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Business Advice

Heirs apparent

Five families in the furniture business look set to take their trade into the next generation.
The Business Times - September 18, 2013
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Heirs apparent

SCANTEAK

JAMIE Lim didn't know it then, but her parents had been quietly drilling her in customer service skills since she was a child. At the time, the family's teak furniture company had its head office and main showroom in Upper Bukit Timah, and the young girl would be there after school each day to do her homework.

"After that was done, my parents would ask me to entertain the customers' children," says Ms Lim, now 33. "It made me feel very important."

Now, she is the regional marketing director for Scanteak, which her parents Lim Pok Chin and Catherine Foo started in 1988.

It wasn't a natural progression though. The eldest of three children studied in Los Angeles, majoring in business administration and marketing, and film. Upon graduation, she spent two years marketing movies, before receiving a call from her father.

"He asked if I would like to join the family business, and I would be given the chance to rebrand Scanteak," recalls Ms Lim, who had originally felt that "the furniture business is too old for me".

She initially found it tough to say yes but soon came around to the idea. "In Hollywood, I could be in a position of influence. But by joining Scanteak, I could influence customers' choices," she says. "They are different means to the same end."

She joined Scanteak in 2005 and was put on the retail floor to do sales. "The working hours were long, and there were days when I wondered what I signed up for. But I stayed focused," she says.

The staff at Scanteak are well aware of her family background and she admits she felt extra pressure. "I had to set the benchmark and lead by example."

Some of the changes she introduced included rebranding Scanteak, turning it "more into a lifestyle company rather than just a furniture store," says Ms Lim, who dreamed up the brand's ‘Feel at Home' campaign.

She introduced more furniture models, made teak furniture hip. Last year, Scanteak stepped out of its comfort zone, which was more focused on functionality, quality and cost, to embrace design awareness with a new collection, Prologue, with Outofstock, an award-winning design collective.

Prologue's 12-piece collection comprises armchairs, bookshelves and tables, but the teak wood has been re-engineered to be light in proportion and weight, a departure from Scanteak's usual larger silhouette. In Singapore, Scanteak is no longer in standalone showrooms, but also has a pop-up store in Isetan Scotts. "By being there, I want to try and merge fashion and furniture," says Ms Lim. Since she joined Scanteak, the number of stores has also increased from 30 to over 100 stores across Singapore, Taiwan, Japan and USA. "It is not just my effort, but the whole team's," she says modestly, adding that Scanteak's clients have also gotten younger over the years.

Ms Lim's future plans for the company include expanding it further, especially in Japan. Her brother, Julian, 30, is Scanteak's regional business development director who is taking care of the Japanese market. Her younger sister, Julia, is still in school.

Mr Lim, 59, says he is lucky as both his children have readily joined the family business. "When I was younger, all that mattered was working hard for the business. But now that the business has stabilised, I am at the age where it's time to think about who to hand the business to," he says. "When looking for an heir, it is natural to consider your children first."

Even though his daughter addresses him as ‘Mr Lim' in the office, "I don't play a fatherly role at work," says Mr Lim. "I am more an advisor to her as I don't want to interfere in the way Jamie works."

He adds that he naturally has higher expectations of his two children, compared with his other staff. "This is their future, after all," he says.

taysc@sph.com.sg

HTL / DOMICIL

THE idea of joining the family business was far from Phua Mei Ming's mind when at the tender age of five, she was tasked with small jobs such as cutting up leather samples for the sofa manufacturer HTL International.

She would return subsequently during the school holidays to help out. "I was paid very little, but then I already felt I was working for something," she recalls.

Fast forward to today, and the 36-year-old is now the company's director for human resource and communications. Her father, Phua Yong Tat, HTL's managing director and CEO, did not plan for her to join the family business. He told her there was better money to be made in the banking industry.

The dutiful daughter took his advice by majoring in finance at university, but did not work in the finance industry. She was helping out at the company, when she realised that, being in the furniture business was what she really wanted to do.

"I was helping some of the staff to launch a collection of furniture in our new showroom, and one of them said that I looked so happy doing it, I should consider joining the business," she recalls.

The firm, back in 1999, had just started its marketing department, and Ms Phua asked her father if he would be interested in taking her as a marketing assistant. "I had helped out in furniture exhibitions before, and could help with marketing the products," she says. "Plus I told him that I come cheap."

Mr Phua was taken aback. "I encouraged her to start her career in the finance industry when she graduated. It was a pleasant surprise when she expressed her interest to join the company," he says. He speaks with pride of his daughter, who "was involved in different functions of the company mainly in product development, sales and marketing, but I did not expect that she would go into HR and find her place there."

In her early days at HTL, Ms Phua rarely had the chance to work closely with her father. "He didn't direct me then," she says.

But as she took on more roles, father and daughter began working closer together. "By then, he had higher expectations of me, but I also had higher expectations of myself," she says, adding that she calls her father Mr Phua. "I began to do more than what was expected and took on more responsibility."

Ms Phua says her biggest achievement was when HTL acquired German furniture brand Domicil in 2005. She was part of the team that made the acquisition and was put in charge of Domicil as its general manager. "It is rare for a local manufacturing company to buy a German consumer brand, so I had to convince the management that this would be a good move to grow our business," she says.

As Domicil's general manager, she spearheaded the growth of the brand beyond Germany and expanded its distribution network to over 400 retail points in 31 countries around the world. Last year, she initiated the global rebranding of Domicil and unveiled its first international flagship showroom in Singapore. She was also instrumental in establishing collaborations between Domicil and renowned artists and designers such as Singapore's Nathan Yong and Chinese contemporary artists Pan Wei and Xue Song. New concept stores in Munich and Dusseldorf will also be launched later this year.

On top of her role as director in HR and communications, Ms Phua continues to oversee the group's brand and retail strategy for Domicil as part of its executive committee.

She says that by working for the family, "when you reap the rewards, success is sweet, but the taste of failure is more bitter than if I was working for another company."

KODA / COMMUNE

FOR a school assignment many years ago, Julian Koh drew himself sitting in his father's office behind the desk. The topic was: "what I want to be when I grow up". That picture would evolve into reality for the 28-year-old creative director of Koda. "Perhaps that was a subconscious ambition when I was younger," he muses.

Koda, which is best known for its wooden dining sets, was founded by Julian's grandfather, Koh Teng Kwee, in 1972. Mr Koh is the company's non-executive chairman. Julian's father, James, is the managing director, while brother Joshua is the financial controller.

In their free time after school, the brothers would help out at the Koda office. "Grandma taught me the concept of working hard for my keep by offering me one cent for every string I attached to a product tag," recalls Joshua, 30.

Julian remembers working in Koda's packing department and attending furniture exhibitions, helping to arrange the furniture and decor for the booths.

So it comes as no surprise that they joined the family business, despite no insistence from their father. "I would prefer them to work outside to gain experience in other companies," says James.

On why he chose to join the family business, Joshua says: "I have a passion for furniture, and I wanted to learn the ropes of managing a furniture business with an ambition to take it to the next level." He could have done the same with another furniture company, but adds: "There are very few local players in this industry. It would be too sensitive to join a competitor."

Since joining the company in 2007, Joshua has introduced a performance measurement and reward system for Koda's staff to boost employee efficiency and productivity. His plans for the company include "focusing on innovation to introduce products into the market that incorporate cutting-edge technology with a strong design element."

Julian joined Koda two years ago, and introduced a retail arm into the company in 2011 with the launch of Commune, a furniture store and cafe at Millenia Walk.

"I saw the potential for retail. We have all this furniture, but it is all for export, and none for the Singapore market. Commune was started as a test bed for the local market," says Julian. It has since taken off, with Commune stores in China, Taiwan, Indonesia and Japan.

But it was no easy task convincing his father to set up a retail arm. "Koda has always been in the manufacturing side which is very different from retail," says Julian.

James says: "Manufacturers are not good retailers. For example, as a manufacturer, I'd rather spend money on a machine, rather than on advertising for the store." But he finally relented. "We start with one store, and if that doesn't work out, it is of little risk to us."

He adds that when it came to starting Commune, he chose not to get involved. "Since my sons wanted to start the retail arm, I left it to them. Maybe that's why Commune took off the way it did."

Plans are in place to open another Commune store in Singapore before the end of the year, with a third slated for next year.

Talking shop outside of work is something that the Kohs deal with. If they spot an unusual piece of furniture in a restaurant, they have no qualms about flipping it over to check its joinery.

"The exposure to the entire business process, coupled with the knowledge and experience of older generations passed down without any fear of sharing too much - you can only do this in a family business," says Julian.

SITRA

BROTHERS Steven and Xavier Chew knew from the start what their career path would be like after they graduated from university.

"Coming from a Chinese family, it is expected of me as the eldest son to join the family business," says Steven, 43, deputy chief executive officer at Sitra Holdings. "There was no question - I never thought of doing anything else but join the business."

Younger brother Xavier, 34, is the company's vice-president for marketing. Sitra Holdings was founded by their father, George, in 1979 and it specialises in wooden outdoor decking, cabanas and outdoor furniture. Most of their products are exported overseas, such as to Europe.

"There was no choice," quips Xavier. "My father wants to hand down the business and he explained the viability of the timber trade and how it is still good to grow this business."

While researching a company is the norm for new employees, Xavier says: "There wasn't much preparation needed when I joined Sitra. After all, my brother and I often visited the office and interned there during school holidays, and the staff watched us grow up."

On his part, the elder Mr Chew, who is Sitra's chief executive officer, often brought his sons, when they were much younger, along to meetings or dinners with clients or on travels. "I explained to them the workings of the timber business and the various wood species that Sitra deals with," he says. He maintains that he did not force his sons to join the firm. "Instead I left it to them to see what interests them. But I did tell them, that if they want to work with another company, that is fine, but why not work for the family?"

Tagging along with Dad paid off for Steven, who joined Sitra in 1992. His title then was marketing executive, but he found himself taking on multiple roles as a delivery man, contractor and machine operator. "Growing up, I would listen to the adults discuss business, and when I joined the company, I knew about the different timber species and the products the company supplies," he says.

Since he joined Sitra, Steven has helped build up the brand and product range, listed the company in 2006, and attained several green certifications for the company.

For Xavier, the memory of his father stopping a tour bus while on holiday in New Zealand will always be in his mind. "Ah Pa told the driver to stop the bus because he wanted to take a picture of a tree. It was weird, but typical of him," he says.

Three years ago, Sitra expanded its portfolio to include project work as well, of which Xavier is in charge. Sitra secured several contracts in the Marina Bay precinct, with one worth $3.24 million. The outdoor decking at the Marina Bay area outside Marina Bay Sands was done by Sitra.

With father and sons working so closely, it doesn't come as a surprise that all three talk shop even outside work. In fact, the Chew family all live together in a three-storey home in Punggol. "We are a close knit family. We have meals together and travel together for holidays, talking about work is part of the family's conversations," says Steven.

The line between work and family is a fine line for Xavier, but he isn't complaining. "My father encourages us to think out of the box and develop new avenues. I am given opportunities to pursue certain paths," he says. "I wouldn't be able to do this anywhere else."

VANGUARD / PROOF LIVING

FOR as long as Yung Ong can remember, his father always took him along to business meetings. "It was extremely interesting to me, just watching all these grown men speak about important things and observing their mannerisms," says Yung, executive director of Proof Living.

"The Italians were all so warm and I loved how they dressed and spoke with such passion and drama. The Americans were always so structured, professional and sometimes painfully diplomatic. I loved meeting them all and I learned a lot from watching all of them early on."

His father is Ong Kok Thai, 61, chairman and founder of Vanguard Interiors, which specialises in office furniture systems for contract projects. Luxury furniture store Proof Living is the partner company of Vanguard Interiors.

Mr Ong says that had it not been for Yung, 33, the company would not have gone into the retail business. "The contract and retail business are totally different," says Mr Ong. "I did not understand retail, nor saw the potential. On hindsight, Yung has proven me right that this is an area for growth."

Proof Living carries brands such as Poltrona Frau, Baker, Manutti and Paola Lenti. Apart from Proof Living, Yung has also secured the franchise rights for Danish furniture label, BoConcept, and also brought Crate and Barrel to Singapore. Besides the furniture business, the Ongs also own nightlife hub Peranakan Place, where they own the Acid Bar, Alley Bar and Outdoors Cafe & Bar.

Yung, a Nottingham University law graduate had his eyes set on taking the bar. "But in 2003, Sars (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) happened, and sales at our F&B outlets dropped. My mother told me she needed me to help for a while, so I stayed in Singapore... And the rest as they say, is history," says Yung, who calls his father KT at work.

At 23, he first joined the F&B operations, and then focused on the furniture business. His younger sister Ying later took charge of the food and beverage business, before moving to Australia last year. Yung now also manages the F&B business.

"Parents will always tell you they want you to pursue your dreams, but what they really mean is come back and repay your 'mum and dad' scholarship bond," quips Yung. "But I always wanted to help out eventually, so long as I had creative control. I just thought it would only happen when I was in my 30s."

He is gearing up for the reopening of the Proof Living store at ION Orchard on level four in December and the second Crate and Barrel store that will span five levels at Orchard Gateway.

It has been a decade since Yung joined the family business, and Mr Ong says, he now has higher expectations of his son. "When he first started, I didn't want to impose any expectations on him," he says. "But I expect more as he has shown that he can do more than I though he could. He is also more driven and focused than I am."

Mr Ong plans to step back, and hand over the reins, including that for Vanguard Interiors, to Yung. The majority of the family business still comes from contract office furniture projects, but Mr Ong hopes to grow the furniture retail side, " to make it 50-50, for better business stability".

Yung says the best part about being in a family business is the opportunity for personal growth. "With a business as dynamic as ours, there are always voids to be filled, and KT's style is always to throw us into the deep end of the pool with almost blind faith that we will rise to the occasion. This has given my managers and me many great opportunities to broaden our skill set and exposure to the many aspects of an operating business."

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