Putting Atlas on the map

This story was first published in The Straits Times on July 22, 2013

You would expect a man who runs a company selling and distributing audio-visual equipment from premium brands such as Bose and Loewe to have an extensive entertainment system at home.

Not Mr Michael Tien, 49, chief executive officer and managing director of Atlas Sound & Vision.

There is no TV set in the living room of his 5,000 sq ft bungalow in Bedok. The only three TVs are in his bedroom, his mother's bedroom and in the lounge area on the second floor.

And while the swanky Atlas retail stores and showrooms feature the latest in multi-speaker, sensurround audio technology, his house is not wired for sound. There are no speaker systems in it.

"People say that if you are a char kway teow seller, you don't eat char kway teow," he says with a smile.

But he points out that the TVs in his home are part of the latest range by Bose that his company carries. They offer complete surround sound without the need for external speakers. "It's clutter free and my wife likes things to be clean."

Atlas, whose revenue last year was $24 million, marks its 50th year in business this year. It has earned many accolades over the years but his proudest achievement was when it received the Singapore Enterprise 50 Award in 2009, an award which he describes as "the holy grail".

Atlas was No. 20 in a ranking of the 50 most enterprising local companies. He says: "It allowed us to benchmark ourselves against the best of the best."

The retail veteran, who received his MBA from the University of Manchester last year, is not one to keep his strategies close to his chest - he is a firm advocate in mentoring younger business minds.

The company was in the news last month for its collaboration with Temasek Polytechnic, allowing retail management students to get hands-on experience by selling high-end audio items such as Bose speakers at the school's student-run store.

His 104 employees are given opportunities to develop their skills through formal and informal learning. The company has sent staff on diploma and degree programmes and Mr Tien has ensured that his top five management people have completed their MBAs.

While Atlas, which has four retail outlets here and two in Selangor, prides itself on top-notch customer service, his mantra is "the staff is more important than customers".

Once a week, he buys breakfast for his staff and makes sure the spread is varied.

One of them, Mr Elton Ng, tells Life! that his bosses and colleagues treat one another like family. The 34-year-old has in the past three years moved up from the entry-level position of sales advocate to be showroom manager at the company's flagship store at TripleOne Somerset.

He says: "He is the CEO but he doesn't like it when anyone in the company calls him "Mr Tien" or "boss". It's always just "Michael" and you don't feel like there is a barrier between us and him."

Jovial and prone to breaking into laughter throughout the interview, Mr Tien credits his parents - his late father Mr Alex A.B. Tien and mother Jeannie - for grooming him into what he is today.

"My parents have always been my role models, thanks to their passion, tenacity, drive and determination."

His father inspired him with his "high level of customer service and engagement".

"For him, it was not about the sale but how well the sale was made. These founding values have been inculcated into us as part of our company values."

The senior Tiens, both music lovers, started their business by opening a vinyl record library in 1963, the same year their eldest son Michael, was born. Another son, Alvin, now 34, is Atlas' deputy chief operating officer.

The store in Market Street, called The Record Library, stocked mostly classical music but had other genres ranging from country and jazz to soul and pop.

At its peak, it had up to 12,000 records and its customers included the late Mrs Lee Kuan Yew and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong when he was a schoolboy.

The Tiens were also audiophiles. So in 1965, they opened another store selling hi-fi systems and called it Atlas Sound.

Mr Tien was given his own hi-fi system at the age of 10 but he had to pay just like any other customer to borrow the records.

He started out by listening to soul groups like The Stylistics. His music tastes today range from classical to jazz acts Al Jarreau and The Manhattan Transfer and rock bands such as Bon Jovi.

By the end of the 1960s, his parents had secured a distributor deal to bring Bose speakers to Singapore.

They impressed the American company's founder, Mr Amar Gopal Bose, with their customer service-oriented business model and determination. Eventually, the couple developed a personal and professional relationship with him.

Mr Tien also developed a close bond with the late audio pioneer, who died earlier this month, and often flew to the United States to meet him for business advice.

The vinyl library closed in 1979 and the Tiens concentrated on selling audio equipment.

Business was good until the financial crisis struck in the mid-1980s. The couple were forced to close their store, which was then at UIC building in Shenton Way. In 1985, they voluntarily liquidated their assets.

Mr Tien, then 22 and just out of national service, was faced with three choices - go to the US to study for a degree, join Bose or stay and try to revive the family business.

He chose to stay and help his parents with the company and it proved to be a turning point in his life.

"The decision was a no-brainer. I have no regrets. I thought the business was still viable. Had I gone to the US, we would have nothing left," he says.

"You hear these stories about children who are not responsible and take advantage of the family business, who spend money but don't contribute. They taught me to not take things for granted."

The Anglo-Chinese School student joined the family business but for the first six months, he was not on the payroll, drawing only an allowance of about $300.

"If my parents had any regrets about me not going for a tertiary education, they didn't say so but I guess they figured that the alternative - me joining the business - was not a bad decision."

Out of the 25 brands that the company distributed, only six, including Bose, decided to stay on with the revived Atlas.

In early 1986, the family renamed the company Atlas Hi-Fi and rented a shop just two doors away from their old store at UIC building.

Mr Tien says: "For the first six months, we were selling Bose products at full prices and then some guy who bought over our existing stock was selling it at lelong prices.

"He bought $1 million worth of stock but unfortunately, liquidators sold it to him for $300,000. The guy had the cheek to negotiate with the liquidator to use our old place to sell the stock."

Still, many of Atlas' long-time customers went back to them, skipping the cheaper alternative.

"We were thankful because many of our customers knew of our plight. That was very heartening because it showed that our business model was viable."

Within three years, the company bounced back and registered a turnover of $3.5 million, breaking its pre-liquidation record.

In 2003, came another milestone in both his professional and personal life. His father died after battling leukaemia since 2001. Michael stepped up to take over as chief executive.

It was not a sudden move, however, as he had already been managing Atlas soon after his father was diagnosed with the illness and his mother stopped working to take care of his dad.

"It was a gradual process and at that time, the company was a lot smaller than it is now. The turnover was about $14 million and we had about 18 people."

One of the boldest things that he did after taking over the reins was to turn Atlas from a family business into a privately funded business with proper and certified management systems and processes. He also changed the name to Atlas Sound & Vision in 2005.

"The thing about all businesses is that like all living organisms, it has to continue to grow. If it doesn't grow, it will start to die," he says.

"Without my father and mother, I realised that we needed to develop more people and strengthen the core team."

Today, he has a team of five people that he is grooming for his job when he retires in about five years.

His other big move was to expand Atlas to become more than just a retail business. "We saw some new opportunities to sell beyond the home," he says.

In 2004, Atlas started to supply Loewe television sets and Bose sound systems to a condominium project in Mount Sophia.

Today, the company supplies and maintains the sound system for commercial establishments such as McDonald's and Starbucks, as well as hotels such as St Regis.

Mr Tien says the biggest challenges facing Atlas' retail business today are operational costs like "sky high" rental as well as competition from online businesses. Still, he is confident that the personal touch by his staff at the retail stores as well as top-notch after-sales service will keep customers coming in.

This is despite the fact that Bose products cost 15 per cent less if consumers buy them from parallel importers or straight from the United States.

Perhaps the best testament of where he has taken Atlas comes from the company's surviving co-founder - his mother.

"He has put Atlas on the map and has taken the name up to new heights. We have done our job and he has taken it even further," says Mrs Tien, 73, who now spends her time doing social work.

"If his father is looking at him from heaven, he would say 'This is my son, I'm well pleased'."

Mr Tien is married to Ms Wong Soo Fong, 50, who works part-time as a senior administrator in Atlas and also does accounts at the church that the family goes to, The Tabernacle Church & Missions in Tanjong Katong.

They met through mutual acquaintances in 1990 and Mr Tien jokes that he charmed her after he volunteered to polish off a big scratch that she had on her car.

The couple married in 1997 and have three daughters: Elizabeth, 15, Deborah, 12 and Chloe, eight.

Ms Wong says her husband is an incredibly doting father and his role in the house is to be their "playmate".

"The girls love to hang out with him," she says. "And one of the things about Michael is that no matter how busy he is with work, if I call and ask him to pick up the girls from school, he will drop everything and go fetch them."

One of their favourite activities in the car, says Mr Tien, is to listen to radio station Kiss92 FM, which plays contemporary and classic hits, and try to guess the song titles.

His relationship with his daughters is a huge contrast to the way he interacted with his own "old-school" father, who engaged him in direct conversation only after he turned 16.

"He's just very different but I never had hang-ups about his parenting style."

He also has no plans to ask his own daughters to work with him or even take over Atlas in the future.

"It would be great if one of them could take over but as a parent, I don't impose these kinds of things on them. My job is to raise them with the values I believe in and it's very important that I give them the education that they need and after that, they are free to choose."

He has a more relaxed attitude to life these days, after being hospitalised for a head injury in 2011.

He slipped and fell while in church and landed on his head. "I blame it on the flip-flops I was wearing and I've stopped wearing them," he says good-naturedly.

He was out cold for 20 minutes and according to the doctors, stopped breathing for a minute.

Spending six months at home to recuperate not only helped him take up more subjects for his MBA, but to also take stock of his life. "The experience made me stop more often to smell the roses."

A devout Christian, he found himself delving into his spiritual side when Elizabeth was born with a heart defect and had to undergo an operation when she was just seven days old.

His faith figures prominently in his post-retirement plans. He wants to spend more time in church. He has also recently started on a master of divinity course at the East Asia School of Theology.

"With the master's, I can teach or I can pastor if I want to. My long-term goal is to go out into the mission field, helping my church do missionary work, and that's my calling."

This story was first published in the Straits Times on July 22, 2013

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