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House rules for family and business alike

His philosophy of treating his staff like family members, has resulted in greater efficiency, productivity and loyalty. -ST
Leong Weng Kam

Tue, Mar 05, 2013
The Straits Times

SINGAPORE - To pig-farmer-turned-entrepreneur Tan Hong Khoon, the secret of success in business and life lies simply in good health and a happy home.

"These two conditions are prerequisites for any individual or corporate success," said the 59-year-old chairman and president of Prime Group International, which operates a chain of 19 Prime supermarkets in Singapore. It also runs a modern pig farm and five Sun Island golf-cum-holiday resorts in China, including one in Shanghai, where the group has two international schools as well.

Mr Tan heads an extended family which has been in Singapore for 100 years, and more than 80 members live harmoniously under one roof in a three-storey house in Changi.

A brush with death in 2007, when he survived a heart attack, made him even more zealous about making good health a top priority not just for himself and his family members, but also for more than 3,000 employees in China and another 700 in Singapore.

For a start, he instructed his human resource department to brief all staff on healthy living habits, record their weight and request they get to work on achieving their ideal body mass index.

"They are weighed once a year and those who manage to lose weight are rewarded while the others who become overweight will get a pay cut," he said.

Those who suffer from serious illnesses are assured of receiving the best treatment and can get paid leave of up to two years to recover and return to work.

There is no retirement age and older workers do not have their pay cut or benefits removed on reaching 62 as long as they are doing the same job.

"In fact, we should value the older workers because of their years of experience," Mr Tan said in an interview with The Sunday Times.

His philosophy of running his business like a home and treating his staff like family members, has resulted in greater efficiency, productivity and loyalty, he said.

The Tan family history and its unique business management philosophy is now recorded in a book in Chinese titled Shiji Chenjiazhuang meaning The Century-Old House Of The Tans. Written by former Lianhe Zaobao journalist Lee Eng Lock, 56, and published by Business Weekly in Taiwan, it was launched at Chui Huay Lim Club in Singapore on Saturday.

Mr Tan has been head of the Tans' multi-tier family household since 1990, when his pig farmer father Tan Ah Chye died at the age of 80.

The 360-page book traces the family history from 1913, when Mr Tan's grandfather, Mr Tan Yang Zhui, arrived as a 27-year-old from his hometown in Santou in China's Guangdong province. He brought his three sons, including Mr Tan's father, and they lived on a farm growing vegetables and rearing pigs.

When the pioneer farmer died in 1933 aged 47, his son Ah Chye took over the pig farming business.

Mr Tan Ah Chye had 13 children, the youngest of whom was Hong Khoon, who went on to become the graduate in the family. Most of the nine other sons and three daughters completed only primary school before starting work on the Punggol farm.

Mr Tan Hong Khoon obtained a degree in animal husbandry in 1979 from the National Taiwan University where he met his wife Chi Chih Ping, now 56, who was a course mate.

On his return to Singapore, he helped grow the family business into Singapore's biggest pig farm with as many as 50,000 pigs by the early 1980s.

But in 1984, the Singapore Government decided to phase out pig farming completely and the family had to leave the only life they had known.

Led by Mr Tan, they started their first Prime supermarket that year, opening four more outlets the following year.

In 1987, the family business expanded to Johor where they bought 86ha to grow orchids for export but that venture did not last long.

In 1992, Mr Tan moved to Shanghai and a year later leased the 150ha Sun Island and developed it into a US$50 million golf-cum-holiday resort with chalets and other leisure facilities. Its success prompted him to develop similar clubs in four other locations, including in Nanjing and Suzhou.

In 1996, he went into organic vegetable and animal farming in Shanghai's Chong Ming island, which now has a capacity to rear some 20,000 pigs.

The book launched on Saturday details Mr Tan's business ventures, his successes and failures and the lessons drawn by the family.

Author Lee Eng Lock, who is chief editor of wellness magazine Mahota Quarterly published in Chinese and English by Prime Group International, said: "The most interesting of all are the house rules and welfare system set by the Tan family, which include the dos and don'ts, the punishments for offenders and the allowances for a family member who marries, education grants for the young and medical benefits for all."

Five generations live in the house in Changi. Mr Tan Hong Khoon's own family, including his wife, son and two daughters who are in their early 20s and 30s, live in Shanghai.

The book also contains an open letter from Mr Tan to his extended family, saying the family's way of doing business and staying together had worked well for them for 100 years and he asked for their continued support.

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