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From coffeeshop stall to funeral service, these millennials now run their family businesses

These old-school practices are being reimagined for the 21st century.

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If video killed the radio star, then smartphone cameras might have killed the photography buff. Or maybe not, if 28-year-old Alvan Tan has his way about it.

Over the past decade, with smartphones rendering obsolete the practice of carrying a compact digital camera, Alan Photo Trading, the camera shop Tan’s father founded in 1986, experienced a dramatic downturn.

“Most of our customers were compact digital camera users and as they shifted to smartphone cameras, we began to face difficulty in sales,” says Tan, who joined the company as a retail salesman in 2010 and worked his way up the ranks to manager. “We knew we had to do something.”

Alvan Tan created a space where photographers, videographers, hobbyists and casual snappers can interact.

The younger Tan realised he had to pivot from the “sunset industry” and, so, introduced videography equipment and a wide range of photography accessories, while focusing on providing customers with a different retail experience. These efforts culminated in the launch of REC by Alan Photo – a new concept store – in Lavender Street last year, which Tan says is “massively different” from traditional camera retail stores. Stocked with an encyclopaedic range of products, equipment and software to meet the pre-to post-production needs of shutterbugs, it also has two photo studios, a makeup corner, a photo printing station and even a cafe.

“I realised many customers may have a camera but don’t exactly know how to fully utilise it, so we decided to run workshops and events for customers to learn new skills. The main idea is to instil the mindset that the smartphone camera is incomparable with a camera and also spark the interest of photography in as many people as possible,” he adds. The business has recorded a 20 per cent increase in turnover since he joined.

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“Millennials bring a whole new perspective to their parents’ traditional businesses. … They have a whole slew of technology and social media options to help them.”

– Dr Terence Fan


FRESH IDEAS GALORE

Entrepreneurial millennials like Tan are increasingly seeing the value in businesses that their parents or grandparents founded. They are not only inheriting these companies, but also adding their own youthful ideas to the mix – and reviving flagging fortunes in the process.

“Millennials bring a whole new perspective to their parents’ traditional businesses. Times have changed, and what is now considered traditional may be tweaked to be distinctive,” observes Dr Terence Fan, assistant professor of strategic management (education) at Singapore Management University’s Lee Kong Chian School of Business, who has a special interest in family business and entrepreneurship. “They have a whole slew of technology and social media options to help them in this regard.”

Take for example family florist Floral Magic, which is run by 25-year-old Linette Lau, her sister Josephine, 28, and cousin Joanna Teo, 31. Josephine was the first to join her mother and aunt’s business in 2012; the other two came on board within the next couple of years. When they realised the business was mostly reliant on walk-in customers, the trio began strategising ways to reach out to corporate clients and supplying floral arrangements for events and weddings. They revamped the company website to showcase their work and launched a social media account (@floralmagic_), which has almost 30,000 followers to date.

Joanna Teo and Josephine Lau (both standing) and Linette Lau have grown their family floral business through social media and corporate marketing.

Social media, says Linette, has been instrumental in their strategy of word-of-mouth marketing and is one of the key reasons for the company’s turnover skyrocketing from $60,000 to $1 million since 2012. Their Instagram account also allows them, especially Linette who was trained in London and interned at one of the best florists there, and Teo, who learnt the ropes of floristry in New York, a platform to showcase their latest creations. She adds: “A huge part of growing skills and a customer base is to create new styles of arrangement that serve as additional content to engage our audience.”


It also helps that many of these millennials have cherished childhood memories involving the business.

Faye Sai, 29, is one of three Sai siblings who have taken over Coffee Break, a Hainanese kopitiam stall founded by their grandfather over 80 years ago. She recalls how she and her sister, Anna, grew up hanging around the kopitiam, saying: “One of my fondest memories of my grandfather’s old kopitiam was the smell of freshly roasted coffee in the back room – where I would take a deep, long good whiff – and the oily floors post-roasting, which my sister and I would skid around on, imagining we were ice-skating.”

The Sai siblings: (from left) Jack, Anna and Faye

Since Faye, her twin Anna, and brother Jack, 32, took over the business in 2012, they have incorporated new flavours to update the traditional kopi and teh and have formulated their own style of latte. They have two outlets at Amoy Street Food Centre and Singapore Science Park 1; the third slated to open in Shenton Way by May.

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For Faye, who has known she wanted to be in this business since she was 19, this is a way of keeping her childhood memories alive.

She says: “I remember very vividly the sing-song voice my uncle would use to shout customers’ orders back to the coffee counter; it was in Hainanese, but it sounded like a tune. This expansion is to allow more Singaporeans access to our brand of coffee, regardless of location.”

The Sai siblings from Coffee Break have added new flavours to traditional Hainanese kopi and teh, as well as created their own latte, thereby gaining a younger fan base.



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DOLLARS AND CENTS

Updating old-fashioned business practices can also go a long way towards giving a business a new lease of life. Managing director of Direct Funeral Services Jenny Tay, 30, worked in events management before she joined her father’s funeral service company in 2013. The recipient of the Her World Young Woman Achiever award last year used her corporate experience to reinvent the company – which had become mired in backdated business practices – including “redefining the industry”.

Jenny Tay is comfortable taking over her father’s funeral service business and has added more value to it.

“I don’t view us as a funeral business, rather as a hospitality business,” says Tay, who has spent the last few years introducing new standards of practices to modernise the industry. These include redesigning wakes to include elements such as wishing trees for family and friends to hang their condolence messages and the introduction of more services such as grief counselling, having Wi-Fi at wakes and night watch services.

She recently launched funeral planning services which include will writing and estate planning, in order to bring the business one step closer to her goal of being a “one-stop end-of-life hub”. Tay also revamped the business’ human resource practices with the introduction of medical and dental benefits, and adjusted the staff ’s pay scale to be comparable with that in the food and beverage and hospitality industry. Since she joined, she has grown the team from five to 55 people and the company’s revenue has jumped from $2 million to $7 million.

To be sure, as advances in technology continue to change the way individuals lead their lives, success in business lies very much in how adroitly one can react to socio-cultural shifts.


“A huge part of growing skills and a customer base is to create … additional content to engage our audience.”

– Linette Lau


Says Dr Fan: “As other similar traditional businesses in the same trade die out due to changing customer tastes, the slice of the pie increases for those still left.”

DEBUNKING THE MILLENNIAL MYTH

Think millennials are an ungrateful, entitled and whiny bunch? These millennial entrepreneurs give us their take on these stereotypes.

01: IGNORANT, OVER-RELIANT AND UNINITIATED

“In the beginning, I honestly thought the millennial part-timers we hired were ignorant, over-reliant and uninitiated, as some of them did not know how to operate water kettles or wipe glass windows, although they were enthusiastic. With time, they were able to keep up, even going the extra mile for customers.” – Faye Sai, Coffee Break

02: COMMITMENT-PHOBIC

“It’s untrue that millennials are unable to commit to a job. In fact, I know many millennials who are very dedicated to their job, as long as they feel valued and see that they are creating value in the process. As a company in the 21st century, recognise millennials’ work achievements and empower them to create value in meaningful ways.” – Jenny Tay, Direct Funeral Services

03: LAZY

“In my opinion, we are merely choosing the path of least resistance. The lazier a person, the smarter the person.” – Alvan Tan, Alan Photo Trading

04: UNABLE TO DEAL WITH HARDSHIP

“This is not necessarily true, especially if there is a goal in mind. I’ve been at Hong Seng Curry Rice for three years: seven days a week and 12 hours a day. If I’m not cooking or working at the stall, I’m on the phone with suppliers or making plans for the business. My life revolves around work.” – Lim Jia Han (above), 27, a Singapore Institute of Management banking and finance degree holder who took over his father’s 20-year-old curry rice business

PHOTOGRAPHY Frenchescar Lim
ART DIRECTION Chelza Pok