They enter family business despite financial sacrifice

PHOTO: They enter family business despite financial sacrifice

When Mr Mahesh Primalani graduated from university in 2004, the plan was to work for a consulting firm, out of a posh Raffles Place office.

But the itch to return to his roots was "too much to tahan (withstand in Malay)", says the 34-year-old with a chuckle.

Six months into his first job as a human resources consultant, he quit to join Parisilk, a consumer electronics firm set up by his grandfather in 1952.

"Every time I spoke to someone about something in my job, or read about something, I found myself thinking about Parisilk, and how I could apply what I learnt to the business.

"I realised that my heart was still back at the family business," says the Singapore Management University graduate, who majored in business management.

While there are no official numbers on the number of family-run businesses here, experts say they are thriving not only here but abroad.

The best family businesses have the potential to outperform their competition, says Professor Randel Carlock, the founding director of the Wendal International Centre for Family Enterprise at Insead.

"They plan and govern based on logic, but lead based on passion, which is a great human motivator," he adds.

Most family businesses tend to operate within relationship-based industries like distribution, service, and manufacturing, he says.

Two trends characterise local family businesses here, say experts: Successful sibling teams and the effective use of innovation and technology.

"Some of the emerging generations are expanding into new markets and diversifying into new lines of business," comments Ms Elaine Tan, director at the Business Families Institute, at Singapore Management University.

Mr Primalani, who handles the business-to-business side of Parisilk, is one such example.

"We've always done corporate sales, but on an ad-hoc basis, until I found my way in the business and decided to make that my focus," he says, adding he grew the corporate sales arm about 400 per cent since he joined in late 2004.

The business that was started by his grandparents - Indian immigrants who sold textiles and bedsheets from a shop on Circuit Road - now has a total of four branches.

It is also responsible for outfitting condominiums and hotels with television sets, refrigerators, and washing machines, among other equipment.

The best part of working for your family is the sense of ownership and satisfaction that comes with it, he says.

There are 10 family members including Mr Primalani working in Parisilk. They take charge of aspects like retail, logistics, export, and marketing and events, among others.

Says Mr Primalani, who is married to a fitness instructor: "Experiencing the family togetherness is quite unique.

"Everyone wants the same eventual goal, which is for the betterment of the business and the family. Everyone is putting in the hours and the blood and sweat... There is definitely a lot of unity."

Working for a multinational corporation does not give the same sense of pride.

"At the end of the day, you're working for an entity. It was there before you, it will be there after you, this is the difference you make," he adds.

But the emotional investment of working in a family business can be tricky.

Leaving work-related squabbles at the office and keeping them away from the dining table has been especially difficult, he confesses.

"We talk about work all the time. It's in our blood, we can't stop it. It comes naturally, we talk about other things too also, but something will come on in the news and we will discuss about what our competitors are doing, and so on," says the elder of two sons.

That he has a strong stake in the business rings clear.

After all, some of his childhood memories entail cleaning toilets and dusting the shop, as well as playing handheld games that his father sold.

What's the one piece of advice he would give to aspiring youngsters who want to work for their family businesses?

"Make sure you enjoy what you do, and believe that you can make a difference.

"Don't join just because you're the son of the boss, or come in expected to be treated like it. It will lead to your downfall. Which is why I started washing toilets," he jokes.

After putting in 16-hour days for about 35 years, hairline cracks began appearing in the knees of hawker Anthony Tan.

He made a living whipping up bowls of beef noodles.

Keep standing for long hours, and they would probably give way, warned doctors.

The third-generation heir to Hock Lam Beef was resigned to winding up the 100-year-old business rather than allowing his children to become hawkers like him.

The prospect was unthinkable, the 67-year-old tells this reporter candidly in Mandarin.

After all, he had worked hard all these years to put them through school - giving them an overseas education, at that - for them to have a shot at a better, more comfortable life.

But Miss Tina Tan could not bear seeing her family's legacy go down the drain.

So the middle child of the family - she has an elder sister and a younger brother - stepped up to helm the business eight to nine years ago.

"I felt like I could not let this business die, I had to answer to my ancestors," states the slim and fair 38-year-old.

Her decision was easy enough, but convincing her father to hand over the reins, and obtaining buy-in from Hock Lam's long-time customers, were challenges that seemed insurmountable at first, she says.

"He was used to doing everything on his own, and (he) spent at least five to six hours prepping before a bowl of noodles was sold."

Proving that she was worthy of learning Hock Lam's beef noodle recipe - a well-kept secret till this day - took at a whole year of doing the grunt work, she reveals.

"I was basically the cleaner and dishwasher for six months after first joining. He didn't allow me near the ingredients, much less want to teach me to cook," says the media and marketing graduate from Murdoch University in Perth.

And indeed, it was more than a year before she was finally allowed to cook and serve a bowl of noodles.

Then, she struggled to convince long-time customers that it tasted the same.

"Some of them had a psychological barrier and would tell me that the soup didn't taste very nice, although I did everything the same and my dad supervised.

"They questioned if I could really do the job, since I'm so skinny," she says with a grin.

Before she took over Hock Lam, Miss Tan was an investment banker making about $20,000 a month.

Although Hock Lam has a yearly turnover of about $1 million, and is looking into overseas expansion, she insists it is not as lucrative.

"If you're in it for the money, this isn't the right business," she says about Hock Lam, which charges $7.50 for a standard bowl of beef noodles.

Miss Tan, who is single, went through at least four failed romantic relationships, because she simply had "no energy" left at the end of the day.

You never really switch off when it's your own business, she adds matter-of-factly.

It is lonely at the top, she confesses.

"I'm envious of customers who come to our restaurant for lunch with their colleagues," she says, explaining that she does not dine with her employees, as that stresses them out.

But there are no regrets. Hock Lam has come a long way, she says with a touch of pride.

From a modest hawker stall at Capitol Hawker Centre, where she grew up washing bowls and chasing after rats, it today has two air-conditioned restaurant branches, and offers side dishes like chicken wings and mushrooms on top of beef noodles.

Plans to open another four to six outlets in the next three to five years are in the pipeline, she says.

Her dream? For beef noodles to be one of Singapore's national dishes, and for Hock Lam's beef noodles to be available abroad, especially in a cold country.

"There's something about having a bowl of piping hot noodles in winter. In addition, I want people to think of beef noodles as one of the must-eats when you come to Singapore."

Get The New Paper for more stories.