A Life Aquatic

A Life Aquatic

Looking at fish in aquariums surely beats staring at the screen in an office all day long. A former IT manager tells LIM WING HOOI why he switched to breeding fish.

FORTUNE may indeed favour the bold, but you also have to turn up well-prepared. Take IT-manager-turned-fish-breeder Neoh Chiaw Kheng, for example.

He first learned the ornamental fish trade via a parnership, bided his time and struck out on his own as breeder and exporter when he was well and truly ready.

The 47-year-old, who specialises in breeding discus fish, says he only started his company, Aqua Synergy Discus Farm Sdn Bhd, in 2005 after spending about four years as a partner in one of his friend’s discus breeding business. All the while, he dreamt of becoming his own boss.

Neoh craved the independence and flexibility, and he wanted to spend more time with his son and daughter, who are today 15 and 12 respectively.

Looking back, he says it was the right decision.

“Whenever I go to international trade shows, my wife and children would go with me. There have even been instances where I got suppliers to take care of my kids when I had to attend trade shows by myself,” he beams.

Neoh started his busines in a rented double-storey corner lot in Taman Melawati, Kuala Lumpur. He invested about RM100,000 on equipment, including water pumps, aquariums, filters and brood stock which cost from RM60 to RM300 each, purchasing up to 100 different varieties.

The premises could accommodate up to 60 tanks – each three feet in length, with a 200-litre capacity – and he could produce about 300 discus fish of various sizes every month to cater to the local and export markets.

“It is not about quantity, even though that is important. We are very selective about the brood as the shipping cost would sometimes cost more than the fish, so clients only want the best quality,” he says.

Running a one-man show business at the time (it’s a two-man show now that he’s hired a worker), Neoh cultivated new clients via the website he set up. He says the Internet has opened up new opportunities and new ways of doing business. For instance, instead of relying on local exporters who go to trade shows to source for stocks from them to ship to clients overseas, breeders themselves could now export directly to clients – usually fish shops.

“Some of my overseas clients are retirees who just want to run a business to supplement their daily needs. They even shared that if they did well, they would use the money earned from their fish shop to have a family gathering at a restaurant. If business was not so good, they would have a gathering at their backyard, doing barbeque instead,” Neoh reveals.

Being cautious in business, Neoh only accepts cash up front from their clients via telegraphic transfer (TT) before he ship the orders. But who would TT money to you without verifying if you were a genuine exporter?

Well, Neoh built his credibility by participating in discus fish competitions in the country and Singapore. At the 3rd DSM Discus Championship 2006 in Malaysia, he took home the first, second and third prize for the Snakeskin category while at the 2006 Tetra World Discus Championship in Singapore, he took the first and second prize for the thin-line stripe category.

To participate, Neoh said he would pay about RM100 in entrance fees for local competitions and up about €100 per fish for overseas competition. And that’s not including the RM5,000 shipping cost to get the fish to the venue. It’s not exactly cheap, but they are essential advertising tools for his business.

“I’d rather pay for my family’s air fare,” he jokes.

Today, Neoh’s business has grown. The company exports discus fish to the US, Europe, Australia and the Asia, and he has moved to a 7,000 sq ft breeding farm in Ulu Kelang, Ampang with one staff and about 180 tanks.

His discus fish are sold at between US$5 to US$40 per fish. Exporting fish is not such a straightforward deal, though. There are procedures to follow, including quarantining the fish and getting an export permit from the Department of Fisheries’ Biosecurity Division. This quarantine period ranges from 72 hours to 16 days, depending on the individual country’s requirements.

The quarantine is required to allow for the removal of whatever parasites the fish may carry.

“After getting the permit, it would then be shipped via priority cargo as it involves lifestocck,” Neoh says.

Neoh, who has an MBA in Internet marketing, says there are friends who are keen to become discus breeders but he always reminds them that fish breeding is a form of agriculture, and therefore, the processes are not as precise or easy to control as in manufacturing.

The breeding process begins with the breeder identifying a mating pair from the community tank, making sure spawning takes place and that the hatchlings survive, he says. The bottomline is that the quality of the discus must be up to the market expectations.

“We keep them up to the size of three inches, which takes up to five months from when the eggs are hatched. In this time, we can see if the body shape, patterns annd colours are what the client wants. Otherwise they become second-grade fish that are sold at a discount, sometimes up to 70%,” he says.

A disease, a negligent worker who forgot to put anti-chlorine after changing water or a disruption in electricity are some of the things that could wipe off all the profits. Neoh cautions that “one cannot equate the number of breeding pairs or tanks to machines”.

Meanwhile, Neoh is always looking at other business possibilities since discus is not a popular ornamental fish among Malaysians. He is currently selling vertical gardens after a local landscaper suggested the idea to him. Neoh established Eco Balance Solution as a sole proprietorship in 2013 and started to work on synergising ornamental fish and vertical gardens.

He built a filtration system where the waste from the discus tanks could be channelled as fertiliser to a vertical garden. Having done six vertical gardens for residential houses valued from RM3,000 and above, Neoh believes he could be on to the next big thing in the next two years.

“With more referrals coming in from existing clients, we will continue to explore new vertical garden designs,” he concludes.

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