Yifang Fruit Tea - He Lost NT$ 160M to Build Taiwan’s Top Tea Brand
 
Jul 31, 2019
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It was an ordinary afternoon during the last days of 2015. Ko Tze-kai, CEO of the restaurant group Inkism International (墨力國際), had just turned 32. He locked himself in his office and stared at the shopping bag sitting on his coffee table; it was stuffed with millions in cash. None of the money was his to keep. He had borrowed it at an extremely high interest rate from private lenders—loan sharks—to stave off a crisis.

Ko had until three-thirty in the afternoon to put the money in an account, or his company would bounce a check. But before he drove out, he forced himself to sit and stare at the cold hard cash. He told himself, “I must remember this moment, so I never make the same mistake again!”

In March of 2016, the hand-shaken tea shop “Yifang” (一芳水果茶) made its debut. It quickly brewed up a storm in Taipei and Taichung. Franchises sprung up everywhere; thirsty crowds of customers kept on coming.

As his brand took off, Ko, whose empire also included the beverage chain Georg Peck (喬治派克) and the grill restaurant Motto Yakiniku (牧島燒肉), was lauded as a shining example of the new generation of Taiwanese entrepreneurs who were born in the 1980s. People often asked him: what’s the secret to your success?

Few knew that before Yifang became the hottest thing in town, Ko barely made it through the coldest winter of his life. Ko started from nothing. In 2015, in a misguided attempt to expand his business, he used up all his savings and the venture capital he acquired from an American investment company.

All in all, he lost 160 million Taiwan dollars, or 5.3 million US dollars. He was forced to borrow from loan sharks to keep his company afloat. His company was always one missed check away from bankruptcy. He considered pulling out of the game, but he had always been too proud to throw in the towel, to let others see him in a moment of weakness.

Sitting in front of the exact same coffee table he left the money on all those years ago, Ko took a deep breath as he started his story. It’s as if he needed to mentally prepare himself before reliving the details of a painful past. “Only recently have I begun to take an honest look at my failures, to admit there are so many more people who did much better than myself.”

But of course, Ko has every right to speak of success. Because even in his darkest moments, he was laying the groundwork for future brilliance.

Rising at Three to Work on a Dream

Ko graduated from the Department of Chemical Engineering at Hsiuping Institute of Technology (later renamed Hsiuping University of Science and Technology, 修平科技大學). At an early age, Ko knew he wanted to open his own store. But by the time he had been honorably discharged from mandatory military service, he had less than ten thousand dollars to his name. In order to accumulate capital, he delivered newspapers in Fengyuan (豐原) at three-thirty in the morning. By nine, he was clocking hours in a hot pot shop in Taichung. When his shift ended at six, he went straight home, had dinner, and went to bed. He rose at eleven to work on making ad inserts for two hours, slept for two more hours, then got up to go through the daily grind once more.

He kept up this superhuman routine for six months. Even when his eldest son was born in the wee hours on Father’s Day, he turned his back on wife and child to go deliver newspapers in the face of an oncoming typhoon. “As I walked out the hospital, I saw street signs flapping in the wind. Bitterness clawed at my heart. What would become of my child should anything happen to me?” Ko said. “But the more I thought about it, the more determined I became to earn the cash I required to start my business and give my family the life they deserve.”

In six months, he had the 200 thousand dollars he needed to start a business. He set up a beverage stall in a corner of Miaodong Night Market (廟東夜市) in Fengyuan. To attract customers, he sent good-looking temps to go out and distribute free samples every afternoon. This form of “engagement marketing,” which he figured out all on his own, made the drinks he sold hugely popular.

“I want to be a billionaire by the time I’m thirty!” This was what Ko declared to his classmates in their yearbook. However popular it was, a night market stall was not enough to feed his ambition. He wanted to be “the boss”. After just six months, he took a gamble and transformed the drink stand into an actual shop called “Peck Café” (派克咖啡). This was the predecessor of the famous “Georg Peck” chain, his first successful beverage franchise.

At first, the little-known Peck Café had trouble competing with more famous brands. Ko adjusted the menu, switched to selling smoothies, and went to the largest market in Fengyuan early every morning to distribute samples, just like he used to do. Even after being repeatedly and bluntly rejected by the busy vendors, he refused to take no for an answer.

In time, people warmed up to him. Vendors who tried his free samples began ordering deliveries. Ko was not ashamed to push his luck. He gave vendors stacks of flyers and begged them, “When people buy from you, put one of my flyers in their bag, okay?”

His tactics were not flashy, but they got the job done. The name “Georg Peck” began to mean something to the people of Fengyuan. Money started pouring in instead of leaking out. “All I did was the things no one else wanted to do or thought of doing,” Ko summarized his origin story in one simple sentence. It said all there was to say about his willingness to put everything on the line in the pursuit of success.

The Bad Bet That Blew Millions

Ko was 25 when he first turned a profit. Instead of gloating over his fortune, he threw himself into another gallant gamble. At the time, there was a hot storefront property for lease in a prime location in Miaodong Night Market. He rented the space on the spot. Even if he had barely enough cash for deposit and rent, and no clue how he was going to finance renovations, he boldly put his John Hancock on the dotted line. His wife’s remonstrations did not move him. The day after he signed the lease, he sold his car, ironed out the details of the installment plan, and got to work opening his new store.

Ko’s gamble paid off. The store became the foundation of his empire. To this day, the hundred or so stores in the Georg Peck franchise can trace their roots to this prime piece of property in Miaodong Night Market.

As hot money from the drink shops flooded his account, the flames of ambition stirred again in his breast. Though he had no culinary skills, he decided to open a restaurant. In 2013, his first Japanese grill restaurant Motto Yakiniku held its grand opening in Fengyuan. Not counting investment costs, Motto Yakiniku made a profit of 300 thousand dollars in its first month of existence. Riding on this wave of success, Ko opened a second branch that earned even more than the main store. Another gamble had paid off.

“I was on fire. I felt making money was the easiest thing in the world. In 2014, I owned about a dozen restaurants. My thinking was simple: bigger must be better. If I could make the number go up to forty, I would be making as much money as TTFB (瓦城集團), the largest Asian cuisine chain restaurant operator in Taiwan!” Ko let the sudden thrill of success go to his head. He hired consulting firms and branding agencies. He opened a restaurant in a very pricey department store.

In a stroke of what seemed like the best luck, but in hindsight may have been ill fortune, an international venture company caught wind of Ko’s meteoric rise. They wanted in. The massive amount of cash they provided was exactly what Ko needed to expand his empire. It was love at first sight between investor and entrepreneur. Ko, who once had to sell his car just to rent a night market shop, now had money to burn. Predictably, he went all in. His new restaurants sold anything from hamburgers to fried chicken to Korean barbecue. It wasn’t long before he reached his goal of owning forty restaurants.

“Colleagues pulled me aside to advise caution. My wife was apocalyptic. She told me I had to slow down. I listened to none of it,” recounted Ko. He opened new restaurants like he was throwing darts at a map. Sometimes he was already scouting locations for the second branch before the first restaurant had even opened or decided on its menu. “I was too successful too quickly, I thought I could do nothing but make money,” he recalled.

The all-or-nothing, now-or-never mentality that paid off so handsomely before now became a liability. Almost none of his hastily-established new eateries turned a profit. The restaurant in the department store he’d dreamed about for so long was especially ruinous. The cost was sky-high, but the constraints of the lease prevented him from shutting down. The piles of hard-won cash evaporated into thin air. Ko had an investment fund of 160 million dollars; it turned to smoke within a year. At times, the company did not even have 100 thousand dollars to its name.

Even so, Ko kept up his bravado and projected the image of a successful restaurant magnate, though he spent his waking hours being hounded by debt collectors. “A lot of times, I would throw class reunions in the evening even if I was straining to raise funds in the afternoon. Old friends would clap me on the back and crow, ‘you’re doing great’ and ‘we’re so proud of you’,” he remembered with an ironic smile.

Ko spent the second half of 2015 in a perpetual state of financial crisis. He once drove to Taichung City to borrow money from a ninety-year-old distant relative at three in the afternoon, then redlined his car back to Fengyuan to deposit the money in his account. All the way he was on the phone with the bank, begging them to “give me ten more minutes, please don’t bounce my check.” He also had his share of run-ins with shadier characters. Once, a loan officer who was supposed to meet him in the morning suddenly became incommunicado until two in the afternoon—an hour or so before the banks closed. The first thing he said when he finally showed up was, “Apologies, Mr. Ko, but my company cannot give you a loan at the interest rate we agreed on. However, I have some personal funds I can lend you. The interest rate will be a tad higher. Do you need it?”

A Rude Awakening: Humility is the Key

It goes without saying that Ko nearly lost it all. But what he gained in return was introspection. He may not hold the key to success, but he knows precisely why he failed: he blundered blindly into the unfamiliar culinary industry, and he became overly grandiose and self-assured. The realization he did not in fact know how to do everything made him return to his roots—the reliable business of selling tea—and gave him the wherewithal to turn back the tide.

“I did not have a culinary background. I asked chefs to invent dishes for me to taste and approve. With tea, it’s different. I know where to find all the ingredients, how to turn them into juices and extracts, how to combine them into a formula and invent a brand-new blend. I understand what customers want.” Yifang markets itself as the expert in making fruit tea with indigenous ingredients. Ko researched the recipes bit by bit in between trips to different banks to beg for money. Going back to doing what he knows has paid off. The new brand has rescued him from the low point of his career.

“Many times, I’ve considered closing the company, selling my house, and paying off my loans. The only reason I’ve stuck around is because I had a feeling Yifang was going to take off. If Yifang had not ‘made it’, I really might have called it quits,” Ko seemed to breathe a sigh of relief as he reached the happy conclusion of his story.

“People say you need to be optimistic, determined, and willing to take risks to achieve your dreams. That is true. But you must never lose sight of yourself. If I get a second chance, I would love to dabble in the restaurant business again or try my hand at something else. But I will always remember to be careful and humble. I used to think I was on top of the world, that’s why I fell such a long way.” With this remark, Ko closed the chapter on three wild years of remarkable success followed by humiliating failure. Two years ago, he also went back to school to get an EMBA from National Chung Hsing University. He hopes his new-found knowledge will help him better manage his business.

At the end of the interview, Ko took this reporter back to the night market, back to see the old stall where he used to sell black tea and the first storefront property that he sold his car to rent. They’re selling takoyaki in his old stall now; at least the shop is still his, it’s currently one of the many Yifang stores.

“I still come here sometimes. I like the food they sell here, and I like to think back to when I first started my business,” Ko said smilingly as he waved and nodded to old vendors who remembered him from those early days.

Don’t lose sight of yourself because of momentary success, and don’t forget your roots. This is the 160-million-dollar lesson Ko wants to share with the world.

By Cheng Min Sheng
Translated by Jack C.
Edited by Sharon Tseng