Nichol Ng, group CEO of X‑Inc and co‑founder of The Food Bank Singapore, is used to taking on a little extra. She discuss what makes her tick and how she plans to take her organisations into the future with cryptocurrency
A cursory glance at Nichol Ng’s astounding portfolio and personal life, and the conclusion is clear: her schedule is impossible. This work and life cannot be balanced by a mere human being. This person’s plate is too full to take on something more, such as a magazine interview with both photo and video shoots.
But balance this work and life she does, and carve out time for Tatler Singapore for this interview she did, probably because Ng is just a little bit superpowered.
The 44-year-old runs X-Inc, an S$80 million business with five subsidiaries across the food distribution, logistics and property sectors that was born from a small family business started by her grandfather in 1939, and which she and her younger brother, Nicholas Ng, helped reshape and reinvent in 2007. The siblings also started The Food Bank Singapore in 2012, a charity that collects food donations from farms, manufacturers, supermarkets and consumers that may otherwise be thrown out, and redistributes them to the needy.
She’s president, too, of One (Singapore), an NGO that seeks to end poverty and raise awareness of issues such as climate change and inequality. On top of all that, she has roles in other NGOs and business organisations. And did we mention that she’s a funky, pink‑haired, hands‑on wonder mum to four young children, aged 10, eight, six and three, and is considering a fifth child?
“I think it all stems from my personality,” says Ng when asked about how she manages what seems like an insurmountable amount of work. “Since I was young, I’ve been a real busybody. I was always the one raising my hand and volunteering to carry things for the teachers. I feel a great sense of responsibility—to my business, to my kids and to society. I’ll ask myself what I can contribute so that tomorrow is better for everybody, especially in today’s uncertain world. So I’ve always been doing a lot. I created methods to manage—such as ensuring that I finish everything on my to‑do list for the day, so that less work is pushed to the next day, and always clearing my email inbox before I end the day.”
These productivity tips are great, but even the most organised and efficient folks would find it a challenge to achieve what Ng does on a daily basis: waking up at 5.45 am to make breakfast and prepare lunch boxes for her kids; ferrying them to school in two runs before heading into her office bright and early for a full day of meetings and work; making it home in time to put her children to bed; sometimes holding a 10 pm or 11 pm meeting before turning in; waking up throughout the night to nurse her kids (when they were younger) and to check on them.
So... how many hours does she sleep every night? “About four,” she reveals with a laugh. Not to take away from how insanely hard she works, but the fact that Ng is one of those slightly superpowered human beings that can survive and thrive with a lot less shut‑eye than the rest of us explains a lot.
Also, she eats only one meal a day. “I’ve been doing this since before intermittent fasting [was a thing]!” she says. “Genuinely, I do it because I only get hungry later in the day and can survive without food in the earlier part. Also, I’m really very busy, so I don’t have time to eat. What started as something of a habit has become a lifestyle. It’s about getting the proper nutrition from that one meal.”
Lest you think Ng leads a charmed and magical life, where she needs less sleep and food than the average person and is thus more productive and amazing, she has been vocal about her setbacks, which she says only fuelled her drive to succeed. Her battle with eating disorders, she shares, gave her a sense of determination and made her aware of her inner voice.
And of the hardships she suffered after her father became bankrupt and the family assets were seized by the banks during the financial crisis of 1997, she says: “I’m blessed that my dad allowed me to have that experience where we lost everything. I have to give my father credit: I never saw him completely give up on his hopes and dreams, even when we lost it all.”
Her dad passed away in 2016, but that never‑say‑die attitude lives on in Ng. “I think we’re fighting the biggest fight of our lives right now, as we speak,” she says. The pandemic wreaked havoc on the F&B industry, but Ng, whose company’s food distribution arm FoodXervices has some 6,000 clients, from hawker stalls to Shake Shack, Marina Bay Sands and Singapore Airlines, says she was saved by the wider basket of products that she carries, which includes non‑food items such as tissue paper and hand sanitisers, and the company’s other non‑food‑related businesses.
It’s not just about work-life balance; it’s also about purposeful working. If you lead a purposeful life, it’s enough. There’s no need to be perfect all the time
Grow and thrive
The truth is, while it is known for its food distribution and F&B services, X‑Inc had already diversified and pivoted into businesses not directly related to food back in 2008—way before “pivot” became a buzzword during the pandemic.
Since buying over the sales and distribution part of the family’s older company in 2007 and establishing FoodXervices Inc and LogiXtics Inc the same year, Ng and her brother have expanded the business into one that offers logistics solutions—managing trucks, deliveries and warehousing for their own as well as third‑party businesses—and set up subsidiaries such as X Properties and GroXers Inc. The former delves into real estate and space management as well as their co‑working and co‑cooking business, while the latter oversees and develops the retail distribution business, serving supermarkets, resellers and provision shops, and delivering directly to homes.
“What we did over the last 15 to 20 years, in terms of digitisation and diversifying our businesses and risks, helped us survive these two years far better than others, because we were already ahead of the curve,” Ng says. “We’ve been selling directly to homes since 2008, so refocusing on the B2C business was easy when Covid‑19 first hit our shores and Phase 1 happened.”
She continues to aggressively take her company to the next level. Her 250,000 sq ft building, Xpace, which opened at the end of 2019, is a shared resources haven serving up a full suite of services for F&B businesses, including commercial kitchens, production spaces, hot desks, supplies and storage. It also has a 140‑seater cafeteria called Xpace Xupper Club, which doubles as a platform for F&B businesses to innovate, ideate, and host events and tasting sessions.
“Our move into Xpace was a game‑changer,” Ng says. “We can now work with brands that need kitchens and solutions and have other warehousing and distribution needs. It started with a simple vision of bringing dreams to life and the idea of being an enabler. I wanted us to be a thought leader in this space to inspire young people to join the trade. We had to make F&B wholesale and distribution sexy again, to attract the talent we need.”
Also sexy and buzzworthy: supporting local and promoting sustainability. Backyard Productions was started in 2018 to lift up local farmers and put in place an ecosystem to help local farms expand their reach. Says Ng: “The idea is to promote the goodness and importance of local produce, and help people understand that now more than ever, sustainability and the nation’s food security go hand in hand.”
On top of all this, Ng managed to raise millions of dollars and give out more than a million meals to the needy via The Food Bank Singapore’s Feed the City programme in 2020, effectively supporting the flailing F&B industry by buying meals while aiding the less fortunate.
And now, she’s taking X‑Inc into the future: in the works is a new high‑tech and sustainably renovated 25,000 sq ft space at Orchard Road that will be a playground for F&B and retail players, as well as plans to go into cryptocurrency and the metaverse.
“It’s a pilot project, but we’ll be accepting cryptocurrency in our B2B space, and The Food Bank Singapore will be one of the first few charities in Asia to accept cryptocurrency as digital donations,” Ng shares. “We are also introducing fintech solutions and alternative payment solutions to our clients, and exploring ways the F&B sector can better tap on the digital businesses we’ve been exploring for the past few years. This month, we’re going into the metaverse. So whether we buy land or work in collaboration with people, we will have a metaverse presence for the charity and our for‑profit business.”
One wonders how Ng finds time to even breathe, but the superwoman juggles her many roles seemingly without breaking a sweat and while looking extremely put together—and acing possibly her most important role: that of being mum to her “four monkeys at home”.
“For us working mums, there’s really very limited time, right? So I make the time with my kids count, whether it’s in the car while driving them to school or those precious moments when I put them to bed,” says Ng, whose husband is a cabin crew with Singapore Airlines and whom she says is her biggest cheerleader. “It’s not about spending a huge quantity of time. If one hour is all I have, then that hour has to make all the sense in the world. I’m also very lucky that my mum is relatively young, in the first half of her 60s, and she likes to drive and is very independent. She’s this funky grandma! So I activate my support system and trust the people around me.”
And Ng knows when to let her hair down. “My four kids will say that they have the craziest mum ever. When I used to drive a [Porsche] 911, I’d put the top down and blast the music—at 6.45 am. That’s the kind of mum I want my children to know—I work hard, but I can also let my hair down when it matters the most. It’s not just about work‑life balance; it’s also about purposeful working. If you lead a purposeful life, it’s enough. There’s no need to be perfect all the time.”