that the time was right because people’s perception of chilled and frozen food had changed.
“People used to buy freshly slaughtered poultry from the wet market, but by then, they knew that chilled and frozen meat sold in supermarkets is safer, fresher.”
She adds: “Changing people’s lifestyle and mindset is not easy, especially when you are a first mover, but we are excited about the revolution we are bringing to the F&B market.”
A version of this article first appeared in The Straits Times.
(Photos: The Straits Times)