Fresh take on Owl brand with blend of old and new

Company on growth path with cafe franchise, focus on heritage

As assistant general manager of Owl International, Mr Richmond Te (right) charts the firm's business development. His father Ronald Te (left), is the co-founder of Super Group, which acquired Owl International in 2003.
As assistant general manager of Owl International, Mr Richmond Te (right) charts the firm's business development. His father Ronald Te (left), is the co-founder of Super Group, which acquired Owl International in 2003.PHOTO: MIKE LEE FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

BUSINESS runs in Mr Richmond Te's blood just as the aroma of coffee fills his world.

He grew up surrounded by a family of successful entrepreneurs, including his father Ronald Te, 59, the executive director and co-founder of Super Group, a pioneer in the manufacture of 3-in-1 beverage products in South-east Asia.

The company was founded in 1987 by Mr Ronald Te with his sister and brother-in-law.

In 2010, Mr Richmond Te joined the family business when he became the project manager for Owl International. The firm was acquired by Super Group in 2003.

Now the assistant general manager of Owl International, Mr Te's responsibilities include charting the firm's business development for expansion in local and overseas markets, and ensuring brand consistency.

Despite having joined the family business at a young age, Mr Te, 30, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in business administration from the Singapore Management University in 2010, says he feels no stress because he enjoys his work.

His father instilled in him a keen interest in business.

"When I saw from a young age how he (my father) was out on the weekends meeting people, and he shared with me what was interesting, with whom he was meeting, what they talked about, it got me interested.

"I don't know if dad did it on purpose or not - but from his example, I realise the best way to influence someone is to share your experience with the person," said Mr Te, who has two younger brothers who are still studying.

"He has never pressured me to go into this. It is voluntary."

One perk of the job is spending more time with his father, though it was not the reason he joined the business.

"It's an added bonus after I joined; he tends to pay more attention to things that I do. We've never had a bad relationship, but we do talk a lot more now. Last week, he sent me a text message: 'this pair of sunglasses, hao bu hao kan (does it look nice, in Mandarin), do you like it?'" he recalls with a laugh.

The father-son relationship aside, Mr Te is fiercely passionate about his job and Owl International's role as a curator of the Singapore coffee culture, especially with the influx of Western coffee brands.

"We want them (customers) to remember that we are a true-blue Singaporean heritage brand, and we represent the coffee culture in Singapore... kopi-c, kopi-o, these very traditional lingo," he said.

While keeping tradition alive is important, he also recognises the need to adapt to the times - to "revolutionise the way we consume our traditional coffee in a modern setting". One example is the company's Owl Cafe, which opened its first franchise store at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) East Coast campus in April.

It has another three cafes island-wide.

While the decor is undeniably modern, along with the food and the way the coffee is served, Mr Te wanted a reminder of the traditional product.

He flew to Ipoh seeking utensils he was unable to find in Singapore and managed to buy 100 tin cups - no longer manufactured - for the cafe.

To stay relevant, the firm rebrands itself every decade. Owl International last changed its logo in 2012.

He said the firm plans to "revolutionise the coffee capsule market" - to be the first to develop a capsule version of brews from the Strait of Malacca region and "in a single serve".

Owl International is also working at exporting the Singapore coffee culture.

The best way to do this, said Mr Te, is through the Owl Cafe, by giving a personal experience.

It signed its first overseas franchise in Jakarta, Indonesia, last Thursday.

Mr Te said Owl International was "easily growing 20 per cent" with a surge in growth this year owing to its new cafe franchise as well as its recent distributorship deal with Italian coffee brand Caffe Cagliari.

Before that, Owl International was in the coffee mix business, which faces tough competition from international and regional players.

Mr Te sees great opportunities in the growing wish for Singaporeans to go back to their roots and how they consumed coffee in the past.

He feels his age has been more of a help than a hindrance at work given his better understanding of market and technological developments.

However, Mr Te admits he does "tend to go off track" and tries to do too many things at a time, but can count on his father to keep him focused.

"Without him, I think the company would go haywire," said Mr Te.

Ultimately, Owl International benefits from their "seamless" working relationship.

"We try to find compromises, because ultimately the decisions that we make are for the good of the company; no one is bigger than the company... so whatever decisions we make, we have to be objective."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 24, 2015, with the headline 'Fresh take on Owl brand with blend of old and new'. Subscribe