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5 business and life lessons from Glenn Tan, deputy chairman of Tan Chong International

The head honcho of Tan Chong International reflects on business and life after his mum's passing.

Growing up, Glenn Tan would go to the supermarket by himself. He would push the shopping cart while occasionally fishing out a handwritten grocery list from his pocket, scanning it for the next item he needed to buy while making sure the money his parents had entrusted to him was safely ensconced in the other pocket. These supermarket expeditions were pivotal to Glenn Tan’s growing-up years.

“My parents travelled a lot, so from young, my siblings and I were taught to be independent. To me, it seemed normal to be alone at the supermarket,” Tan reminisces.

Being a child, he was naturally tempted to indulge with the cash in his hands. But buying a chocolate bar or a McDonald’s meal meant lesser money for other household essentials. Others his age studied Saturday cartoons. Tan learned to budget. The deputy chairman and managing director of Tan Chong International shares 5 business and life lessons he has learned throughout the years.

(Related: 5 business and life lessons from Andy Lim, CEO of JL Family Office)

Children should learn through playing.

Glenn Tan is a big believer in the power of play. He regularly buys toys for his two daughters, much to the chagrin of his wife who has to deal with a growing pile of playthings. “I feel that playing with toys builds their imagination, and that’s important. I limit their digital screen time to an hour or two a day.”

At the same time, he also teaches them the value of money and reminds them that nothing comes to them on a silver platter. In his household, crying accomplishes nothing. “My wife and I make it very clear that if they want something, they will have to explain why they need it. If they cry, they go back to their rooms and don’t get anything. It’s taught them to be responsible,” says Tan.

Your qualifications are not important, only your attitude.

Tan has a legendary explosive temper, but he is not bothered by the pointed criticism of his management style. For him, the equation is simple: if you do not perform, you need to buck up. A man of action, who wants to get things done, he hires people with the same attitude. Tan does not care about your educational qualifications nor your background. He is prepared to give anyone a chance as long as they are willing to work as hard as he does.

Tan also constantly encourages his staff to ask as many questions as possible and to understand the other party’s perspective before coming to a decision. It’s a method that will cut down on possible mistakes in the future. Speaking about the future…

Glenn Tan is wearing a blue cotton shirt, grey linen blazer and cashmere pocket square, all from Brunello Cucinelli

Glenn Tan is wearing a blue cotton shirt, grey linen blazer and cashmere pocket square, all from Brunello Cucinelli

Tread lightly during uncertainty.

Just before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, when the world still congregated in groups, Tan was already wary. He shared a debate he had with staff regarding car stock orders at the beginning of this year. An employee was bullish about sales prospects and questioned the reasoning behind his conservative projections. Tan preached caution because of the uncertainty caused by this new virus. Naturally, he was right.

That doesn’t mean Tan is guided by fear. “The more you let fear get to you, the worse everything will become. To me, it is most important to be clear and decisive in what needs to be done, so there is stability for everybody and it is easier for your people to function in a crisis.”

(Related: Leadership During a Crisis with Ninja Van CEO Lai Chang Wen)

The landscape is always changing, so adapt to it.

Glenn Tan is an ardent believer in the customer journey. Because of TCI’s unique position – it controls the entire value chain from production to sales – Tan is better able to understand the nuances and, subsequently, changes in the automotive business. He has witnessed first-hand the customer’s evolution and noticed an important trend: brand loyalty is dead. “Today, if I want to buy a car, I’ll do my research online. Based on my needs now, I will determine the car to purchase from there.”

He’s responding to this trend by improving the customer experience. It’s no longer just about selling the car but engaging them at the point when they begin looking for automotive options. Tan stresses the importance of understanding the customer’s needs and providing solutions that fulfil these desires.

Social media has also dramatically changed the way cars are being sold. “Now, customers want to know how a car will become not only a part of their lifestyle but also their social media life.”

And while he is not bullish about car sharing, Tan has spotted an opportunity. He is exploring the idea of converting a former showroom in Toa Payoh into an automated parking system and car workshop.

The idea is simple: private-hire drivers drop off their cars at the facility for servicing and receive another car to continue picking up passengers. With no downtime, these drivers can earn more money. The beauty of automation means that the facility can be open 24 hours, seven days of the week. Tan plans to begin construction next year and, if all goes well, envisions that it will be up and running in 2023.

Glenn Tan is wearing a blue cotton shirt, blue striped linen blazer and a cashmere printed pocket square, all from Brunello Cucinelli

Glenn Tan is wearing a blue cotton shirt, blue striped linen blazer and a cashmere printed pocket square, all from Brunello Cucinelli

Life should be more than just about business.

In January this year, Tan’s mother, a pioneer within the fashion industry, passed away. She battled leukaemia for a year before succumbing to the disease. They were very close. Both Christians, they would visit the Barker Road Methodist Church together. Coincidentally, four days before her passing on a Saturday, Tan had written a prayer about God’s will that he was going to read out in church.

“It showed me that my mum’s passing was God’s will. You cannot question why. I think my faith is the reason why I’ve been able to go back to regular life for a majority of the time. If you ask me, I’m still not great but I am certainly not where I was three months ago.”

The massive turnout at her funeral also moved him quite a bit. It reminded Tan of the incredible impact she had on so many people throughout her career. How incredible? On the third day of the wake, Tan received word that florists around Singapore had run out of flowers. She’d always loved flowers, so everyone bought her favourites to remember her by.

Ever since then, Tan has been reconsidering his single-minded devotion to his business, sometimes at the expense of everything else. “In the past, my whole life revolved around the business. That was a big mistake,” he says. His aim now is more holistic. “My mum truly set the benchmark high. She was always helping people without a thought for what she got back. I want to continue her legacy.”