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The Resurrection of Three Singaporean Family Businesses

By Kames Narayanan

SunSunSun
Elder brother Silas Hwang oversees O+ Eyewear's operations and marketing efforts.
Father to the two brothers, David Hwang, has been in the local eyewear industry for four decades.
Younger brother Shamus Hwang oversees O+ Eyewear's product development and design arms.
Tung Pham
 

In 2016, a survey conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), revealed a bleak forecast on the future of local family businesses. The key problem: a lack of clear strategy in moving forth in the digital age. According to the survey results gathered locally and compared against 2,802 interviewees across 50 economies worldwide, only 12 per cent of family businesses here ranked innovation as a priority. The figures fall far behind the global average of 32 per cent. While most evidences point to deteriorating health of these businesses, amongst them are establishments that have risen above the challenges of a shifting business landscape.

Here, we talk to three establishments who carry on the legacy of its patriarch.

O+ Eyewear

Step into O+, a contemporary eyewear boutique that stands amidst the hustle and bustle of Shenton Way, the local business district. Its interior, a mélange of modern and industrial architecture punctuated by accents of gold against copper finishes and touches of cork and
wood, lures pedestrians into the store. The wide repertoire of eyewear that lines the displays, then, entices. Pleasing not only to the eye, upon closer inspection, touch and feel, it becomes apparent that these acquisitions are the works of a master crafter.

The impression of the physical store, indeed, is a reflection of its calibre. While O+ was officiated in 2016, David Hwang, who heads the business alongside his two sons, Silas and Shamus, has been in the optometry industry for three decades. His initial interest in optometry stemmed from the inconveniences he experienced as a bespectacled child.

O+
 

“My spectacles were purely for function. The style did not suit me at all. I mean, what would the girls think?” David shares of what he had thought as a 12-year-old. A decade later, he began work at a global optical conglomerate. Gone unaddressed, his gripe with ill-fitting and unflattering spectacles remained a nagging concern at the back of his mind. He then decided he would be the one to solve his grievances.

David began work as an independent manufacturer, designing and crafting eyewear primarily for sale across Europe, Israel and North America. From his days as a child, it was apparent that he perceived optometry through a keen sense of aesthetic driven by innate expectations and understanding of a pair of spectacles. “As a manufacturer, we designed for other brands, according to their brands. However, there was always a desire to build a brand with collections that remain true to our tastes,” shares Silas of their collective ambition.

O+ was a natural progression when David’s sons Silas and Shamus came on board the business. The brothers, who grew up watching their father run the business, recall their earliest involvement in the business when they were teenagers.

“Why first official contact with the business was when I was 18, and I did an internship with my dad. That was when he brought me to factories and visits to our international customers. Interestingly, my first task was to program a system to track the manufacturing process,” says Silas, who oversees the brand’s operations and marketing efforts.

Shamus, on the other hand, filled in the gaps at his father’s workshop as a teenager. “I was doing whatever was required at the point of time. I was always given the chance to experience the business through exhibitions, factory visits and customer meetings,” he shares. In 2015, he took over O+’s product development and design fucntions.

O+
 

Each brother, equipped with differentiated skill sets, ushers O+ into a new era, by unifying the family business’s history with modern day sensibility. “The frames that Shamus designs for O+ today are the perfect union between the past and the future. They are very different from what my father used to design. Shamus also started a 3D design and printing system where it would in certain cases reduce prototyping time tremendously,” shares Silas.

Through its manufacturing arm Emsley Eyewear Design, O+ has control of its products in their entirety. You can expect the Hwangs to know the process inside out, right down to the weight of the materials used. This independent management is what sets O+ apart from its competitors in the industry.

“Truly born out of a manufacturing company of 15 years and an experienced retail service of almost 40 years, we believe that O+ has the capacity to provide everyone with a premium product, served at the highest service standards but without a hefty price tag,” shares Silas.

The common saying suggests that you get what you pay for but at O+, it is accurate to say that a consumer will reap in benefits more than can be measured in monetary terms. Operating both online and in-store, the brothers carry their father’s uncompromising standards of service and integrity in business.

“Our father always had a keen sense of excellent service. This is prevalent throughout from the retail shop to the manufacturing company. This gives us the assurance that we would be providing the customer with a high quality product, coupled with a service that aims to please, even at our expense,” says Silas.

The Hwang brothers are currently in the midst of expanding O+’s retail operations locally and internationally, while scaling up their business to offer bespoke services to consumers.

Roger&Sons

As a child, Morgan Yeo, grew up watching his carpenter father, Roger Yeo, toil through the days at his workshop, crafting furniture for offices. The business his father had started some 30 years ago under the moniker JR & P Industries Pte. Ltd. recalls a humble beginning.

“My father started the business working from my uncle’s (his older brother’s) factory. In the morning and afternoon, he would help my uncle and when the business closes for the day, he would work through the night on his own projects,” shares 30-year-old Morgan Yeo, the oldest of three sons.

Tung PhamLincoln and Morgan Yeo with their mother photographed at Roger & Sons workshop.
Lincoln and Morgan Yeo with their mother photographed at Roger & Sons workshop.

Gradually, Roger progressed independently, moving from a meagre rented space in his brother’s factory, into a full-fledged workshop of his own. Having started out as a carpenter, Roger’s business model was an extension of his expertise. Inherently, the company was then positioned as a manufacturer at the end of the supply chain. Furniture dealers, who have confirmed orders from their clients would seek out Morgan to replicate requested designs.

In its formative years, the establishment thrived on Singapore’s developing economy. The resultant influx of office spaces, naturally, boosted the demand for furnishings to complete the newly setup interiors. As with most industries, the landscape of the furniture trade began to shift as time progressed. Pitted against competitors from around the region like China and Malaysia, who began infiltrating the industry, Roger’s manufacturing model began to falter.

Roger & SonsAn old family photo.
An old family photo.

“My father could not compete with them and did not change with time to compete with them,” explains Morgan.

Gradually, business declined and the business was in the red. Along with the life of JR & P Industries Pte. Ltd., its founder, Roger’s health, was thrown into untoward circumstances. In February 2014, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, rendering him too ill to continue the business. It was in the same year that Morgan and his younger brothers, Lincoln and Ryan took over the reign.

“My father had always been putting food on the table and shelter over our heads, no matter how difficult times were. We wanted to continue his legacy,” says Morgan. “I always grew up knowing that I will be a part of the business, at some time in my life. The time at which I took over as well the circumstance under which I took over were just not as expected.”

Stepping in place of their father, who succumbed to cancer months after his diagnosis, neither Morgan Yeo nor his brothers were trained in carpentry, much less in the workings of the business. The task that lay ahead of the Yeo brothers was, to say the least, a daunting undertaking. “Going into the business, I did not really know what to expect. I went into the business just wanting to do my best, continue my dad’s legacy and see where that takes me,” shares Morgan. “It was a lot more difficult than I had expected it to be.” 

Any chances of salvaging the business was a long shot. With the work cut out for them, the brothers were guided by an understanding that a long overdue restructure had to be set in motion.

“[Although he had] been a carpenter his whole life, no one knew about him or his work. That was because he was just a manufacturer who worked with dealers. End users only knew the dealers and not my dad,” explains Morgan. “We wanted to break that chain and go direct to end users.”

Tung PhamA glimpse into their workshop.
A glimpse into their workshop.

As a mark of a new era, the Yeo brothers set out to rebrand the entire establishment. Their starting point: its name.

“We renamed the company to Roger&Sons. This was to let my dad know that we are preserving his legacy and would keep his business for genera- tions to come. After the rebranding, we started having more of a presence on social media as a means to engage with our clients,” shares Morgan.

Under the helm of the three brothers, Roger’s carpentry business has taken a new lease of life within a little over four years. From mere manufacturing, it has expanded laterally into a multidisciplinary design studio specialising in bespoke furniture. Each brother has a specific role: Morgan, a director of the company, with a degree in Business Management from Singapore Management University, spearheads Roger&Sons; creative director Lincoln, lends his trained eyed to the overall aesthetic of the business and leads its marketing efforts; and operations executive Ryan, having completed a diploma in International Logistics & Supply Chain Management at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, assists with operations and project management.

Tung PhamMorgan Yeo (pictured right) speaking to a member of their team.
Morgan Yeo (pictured right) speaking to a member of their team.

Today, Roger&Sons holds the reputation as the brain and muscles behind the fittings in some of the city’s hippest establishments, ranging from cafes to retail store interiors. Recently, they have also opened up woodworking workshops to the general public. Having grown from strength to strength, the initial team of seven men has grown to a headcount of 18.

While the Yeo brothers may have entirely stepped away from the shadows of a troubled past, what they have held onto are intangible lessons learnt from their late father.

“I think one of the greatest lessons I learnt from my dad is to treat each and every one of my colleagues with respect and humility. Everyone is a part of the family. My dad was well-respected amongst his staff as he showed care and concern,” shares Morgan. “It is something I find very admirable as this has resulted in loyal, hardworking staff. We even have one woodworker who has been with us since the inception of the company 30 years ago.” 

Indeed, the theme of family, beyond a biological bind, lays the foundation at Roger&Sons. In place of an isolating hierarchal leadership, stands an inclusive work environment governed by equality. When I visited their workshop in an industrial area located at a far flung northern corner of the island, Morgan approached me with a warm smile, beads of perspiration trickling down his hairline. He leads his people by working right alongside them – a relationship that has taken significant effort to build.

“The biggest challenge was to convince existing colleagues to believe in the rebranding and to believe in me. A lot of these colleagues saw me grow from a young boy and take over a business that was in the red. It was very difficult to convince them. It took me a year or so,” says Morgan.

Rising above the shortcomings that would have once rendered them unqualified to take over the family business, the Yeo brothers have more than proven their competence. In mid conversation, Morgan Yeo pointed to chunks of wood resting against a wall, rambling off exactly which part of the country they were from. At this instance, it was apparent, this was a man who has not only grown with the company his father started but he’s also an entrepreneur who has grown into a craft passed down from the generation before.

Windflower Florist

Mention “florist” and one would, more often than not, think of someone female. Stanley Tan, who spends most hours of his days preening and priming blooms at local florist christened Windflower Florist, is, under societal conventions, a rare breed.

“I took over the business in 2014, when I was 22 years old and fresh out of National Service. All I had was $10,000 in my bank account to jumpstart the business, with an additional $800 in the Windflower corporate account and the support of my parents and aunt,” shares the 26-year-old.

Tung PhamFrom a small store space, Windflower boutique has expanded to a full-fledged loft workshop.
From a small store space, Windflower boutique has expanded to a full-fledged loft workshop.

The seeds for Windflower Florist were initially planted by Tan’s father, Paul Tan, two decades ago. “Back in 1987, my father started a florist [shop] called Windsville. Ten years later, in 1997, after having gained some experience in floristry through Windsville, my aunts started Windflower Florist,” says Stanley. Located at the eastern part of the country, both businesses gradually secured their respective pools of clientele. While the former was primarily patronised by heartlanders, the latter sought profit from its corporate consumers.

In the years that followed, life’s trajectory saw Stanley’s aunts start their own families. And naturally, their priorities shifted. “Not wanting to close down Windflower Florist, they consolidated their efforts, closing down Windsville. Windflower Florist stood till 2014, when I took over,” he recalls.

Growing up, Stanley recalls fond memories at his father’s florist. “I spent my childhood growing up in Windsville. I’ll play with the kids from the other stores, running around the area while my parents were working. Sometimes, to keep me occupied, my mum would give me a floral foam and some loose flowers for me to do up an arrangement,” he says. These initial encounters, however, fell short of instilling an innate appreciation for floristry in the young, impressionable boy he then was. With age, his involvement at his father’s floral business grew sparse.

Tung PhamA portrait of the family members behind Windflower Florist.
A portrait of the family members behind Windflower Florist.

In the years after, Stanley reached an epiphany. “When I was in secondary school, we were placed in different ‘houses’ and mine was named ‘Entrepreneur’. Being placed there had nothing to do with learning how to be an entrepreneur but that was my first contact with the word,” he says.

“Moving forward, there was a particular school activity that involved coming up with a business plan and my team won the competition. That sparked an interest. Being involved in the planning process, presentations and execution, the experience motivated me to try selling flowers during Valentine’s Day,” says Stanley. “I rented a push cart in school, got my parents and aunt to do up a few small bouquets and I brought them to school to sell. I sold out!”

Following this novice encounter, Stanley forged forth with the conviction of taking over Windflower Florist. Having completed his Diploma in Mass Communications and commitment to serve the two-year mandatory National Service, he jumped onboard the family business, which by then, was hanging by a loose thread. However, his fervent pursuit was approached with skepticism.

“My mother was concerned when I told her that I wanted to take over the business. She told me to really think it through,” recalls Stanley. “When I took over the store, there was talk amongst vendors in the mall. They were concerned and curious as to why I would want to take over this small business. Some of them even suggested that my parents persuade me to stop and head out to either work or study.”

His persistence, however, paid off in due time. Under his leadership, the business channelled its marketing efforts online. “I had to learn everything from scratch. I knew I had to take the business online and set up e-commerce, as it was on the rise then,” he shares. “We began building an e-commerce [site], took to social media and at the same time revamped the products while operating at competitive pricing.”

The manoeuvres proved triumphant in pitting Windflower Florist as a brand sought-after by the millennial set. If their social media following is of any indication of the health of the business, the establishment (@windflowerflorist) has amassed a following of 23,800 followers on Instagram and 24,000 likes on Facebook (at press time). Having grown exponentially since 2014, Windflower Florist moved out of its heartland store into a full-fledged studio loft. The team, today, is four times bigger than it was before. Most recently, it is further expanding into weddings under the name O’hara by Windflower.

This is an empire built on the unwavering commitment of one man. On multiple instances throughout our exchange, he candidly referred to himself as bull-headed, a character trait stereotypically associated with entrepreneurs. But what sets Stanley apart from the archetypal money-motivated leader is the ethos he has anchored into the core of Windflower Florist.

“I never had a million-dollar dream. I have always wanted to create an environment for people to grow and express themselves creatively. I used to tell my team that Windflower is simply a stepping stone for them to reach something greater,” shares Stanley.

Under his watchful eye, Windflower Florist has risen to the top in the competitive local floristry scene and there is little doubt that the business will continue to bloom in the coming years.