When fathers know best
Last month, luxury lifestyle magazine August Man featured fathers and sons in midsize Singapore family businesses: Anthony Lim and sons Raymond and Jeremy of Cortina Watch, Alan Tan and son Alvan of Alan Photo, Tan Soo Pong and son Lawrence of Dragon Brand Bird’s Nest.
So far, the transition to the next generation has been successful, albeit not without some challenges. Times have changed, and businesses have also evolved.
Anthony Lim founded Cortina Watch in 1972, and initially, he did everything on his own, staying in the shop and chatting with customers. But with e-commerce, the watch industry is feeling the heat today.
“It’s a different retail experience,” says Raymond. “In Taiwan, there are a lot of stores that don’t stock anything. You go in, try the sizes of the clothes, then order online. Our industry is not as yet affected but we are keeping an eye on this.”
Alan Photo used to be a typical camera shop, but with the rise of the smartphone, Alvan entices customers through REC, which is not just a clever wordplay on “recording” but also stands for “resolve, experience, create.”
“It’s an experiential space, with a cyclorama studio where customers can try out the different types of cameras before purchasing them,” says Alvan. “We also hold events and workshops, teaching people how to use different types of lighting, operating strobes, etc. Sure, you can purchase photography equipment online but you cannot experience the product. This is where REC comes in.”
Dragon Brand Bird’s Nest was founded in 1957 by Tan Soo Pong’s father. In 1986, it became the first to bottle the delicacy in a glass jar while preserving its freshness.
But now, the owners have decided to diversify into other food products and expand to China.
Even if the younger generation is already an integral part of the business, and the older ones want to retire, everyone agrees that during crunch time, dad still has the final say.
“A lot of our suppliers still approach me instead of [my son],” says Alan. “What I do now is start the initial discussions and then hand over to my son to follow up.”
“[My father] is from the older generation … and is more conservative,” says Alvan. “But I have to give him credit for his willingness to listen. He is a lot more open to new ideas than many other older people I know.”
“We are a traditional Teochew family, so when we have disagreements and cannot come to a consensus,” says Lawrence, “then we just accept the decision of my dad or uncles since they are the elders of the family.”
The same holds true for the Lim family.
“The final decision still lies with my father,” says Raymond. “That is how we do business.”
The Lim and the Tan children were also expected to join the family business. Raymond says there was pressure to live up to his father’s wishes, while Lawrence knew that as the eldest grandson, he would be expected to helm the company someday.
Only Alvan was not expected to join the business. Instead, he was the one who wanted to help his father.
Such stringent expectations though might not hold for the next generation. Professionalization would be needed.
Anthony realizes that his grandchildren might not want to join the business, but he hopes that their family would remain majority owners, with day-to-day affairs overseen by a non-family CEO.
Lawrence and his father are working toward restructuring their enterprise into a holding company, which would then serve the interests of the expanded family. No one would be forced to work in the family enterprise, but “everybody has their own talent so the holding company will be able to find a place for them should they want to join.”
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