People

Wing Tai man with a big heart for staff

Mr James Lee Kim Wah, 80, first went to Wing Tai not as an employee but as an external auditor. He was later asked to join the company and stayed on for 50 years, helping to manage every part of the business. Mr Lee retired from the company's board e
Mr James Lee Kim Wah, 80, first went to Wing Tai not as an employee but as an external auditor. He was later asked to join the company and stayed on for 50 years, helping to manage every part of the business. Mr Lee retired from the company's board earlier this month.ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

Ex-board member saw staff as family and always had their interests at heart

When retail and property group Wing Tai faced financial pressures as a result of the Asian financial crisis in 1997, Mr James Lee Kim Wah did not retrench workers but sent them for training instead.

Mr Lee, a member of the group's core management, did the same during the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) crisis.

"It is more expensive to fire staff and hire new people and retrain them," he told The Straits Times in an interview.

Mr Lee, who retired from the board of Wing Tai earlier this month at the age of 80, is credited not only with helping to steer the group from financial troubles but also having a heart for the staff.

He was one of the few in the early core management team not related to group founder Cheng Yik Hung. The late Mr Cheng started Wing Tai in Hong Kong as a garment manufacturer in 1955 and opened its first Singapore factory in 1963 with 200 workers.

Today, Wing Tai is a leading retail and property group in the region, bringing brands such as Dorothy Perkins, Uniqlo and G2000 into Singapore. It employs between 4,000 and 5,000 staff around the world in property, retail, hospitality and fund management. Almost half of its employees work in Singapore.

Mr Lee, who holds an accountancy degree, first went to Wing Tai not as an employee but as an external auditor to go through its accounts. "But then, my firm was going to be sold... and when (the bosses in) Wing Tai found out, they asked me to help them," he said.

Mr Lee joined Wing Tai in 1968 and ended up staying with the company for 50 years.

He played such a big role that at least two people were hired to replace him when he retired as finance director in 2008. While he held a finance role officially, he also helped to manage every part of the business, including human resources.

Said Mr Lee: "The founder, Mr Cheng, was often out of the country, so I ran the operations of the company."

The founder's son and chairman of Wing Tai, Mr Cheng Wai Keung, said: "James was trusted and respected; always having the company's interest at heart.

"He worked hard and gave his best years and expertise to the company, seeking new ways to help the staff, which consequentially helped the business grow."

Among the things Mr Lee did to help the employees, shortly after he joined Wing Tai, was to set up a library and learning centre to teach them mathematics and English.

Around the mid-to late 1970s, he set up a childcare centre in the company when he found that women, who formed the bulk of its workforce, were resigning after becoming mothers.

Mr Lee is a big believer in tripartism. "I invited the union into Wing Tai at a time when everyone was scared of unions," he said.

"I even incentivised people to join the union, because it made it easier for me to speak to the workers through their representatives, and allowed for cooperation."

His efforts were recognised in 2009 by the National Trades Union Congress, which gave him the Medal of Commendation (Gold) at the May Day awards. He also received the Public Service Medal in 2000.

Mr Lee, who is married and has two children and four grandchildren, said: "One of the things that really drive me in life is interpersonal relationships.

"I am fascinated by people. I like them, I like to understand them, and I like to get along with them."

It is perhaps little wonder that employees treated him as an elder brother and asked him for advice on their personal problems.

A long-time employee asked him for help when her daughter wanted to marry a man the employee did not approve of, he said.

Mr Lee also recounted the time a male worker did not like that his daughter, a university student, wanted to go home late at night, and wanted Mr Lee to talk to her.

Mr Lee did not reveal what eventually happened in both cases, but said with a chuckle that he saw the staff as a big family, and knew everyone by their first names in the beginning years.

Mr Cheng said: "James' dedication to the business and his heart for the staff have shaped the way we continue to operate today.

"Staff training and development, staff welfare and building trust in long-term relationships - these have always been our focus."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2018, with the headline 'Veteran's actions shaped Wing Tai's HR approach'. Print Edition | Subscribe