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Key lessons by 5 multi-gen S’pore entrepreneurs in building successful family businesses

A family is made up of multiple personalities, a myriad of opinions, and the occasional “stop forcing me to do things against my will” disagreement.

In short, day to day, living with our families already has its own pre-existing set of obstacles that it’s almost hard to believe that there are businesses who thrive on the dedication and collective passion of multiple generations to make their mark in different industries.

To shed a light on the success of family businesses, here are five multi-generational entrepreneurs that attribute their accomplishments to lessons they’ve learnt from their predecessors.

1. Killiney Group: Thinking in generations, not quarters

The Killiney brand has been around since late 1919. Beginning in the busy streets of Killiney Road, it was an antiquated yet humble shop, its famous bread toast and warm beverages were what enticed then regular customer, Woon Tek Seng, to take over the original establishment.

From back row, left to right: Woon Wee Hao, father of Tien Yuan, and three of Tien Yuan’s uncles / Image Credit: Killiney

Following which, the shop was renovated and rebranded into Killiney Kopitiam in 1993, while still retaining the shop’s old charm and original legacy.

As a child, his son, Tien Yuan, helped out at the various Killiney outlets, trying out various roles. Being around his father’s business inspired and piqued his interest in the façade and history of shophouses, and contributed to an early interest in areas of food, property and art. 

Although these areas of interest are what Tien Yuan holds dear, he always remembers the key lessons his father and uncles taught him. 

As a family business, we think in generations, not quarters. Having a long-term plan for Killiney means we care more about enhancing our heritage brand for future generations of Singaporeans to enjoy and be proud of, not limiting it to quarterly financials.

– Woon Tien Yuan, co-founder of Killiney

Growing up, his father and uncles always imparted to the rest of the family that the crucial factor of a successful family business is family cohesion.

As a family, they practice collective decision making — if not everyone agrees on a possible business decision, no one proceeds. To Tien Yuan, it doesn’t slow down the decision-making process. Instead, it’s a welcome challenge to work even harder and do more groundwork in order to convince his family.

Despite Woon being a man of reminiscence, he always reminded his son: “Don’t spend too much time on the tasks we have been doing in the past. Think beyond the traditional brick-and-mortar stores.” This encouraged Tien Yuan to further explore and ideate on growth ideas for the Killiney brand.

My father and uncles have been, and will continue to serve as great role models for the rest of my family to look up to and to learn from. It’s something I hope myself, my siblings, and my cousins can continue to build on to create a strong extended family with common understanding, cohesion and togetherness that will benefit our business even more in the long run.

– Woon Tien Yuan, co-founder of Killiney

2. Roger & Sons: Remembering life lessons

Roger & Sons is recognised today as a space where ethical makers and mavericks craft fine furniture and thoughtful objects.

In 1999, it was formerly known as JR & P Industries. They are manufacturers of system furniture for offices, and founded by a passionate father, Roger. Unfortunately, Roger was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2014.

roger & sons
Brothers Morgan, Lincoln and Ryan Yeo took over their father’s 26-year old business in 2014 / Image Credit: Roger & Sons

Roger’s sons — Morgan, Lincoln, and Ryan — took over the business soon after he was diagnosed to continue their father’s legacy.

Despite not having the opportunity to work alongside their father, and not having him around for guidance, Morgan’s time spent with his father as a child and the values imparted by his late father are what he carries with him throughout running the business.

Growing up, my dad would bring us to the workshop during the school holidays. Back then, I didn’t truly appreciate his work until I took over the business about eight years ago. By being involved in the day-to-day operations, I started living like my dad and slowly, the appreciation and passion grew.

He was always reminding me to stay focused and remember these values: grit, being hardworking, caring for my colleagues, and just having a never-say-die attitude.

– Morgan Yeo, second-generation owner of Roger & Sons

Upon taking over the business, the three sons saw the need to restructure and adapt their business model, hence rebranding to Roger & Sons, with a niche in creating bespoke furniture pieces that last and serve a clear purpose. 

3. Lee Wee Brothers: Communicating and setting boundaries

F&B business Lee Wee Brothers has grown from a small stall at Old Airport Road in 2000, to an extensive franchise that can be found in multiple malls across Singapore. 

Truly a multi-generational success story, Darren Lee, son of Mark — the youngest of the three original founding brothers — and Angeline, now runs the business alongside his parents and uncles as the Corporate Strategy Manager.

lee wee brothers
Darren’s parents, Mark Lee and Angeline / Image Credit: Lee Wee Brothers

Being involved with the family business from a young age, Darren was inspired to add value in the business aspect.

He watched as his parents, grandmother, and uncles worked from 7am to 11pm on repeat to get the business off the ground, accompanied them to food fairs, and helped them with simple tasks such as sticking labels on packaging.

“They’ve built a legacy out of family responsibilities and out of love. This is something that holds a lot of meaning and purpose for me — the responsibility to make sure that the values continue to be a driving force behind our strategic direction, and I can help carry forward their entrepreneurial dreams,” said Darren.

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Compiling online orders and sorting it for delivery / Image Credit: Lee Wee Brothers

When Darren first joined the business, he set boundaries by changing the way the family addressed each other to a first name basis. He wanted to ensure that a family member’s role within the family did not determine position and authority.

We’re constantly professionalising the way we govern ourselves. Once devoid of such family roles that may create a false impression of hierarchy, both family and non-family members are able to perform confidently and objectively.

– Darren Lee, manager of Lee Wee Brothers

As part of a multi-generational business, Darren feels extremely privileged being able to spend a large amount of time with his family, facing challenges and solving them together. He’s able to put himself in each family members’ shoes, thus better understanding their reasoning behind certain business decisions which ultimately brings them all closer together.

“Joining a family business is an amazing opportunity. You’re part of something that you really care about, you become a guardian of it and then you pass on more than what you initially receive to the next generation. It probably doesn’t get any better than that,” he added.

4. Möwe: Don’t be afraid of change

Nicholas Tan was greatly inspired by his father’s passion. His dad, Dickson, founded Swee Huat Heng Gas Supply in the early 60s, distributing gas cylinders to local businesses.

As times changed, the business needed a refresh and Nicholas took over the family business, turning it into Möwe, now a one-stop solution to a smart, sleek, and safer way of living.

Möwe
Dickson Tan (left) and Nicholas Tan (right) / Image Credit: Möwe

Möwe is a pairing of age-old experience with modernised technical know-how. Utilising the potential of Internet of Things (IoT), its range of smart appliances are created to allow maximum control over everything — from setting timers and monitoring house security to ensuring safe cooking.

This balanced pairing stemmed from Nicholas’s stint working in his father’s office after school under a sales role where he attended to customers’ needs to secure deals with them. His father also made him do the most trivial and menial tasks. Both areas helped hone his skills as a businessman as well as taught Nicholas critical skills required to take over the business.

To add to his skill set, he decided to step away from his father’s existing trading business into the engineering industry, where he set up Aerogaz (S) Pte Ltd in 2003, a brand well-known for retailing home appliances.

He leveraged on the knowledge of home appliances from Aerogaz, and translated it into a newer industry of smart home appliances with Möwe.

“Taking over a family business requires a lot of dedication. I was determined to take over the business and lead it to greater heights. I remember having to unload containers and carry heavy gas cylinders to deliver to households. I also had to learn the principles of gas engineering and product design through night classes to attain a gas license so I could carry out gas works and service jobs,” recounted Nicholas.

His father was always on the lookout for business opportunities and was willing to step out of his comfort zone to venture into uncharted waters. Through him, Nicholas learnt that adaptability and diversification are paramount in meeting the current market and the next generation’s needs.

Contrary to popular belief, starting a business is not the challenging part. It is the ability to sustain it for generations. With this in mind, in order to build a sustainable business model, we must continuously innovate and evolve to meet the needs of today’s society.

My father is also reminding me to be humble, build trust with the customers, and be reliable. Only then will customers and business partners be willing to support [us].

– Nicholas Tan, founder of Möwe

Despite the ever-changing business models that both father and son have gone through, the generational business has fed the whole family and brought them closer.

“There is a Chinese belief that generational family businesses cannot go beyond three generations. My goal is to disprove this theory and sustain this business for generations to come.”

5. Lad & Dad: Success means no fear

32-year-old Keith Koh is the ‘Lad’ in Lad & Dad, a casual British gastropub established in 2015 that focuses on proper comfort food. The menu features common British fare such as fish & chips, beef stew, and bangers & mash.

keith koh lad & dad
Keith Koh, co-founder of Lad & Dad / Image Credit: Lad & Dad

I started Lad & Dad shortly after graduating and working in London. Despite studying business, the passion for the F&B industry stemmed from helping my dad in his various businesses as a kid. I suggested working together, and he guided me along the way using his experience and skill-set.

– Keith Koh, founder of Lad & Dad

To date, he is always reminded of his father’s advice: there’s nothing to be afraid of if you’re willing to work hard.

Keith’s mum also plays a role in tweaking some of the recipes once in a while, essentially making it a family business.

The long hours and lack of work-life balance did not deter Keith from contributing further to Singapore’s culture. He has since expanded the British concept with his modern chip shop, Lad & Co

Featured Image Credit: Roger & Sons


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