Best practices of the Sterling Group
(Third of a series)
My dad was taught by my grandfather, Lim Seh Leng, whom the Sterling brand was named after, to sell high yet sell more,” says Michelle Lim Gankee, daughter of Henry Lim Bon Liong of Sterling Paper Group of Companies and SL Agritech.
“Contrary to the Chinese belief to sell more volume with lower prices, our business and marketing strategy is selling at a higher price yet selling more volume. This is indeed a challenge and the first thing we did was to [leverage] advertising. We were the first in our industry to do a trimedia campaign.”
Sterling was also the first in the country to produce character-design notebooks, and SL Agritech the first to implement branding for their bestselling commodity, the Doña Maria hybrid rice, which was named after Michelle’s grandmother.
However, marketing is not enough unless it is underpinned by genuine quality. Product leadership, operational excellence, customer intimacy and innovation became the four pillars of Sterling.
“If customers are satisfied with the quality, they will keep on buying your products and they will be loyal,” says Michelle. “Sterling became the top selling notebook brand, together with our mid- and low-level brands Avanti and Orions, while Doña Maria is the top selling premium rice in the market, together with our mid-level brand Willy Farms.”
Another best practice that Michelle herself experienced is learning the ropes from the ground up, and performing different functions early on.
“After college graduation, while applying for jobs outside the company, I temporarily worked in our family business,” says Michelle. “Then this became permanent.”
“I took the test and got interviewed by human resources, the department supervisor and manager,” she continues. “I started from the bottom with no special treatment and eventually gained experience and the chance to work in different departments. This helped me learn the ins and outs of the whole business from the bottom up, which is a good foundation for the future.”
Recognizing the importance of firsthand knowledge, Michelle also brings her children to the office every summer break. She wants them “to be exposed to how we design and manufacture our products, to interact with some employees and just to get the feel of the environment. This exposure can have a big impact on them and make them interested in working in the family business in the future.”
This brings us to the thorny issue of succession. Many family businesses struggle to entice members to work with them, yet 12 out of 19 third-generation Lim family members are currently working together. Was salary the main factor, or something much more?
“Our family constitution states that the salaries of the third generation are based on at least the market rate, and salary increases are based on the individual’s position, competence and responsibility.
“But because of our diversified businesses, we want the young generation to spread out to different companies as much as possible. Each one has a chance to handle a department or a company.”
Ultimately, the close bonds of family members are rooted in childhood.
“I grew up in the same house with my cousins for 16 years so we literally grew up together and became as close as siblings. Our strong bond eventually helped us in managing the family business. We are very open and we respect each other’s opinions and suggestions. We all want what’s best for the company and we make sure that everything is transparent so we can plan better to reach our goals.
“A big part of the strategy is still being exposed young in the office,” Michelle reflects. “The many stories we shared during dinner also made us appreciate the business: How it started, how it grew, the hard work involved, the potential to expand, etc. These have a lasting impact, and chances are higher that family members will be interested in the business.”
(To be continued)
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