Harmony vital to family-run businesses

Chop Wah On in Chinatown (above) is run by Mr Tong Kok Wing (far left) and his three siblings. The business was set up in 1916 by their paternal grandfather. Half the shop's staff of 10 are family members. Mr Kenny Eng (left), joined Nyee Phoe Group,
Chop Wah On in Chinatown (above) is run by Mr Tong Kok Wing and his three siblings. The business was set up in 1916 by their paternal grandfather. Half the shop's staff of 10 are family members. Mr Kenny Eng (left), joined Nyee Phoe Group, which owns Gardenasia, after graduating from university in 1999. The business was started in 1911 by his paternal great-grandfather. Five family members are working in the business.ST PHOTOS: GERALDINE GOH
Chop Wah On in Chinatown (above) is run by Mr Tong Kok Wing (far left) and his three siblings. The business was set up in 1916 by their paternal grandfather. Half the shop's staff of 10 are family members. Mr Kenny Eng (left), joined Nyee Phoe Group,
Chop Wah On in Chinatown is run by Mr Tong Kok Wing (left) and his three siblings. The business was set up in 1916 by their paternal grandfather. Half the shop's staff of 10 are family members. Mr Kenny Eng (left), joined Nyee Phoe Group, which owns Gardenasia, after graduating from university in 1999. The business was started in 1911 by his paternal great-grandfather. Five family members are working in the business.ST PHOTOS: GERALDINE GOH

Peace and values more important than bottom line, say bosses of century-old firms

Love, harmony and shared values are key to successful family-run businesses, according to two bosses who run family enterprises that are more than 100 years old here.

They were giving their views at a recent talk organised by the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Mr Tong Kok Wing, a director of Chop Wah On, which sells Chinese medicinal oils, said: "Harmony is what holds things together. Without it, everything will fall apart."

Mr Tong, who runs the Chinatown shop with his three siblings, added that there can be a price to pay for keeping the peace.

"Because of family harmony, you may have to forgo some business opportunities because once family harmony is broken, it is hard to mend it. At the risk of tearing your family apart over business decisions, it is better to let it pass," he said.

"We are not in a hurry to be the biggest in the business. It is more important to preserve family harmony in order to maintain the business than to increase the business."

A display by Gardenasia at the Singapore Garden Festival. The company transformed its business from horticulture to landscaping, and then moved into nature-based events.
A display by Gardenasia at the Singapore Garden Festival. The company transformed its business from horticulture to landscaping, and then moved into nature-based events. PHOTO: GARDENASIA

Mr Tong, 65, and his siblings inherited the business, which was set up in 1916 by their paternal grandfather, who emigrated from Nantou in Guangdong province, China. The shop has a staff of 10, half of whom are family members.

Mr Tong said a family-run business has to watch its cash flow. "Often, banks which used to look for you will not be around, unfortunately, when you need them."

Succession planning is an issue these businesses have to deal with, and Mr Tong said grooming a "ready, willing and able" family member to take over is critical.

"There is no point trying to force a person into it who is not happy as you can't get the best out of it."

That was the situation Mr Kenny Eng found himself in after graduating from the National University of Singapore in 1999 with a degree in real estate. Joining the family's horticulture and landscaping business was not part of his plans, but the economic climate then was not good so he chipped in to help.

Mr Eng, 42, said his initial years at Nyee Phoe Group, which owns Gardenasia, were tough. "So we transformed our business from horticulture to landscaping. Later, we moved on to nature-based events management."

The business climate remains challenging.

"Gardens are important, but often people don't want to pay for landscaping. Instead, they copy your design," said Mr Eng, who is a director of the firm. It was built in 1911 by his paternal great-grandfather, who came to Singapore from Shantou in Guangdong province.

In 2002, he took a risk in introducing "hortitainment", blending horticulture with entertainment to attract younger clients. The company started a bistro in 2010 and a homestay in 2012 in Neo Tiew Crescent. Today, Nyee Phoe has a 100-strong staff, five of whom are family.

Mr Eng stressed that values must be incorporated into a business for sustainability and success. This includes treating suppliers, partners, clients and colleagues well. A successful business, he said, is not just reflected by the bottom line.

"Wealth is not just the number of zeros in your bank account. It is spiritual and emotional wealth that is important."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2016, with the headline 'Harmony vital to family-run businesses'. Print Edition | Subscribe