This story is part of The Peak’s Legacy series for August.
From a small snack business operating out of a home kitchen, Singaporean snack brand Tai Sun has grown into an empire with an international reach, including the US, Middle East and China – all within just 50 years. Still, the family members are modest about their success, and seem to approach everything they do in a matter-of-fact manner.
It probably is a quality passed down from 80-year-old Han Yew Lang who built the company ground up with her husband, the late Lim Jit Syong. Responsible for producing the snacks – everything from roasted peanuts and ikan bilis to keropok that her husband distributed to bars and restaurants – and bringing up three children at the same time, her days started at 4am and ended around midnight.
She even once singed her eyebrow and burnt her forehead in a kitchen accident, only to resume roasting peanuts as if nothing had happened.
With a tough-as-nails matriarch, it is little wonder that the future generations also have a quiet gung-ho spirit in them. You see it in the soft-spoken demeanour of Han’s eldest child, which belies a steely resilience. The 59-year-old director, Sandy Lim, witnessed the hardship endured by the pioneer generation, and personally saw the company development challenges. Her two siblings, Winston, 58, and Lawrence, 55, are also involved in the business.
It is also in Lim’s daughter, 34-year-old Esther Loo – the eldest of the third generation who has boldly rejuvenated the brand with a new logo and product lines since joining in 2010. And they all work towards a common goal: betterment of the family. “The nature of a family business makes one work less for individual interests than for the good of the family,” Loo says.
Some 11 members of the family are currently involved in business operations, including four from Loo’s generation. Yet, theirs is not a family business where stereotypically dramatic tension between conservative old guards and hot-blooded young scions unfold.
“For many family businesses, the challenge for the earlier generation is to trust the next generation enough to let go of the reins. That trust is important for succession planning, but also for the next generation to find their place in the family business and take ownership of it,” says Loo. You see the determination to prove herself and do her family proud in the intensity of her gaze, as she speaks.
“When I joined Tai Sun and was tasked with spearheading the rebranding, I wasn’t sure if the second generation would be open to new ideas. But I was pleasantly surprised that they trusted me even with something as sentimental and precious as the family brand.”
Lim is acutely aware of the need to loosen the reins. Despite being the elder, she let Loo lead the conversation during the interview. And even though she was apprehensive about filming a video segment for The Peak, she warmed up to the idea after a short discussion with Loo.
Still, it is idealistic to think that it’s always peachy at the Tai Sun office. “There are moments when we don’t see eye to eye on a situation,” admits Loo. “That’s when you pick your battles. Not everything is worth disputing and most things require a generous portion of give-and-take.”
These days, Han takes a back seat and allows the second- and third-generation members to steer the company. That doesn’t mean she’s completely removed from the business. The energetic octogenarian still attends board meetings and drives herself around in a shiny champagne Lexus, a recent birthday gift from the family.
During our photo shoot, her wickedly infectious laughter – a sign of having attained the elusive contentment with life – slices through awkward moments and puts everyone at ease.
Yet Lim and Loo still feel the pressure to perform. “All the more so, because there’s no one to tell you how it should be done!” says Lim. For Loo, pressure also comes from inheriting a rich legacy. “A lot of what we do – such as the rebranding exercise – charts the course of the company. (Preserving the legacy) is a great weight on our shoulders,” she says.
“IF THE BUSINESS DOESN’T BRING (THE FAMILY) TOGETHER, IT WOULD HAVE LOST ITS PURPOSE.”
– ESTHER LOO
But to Loo and Lim, the biggest challenge of all lies in guarding familial relationships from the stresses of the business. It is just as Han emphasises throughout our interview – jiahe wanshi xing, a Chinese saying that means when a family is united and harmonious, all their endeavours will be prosperous.
“My granddad believed that if the business doesn’t bring us together, it has lost its purpose,” says Loo. This remains the guiding principle for Tai Sun.