“QUICK! Get at least three cartons. These vintage designs will complement our Chinese New Year decorations. The woman in cheongsam reminds me of my late grandmother!” exclaims a woman from the aisle next to mine. Her comments pique my interest. Placing the can of Campbell soup into my trolley, I quickly wheel the cart over to see what the fuss was all about.
Turning the corner, I see two middle aged women loading boxes of soft drinks onto their trolley. The drinks turn out to be the Fraser & Neave classic Orange Crush. Picking one up, I realise that the company, more popularly known as F&N, has produced a very attractive limited edition for its all-time bestseller.
I dip into the box to see what the individual can looks like and gasp when a tall can emerges. It has the imprint of a classic F&N glass bottle on its side. The company has thoughtfully manufactured the cans in a similar vintage theme.
Produced to coincide with the current Lunar New Year festivities and to commemorate the company’s 135th anniversary, this throwback marketing strategy gives F&N the opportunity to attract consumers, especially millennials, who may have never seen the drinks in their original glass bottles.
ORIGIN OF CARBONATED WATER
The sight of the imprinted bottle image prompts me to reflect upon my younger days. Like many people back then, Chinese New Year was the only time my sister and I were allowed to have soft drinks. Sipping icy cold F&N Orange Crush while munching on delicious titbits were the main highlight of the festive season for us.
I can still recall the tears welling in our eyes when the sundry shop assistant arrived to take away the empty bottles. Fortunately, our parents were at hand to assure us that there’d be another crate in the house when Chinese New Year arrives the next year.
Although the exact origin of soft drinks is unknown, many historians believe it started off as a non-carbonated fruit-flavoured beverage in 16th Century England. During Tudor times, people drank Water Imperial, which was essentially a sweetened lemon-flavoured drink containing cream of tartar. The other favourite back then was Manays Cryste, a sweetened cordial flavoured with rosewater, violets or cinnamon.
It wasn’t until 1767 that Englishman Joseph Priestley finally perfected a method of infusing water with carbon dioxide to make carbonated water. He achieved it by simply suspending a bowl of distilled water above a beer vat at a local Leeds brewery in England. Priestley’s invention is widely considered the major and defining component that helped soft drinks gain rapid acceptance the world over.
Thanks to the soft drinks’ enduring popularity and countless advertising campaigns, there are legions of soft drinks memorabilia collectors in every corner of the world today. I’d hazard a guess that these people, myself included, started collecting because the drinks left an impactful impression on their childhood.
Realising the folly of trying to collect every single brand name with my very limited financial resources, I made the decision years ago to specialise only in items related to F&N, the company formed by two enterprising Scotsmen, John Fraser and David Chalmers Neave, in September 1883.
HOW IT ALL STARTED
John Fraser first arrived in Singapore in 1865 and worked at the Chartered Mercantile Bank before moving to Shanghai for a couple of years. Upon his return to Singapore in 1867, Fraser entered into a partnership with Alex Gentle, who was his former banking colleague. Together with several others, the duo ventured into a broking and accounting business. Capitalising on the colony’s growing prosperity, Fraser later founded his own financial firm, Fraser & Company. This company exists today as Fraser Securities.
A greater partnership occurred in 1875 when Fraser joined hands with David Chalmers Neave, a printer at the Singapore Straits Printing Company. The men took over Reverend Benjamin Keasberry’s Mission Press when the latter’s widow died that year and renamed it Fraser and Neave.
Eight years later, in 1883, the two friends diversified into the carbonated water segment after noticing its rising popularity in America and Europe. They set up the Singapore and Straits Aerated Water Company, the first carbonated soft drink company in Southeast Asia.
The company only assumed its famous name in 1898 after merging with the printing business. Together, the new entity was incorporated as Fraser and Neave (F&N), Ltd with the iconic rampant lion as part of its trademark. This major revamp happened primarily because both men decided to retire from active management. Neave, however, despite his poor health, chose to remain on the board of the company.
F&N wisely devoted its first two years to market research before starting production from a factory in Battery Road. The initial staff strength was 20 and pony carts were used to deliver the products to clubs, hotels and residences in Singapore. At that time, the factory produced soda water, lemonade, tonic and ginger ale.
In order to maintain the carbonation, early F&N products were produced using codd-neck bottles. Designed and patented by British soft drink maker Hiram Codd in 1872, each bottle had a marble and rubber washer which sealed in the gas when the contents were filled upside down.
Used until its replacement by ordinary airtight caps in the early 20th century, these bottles have become highly prized collectors’ items today. Its rarity is primarily due to children smashing the bottles to get their hands on the marbles.
By the turn of the 20th century, the number of employees had increased three-fold, making F&N one of the largest companies in Singapore. By the early 1900s, the company began making forays into neighbouring markets by opening up branches in Kuala Lumpur, Malaka, Seremban, Penang, Bangkok and Saigon.
In Ipoh, the F&N branch operated a storage and delivery depot at the junction of Kidd Road (now Medan Kidd) and Connolly Road (now Jalan Tun Perak). From this base, the branch began supplying F&N drinks to the people in Kinta Valley.
Apart from branch offices, F&N also appointed local agents in Kota Baru, Labuan and Sandakan while their representatives abroad were stationed in Bangkok, New Delhi and Perth, Western Australia.
GROWING FROM STRENGTH TO STRENGTH
Soon after World War I, the company began acquiring new production techniques and for the first time in its history, started expanding its production lines beyond Malayan shores by establishing several new factories in Indonesia.
In 1931, F&N ventured into the brewing business. Their joint venture with Holland’s Heineken resulted in the formation of Malayan Breweries Limited. Several years later, the brewery, which produced the popular Tiger Beer brand, expanded with the acquisition of Archipelago Brewery, which was responsible for producing Anchor Beer.
F&N continued to grow from strength to strength in the 1930s. Its next milestone achievement happened in 1936 when the company received the Singapore, Malaya and Brunei franchise rights to market Coca-Cola drinks. This turned out to be a step in the right direction for the company as Coca-Cola sales became a significant part of its business. Later, F&N also acquired rights to other brands like 7-Up, Fanta and Sunkist.
The Second World War saw F&N’s business grinding to a halt. The company’s factories and breweries were seized by the Japanese Imperial Army and were forced to produce drinks for the Japanese soldiers preparing to invade India and Australia.
The war ended in August 1945 and soon after that F&N began recovering its seized assets. The company then began building newer and better-equipped factories both in Singapore and Malaya as post-war demand for F&N’s products was phenomenal. In 1948, the company had to set up an export department to deal with the multi-fold increase in orders.
“Excuse me. Are you buying?” the young promoter’s voice jolts me back to reality. I look at her sheepishly, grab a carton and head off towards the sales counter. Before leaving for home, I message fellow collector Sam Hew Kok Sim, telling him about the limited edition designs. We chat for a while, comparing the different F&N-related items in our collections.
Along the way, my thoughts are preoccupied with Hew’s comments about F&N’s Red Lion drink which was released in 1954. Contrasting from its contemporaries, the Red Lion drinks were non-carbonated and made from real fruit juice. It was introduced to capture the health conscious consumer segment.
MOVING WITH THE TIMES
I spend the next two hours gathering my F&N items which range from a variety of promotional drinking glasses to advertisements and reference books. Flipping through a recent company annual report helps me to complete the compelling story of this enduring locally-built company.
In 1961, F&N entered into a joint venture with Beatrice Foods of Chicago to produce sweetened condensed milk. This new venture marked a distinct departure from the company’s mainstay soft drink production. For the first time in history, the F&N’s factories began processing dairy products.
The Malaysia-Singapore demerger in 1965 affected the company, causing F&N to undergo a major restructuring to split its businesses in both countries. At around the same time, new subsidiaries were set up to give the company better control over its downstream productions. This included divisions to manufacture cans, PVC containers and bottles.
The following two decades saw F&N placing emphasis on growth as well as research and development. The management organisation was restructured to create new portfolios and independent profit centres to manage its diversified interests. With an eye on the future, F&N factories began embracing automation as a hedge against future increases in labour costs.
In the 1990s, the key drivers of the F&N group’s earnings were its brewery business and property ventures. For the first time in the company’s history, F&N’s earnings from property development exceeded its traditional drinks businesses in 1995. The last five years of the decade proved to be challenging as Asia fell into recession. The company’s beverage and dairy segments suffered sharp falls in their profitability. Coupled with uncertain currency fluctuations, F&N’s share price plunged more than 60 per cent at one point.
These setbacks prompted the F&N management team to rethink the company’s long term strategy. In an attempt to diversify further, F&N took majority control of Time Publishing in 2000. This allowed the company to venture into the printing, publishing, retail bookstore, sales and distribution, education, Internet and conference organisation businesses. This decision, together with several other equally wise acquisitions, worked wonders for the company’ balance sheets.
Stability returned to F&N in the early 2000s with its property and beverage businesses remaining major profit contributors. The future bodes well for F&N as it continues to evolve by optimising strategies and introducing newer products to satisfy the ever changing needs of its customers.
At the same time, I remain confident that F&N’s traditional soft drinks, like Orange Crush, will continue to be around to quench the thirst of many more generations of Malaysians to come.