SME Spotlight

Tollyjoy Baby Products' CEO Tan Wee Keng: He doesn't baby staff, he empowers them

Mr Tan, Tollyjoy's chief executive officer, says his staff are not judged on their gender or age, but rather on their ability to work well in the company. Ninety-five per cent of the staff are women, and the oldest employee is a 72-year-old man who i
Mr Tan, Tollyjoy's chief executive officer, says his staff are not judged on their gender or age, but rather on their ability to work well in the company. Ninety-five per cent of the staff are women, and the oldest employee is a 72-year-old man who is a factory supervisor.ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

Small and medium-sized enterprises sometimes find it hard to recruit and retain staff, but Tollyjoy Baby Products has a pretty high retention rate. Its chief executive officer Tan Wee Keng tells Marissa Lee why.

Q You have 200 staff, 40 in Singapore. Fifteen per cent are 25-year stayers, 18 per cent are 20-year stayers, 25 per cent are 15-year stayers. The average employee has worked with Tollyjoy for 10 years. What's your secret to keeping them?

A I learnt this from my parents - to manage people well, we have to entrust them to do their job, and to do their job well, you have to give them the authority to do so, within a scope of objectives, so to speak.

I like to fashion myself as someone who's just here to make sure the team is collaborating. I don't do much work actually, to be honest!

The various teams have their projects on hand, and if they come across any roadblock, they approach me for guidance. I want to give autonomy to the staff. That is another way to keep staff.

Q But you still need to lay down these objectives for the team.

A We are adults. We know that we come to work every day not for fun, but as a responsibility. So we are very clear about that. I need not specify down to the last letter what they should do.

START FROM THE TOP

If you tell people that you want to cut salaries and that no bonus will be paid - you don't start with them. You start with yourself.

MR TAN WEE KENG, Tollyjoy chief executive officer, on dealing with the dot.com crisis

Q A huge number - 95 per cent of your staff - are women.

A It's always been like that. It's not so much the gender of the person as it is her ability to carry out her function in the company.

Q How old is your oldest worker?

A He's 72. He's a supervisor at our factory. He looks like he's in his mid-50s, but that's not how we judge people. We judge them for their ability to do work.

The Government has legislated that if a person reaches retirement age, we can either offer a golden handshake or maintain that staff member at a lower salary. We don't do that sort of thing. We keep you at the rate that you were taking prior to retirement age.

Q Doesn't this mean higher insurance and medical costs?

A It does, but let's face it - if it's not the price, it's the efficiency. So we have to manage both.

Q You said many employees have stuck with Tollyjoy through thick and thin. How do you carry out good human resource practices when a crisis hits?

A In the year of the dot.com bust, our business was down easily 30 or 40 per cent. The more senior staff with higher salaries, including myself, took a pay cut. We didn't think that it was the right thing to do to cut salaries across the board.

Q And the others?

A We left their salaries alone. It was a sign of solidarity because people always think that workers on the lower end are the first to be hit.

Q Did this go down well with the senior staff?

A They were understanding because I sat them down and we talked about it. We told ourselves, "Look, this is not an ordinary crisis".

The entire economy was in trouble. The company needed to show that it could be resilient, it could manage costs, and the way to start that was from the top. Because if you tell people that you want to cut salaries and that no bonus will be paid - you don't start with them. You start with yourself.

Q You said you had some resentment when you joined your parents' company 20 years ago. Could the staff see this?

A Business was not something that I wanted to be in, and those who could see my feelings would try to encourage me.

I was not a total stranger. In fact, some had seen me grow up. They knew my temperament, they knew my personality. But what they did not know was how I was going to be able to manage the business. So in that sense, I still had a lot to learn from them.

Q So Tollyjoy is like a big family now?

A Not quite. Over time, something special is forged between employer and employee, and I can't begin to describe it except to say that they have faith in us and we have trust in them to do what's right.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 24, 2016, with the headline 'He doesn't baby staff, he empowers them SMESpotlight'. Print Edition | Subscribe