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A sound vision to lead family business

Mr Sherwin Siregar gave up a well-paying role at a multinational firm to become "employee no. 33" at Atlas, and was its first hire in the marketing department. The opportunity and challenge to help transform the family- owned company into a more corp
Mr Sherwin Siregar gave up a well-paying role at a multinational firm to become "employee no. 33" at Atlas, and was its first hire in the marketing department. The opportunity and challenge to help transform the family- owned company into a more corporate outfit convinced him to join the firm.ST PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN

CEO of Atlas Sound & Vision had other career plans; chat with uncle led to change of heart

He worked part-time at his family's audio-visual equipment retail showroom in Plaza Singapura as a teenager, but Mr Sherwin Siregar initially had aspirations outside the family business.

Still, the opportunity and challenge to help transform the company into a more corporate outfit eventually convinced him to join the firm.

After 12 years rising through the ranks, the 37-year-old was appointed chief executive of Atlas Sound & Vision in July. He is the first chief executive to not own a stake in the company, which was founded by his late grandfather.

Atlas Sound & Vision is the sole distributor in Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei for a number of high-end audio-visual equipment brands, including Bose, Accuphase, Ad Notam, Loewe and Piega.

Founded in 1963 as a record library in Market Street, it now has three retail showrooms here.

After graduating with a diploma in marketing communications in 2004, Mr Siregar said he "had other options" besides joining the family business. "I was familiar with the business, but it wasn't a natural joining. My parents were not in the business... I helped out once in a while, but I didn't see it as a long-term career," he added.

But a chat with his uncle Michael Tien, who was the company's chief executive then, brought a change of heart.

"He spoke to me about his vision of turning Atlas from a family-owned business into a more corporate firm, and that sounded interesting," said Mr Siregar. "I was attracted by the autonomy, and the chance to build something new."

He eventually decided to give up a well-paying role at a multinational firm to become "employee no. 33" at Atlas, and its first hire in the marketing department.

The soundness of this choice was not immediately apparent; his initial years at the company coincided with tough times for retailers across the island.

"This was in the wake of the Sars crisis, and there were months with no traffic at all in the malls. We had to rebuild the brand and bring sales back," said Mr Siregar.

The company was also relatively small back then and still operated very much like a family business.

"Everything had to be run past the boss, and we didn't have certain functions in the company, like human resources.

"When I joined, we were based in a back office behind the large showroom in Plaza Singapura, with just one other location, the service centre," he added.

As retail sales began to recover, the company also expanded into new business areas, with Mr Siregar leading some of these efforts.

When the Apple iPod burst onto the scene, he spearheaded an initiative to distribute iPod-related products, such as accessory audio systems, to Apple resellers and consumer electronics superstores.

This kick-started the company's distribution business, which has grown rapidly, and now includes a wider range of products and brands. Sales have since risen to be on par with Atlas Sound & Vision's revenue from consumer retail.

The company also began helping other businesses, such as retailers and hotels, install audio-visual systems. These projects now contribute about a fifth to a quarter of its revenue.

Mr Siregar now hopes to expand Atlas' online presence. The company is revamping its e-store, which will be relaunched next year.

"The online business has grown fast. This year, it is the fastest growing in percentage point terms, though the base is low," he said.

The company is increasingly making use of social media platforms and functions, such as live chat, to engage with customers, he added. "There's still a lot of potential in the market and within the company; the question is how do we unlock it."

As the firm grew and its business became more diverse, training and human resources became a bigger concern.

"Our systems had to support diversity in all our business areas, and building up people became a bigger concern as the company grew," said Mr Siregar, who took on the challenge of improving the firm's human resources processes.

The company brought in consultants to develop structured employee training programmes and made staff development a priority.

Management and decision making also expanded - "before, it was just the boss who made all the decisions".

"We're very clear that the company has to be run professionally. It's family-owned, but that doesn't mean we don't bring in good people," said Mr Siregar.

Mr Tien, the firm's previous chief executive and now its chairman, encouraged managers to upgrade themselves by studying for an MBA. About 80 per cent of the company's management, including Mr Siregar, have MBAs. The company now has about 100 employees in Singapore and 30 in Malaysia.

There are no expectations for the next generation in the family to take over, said Mr Siregar, the father of a four-year-old girl.

"Certainly, if they want to, we can see what their skill set is and how they can contribute. But professional managers who are not family have also been given key positions.

"The company is built on passion, and passion doesn't come from your father forcing you to join the company. That's how you kill passion. It needs to be a choice."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 23, 2015, with the headline 'A sound vision to lead family business'. Print Edition | Subscribe