More than Just a Company, a Family

Written by Cassie Lim, Be Movement issue 1 – SINGAPORE, published October 2012 How do we explain the grip of family ties; a tie that resonates deep within in spite of distances or time? When Terrence Hong, Chief Business Officer of Asiawide Print Holdings, just graduated from University in UK back in 2007 and was on the verge of signing an employment contract with British Telecom, his family called him home. The irrepressible bonds of family and filial piety made Terrence fly back to Singapore to be with them, as he felt this was much more important than pursuing a corporate career. Coming home to a traditional business model, in a so-called “sunset industry”, the challenges were immense. “Being an entrepreneur was never in my mind then,” said Terrence as he shared how difficult it was for him during the first two years that he came back and took over the family business. Not only did he have to implement changes to the outmoded systems in the face of resistance, but he had to think of new innovations to turn around a fading industry, and all this at the tender age of 27 years old when he began. Fortunately for Terrence, his family and many faithful staff stood by him right from the start. He managed to grow the modest outfit from 18 staff to almost three times its size today within five years. Being in Asiawide Print Holdings’ office was like being at home, where everybody knows everybody. It was unusual how much the staff cared for their young and humble leader. Before the actual interview, Wati Saidi, Business Manager of Asiawide Print Holdings, was genuinely effusive in her praise of how caring and thoughtful Terrence has been to the staff. The pride and connection of the staff members were apparent, as they smiled warmly and even came up to chat as we walked around the premises for a photo-taking session after the interview.

morethanacompany_sgissue-003 Left to right – Wati Saidi (Business Manager), Stephanie Fang (Chief People Officer) and Regina Lee (Graphics Manager) morethanacompany_sgissue-004 Terence Hong in black with the AsiaWide Print Holdings Family

Interviewer: I understand from Wati that you’ve done a lot for the staff? Terrence Hong: That is because we are all part of a family. I have always felt that I and my staff are like partners in the same boat and we are here to support the customer and even the suppliers. I know companies always put customer satisfaction first, but I am an engineer. I believe in making my internal structures solid and strong and I believe in focusing on employee satisfaction. It is like building a foundation, when the foundation is strong, the customers feel secure and will be happy even without me doing anything. Interviewer: I heard about the additional insurance policies that you are taking up for your staff that is above the industry norm, why did you do that? Terrence Hong: People always have family members to take care of. Ideally, I would want to help all our staffs who meet with mishaps. However as a company, we have revenue and cash flow concerns, therefore I thought the next best thing is prevention. Hence I make sure that all my people, including foreign workers, are insured with some form of protection. On top of that, for every staff who work for more than a year with us, we include a personal accident policy that is topped up every year of service and capped at SGD 200,000. If anything untoward were to happen to them, at least it helps their family through the most difficult transition period. Interviewer: Why do you choose to go the extra mile? Terrence Hong: To me, I always think of my people first. My people are my biggest asset, not my multimillion dollars machines. My machines do not choose me, while my people do. Our relationship is about mutual trust. Once, one of my father’s associates asked me, “Terrence, how do you define your biggest achievement in life?” I said, “I guess the common desire is to earn the most money out of your time.” He said, “No. When you pass away, the figures in your bank account will not attend your funeral, but the people who care about you will. Therefore, the best achievement in life is the number of people who will attend your funeral for your good reputation and character.” What he said struck me as something of high regards in reputation and good character building. Interviewer: What else did you learn from them? Terrence Hong: In the beginning, when I was uncertain if I could become an entrepreneur, another of my father’s associates, who is also an engineer himself, told me about ‘The engineer rule of 42’. He said it was a common rule in industry where you have to be prepared for retrenchment at the age of 42, because this is the time when you can be replaced by two 21 year olds younger engineers. When I heard this rule, I thought it was a very pragmatic way of looking at how companies treat their pioneers. He was encouraging me to build my own business as well. Therefore I am always very grateful to my father and his close friends whom they had help me learnt the facts of life and what lies ahead 10/20 years in front of me so that I do not have to learn things the hard way. They are my valuable mentors and I really received priceless guidance from them in my life and business. Interviewer: Do you find this respect for the elderly diminishing in our modern society? Terrence Hong: Yes, last week I came across an article from a Professor of Philosophy in Shanghai who was stating how people in the modern cities are becoming more educated but less forgiving and self-centred. Distressingly, filial piety is disappearing at an alarming rate and nobody cares about anybody anymore. That is why China is encouraging the 2,500 years old Confucianism teaching to be re-introduced into our modern society. Interviewer: These traditional beliefs of yours, how do you incorporate them and still bring innovations and growth to the company? Terrence Hong: This is the hardest balance to achieve, not forgetting your roots while looking ahead. This year, whenever I was overseas for conventions or study missions in Japan, Taiwan or Germany, I am always very motivated by the creativity and innovations in those countries. However, to bring these advancements into a traditional company is not easy as there are always differing viewpoints and ways of doing things between the younger and older generations. Back when I first took over the business, it was a critical time for our business. Our staff could not cope with the new infrastructures and there were a lot of new competitors who were younger and more competitive. However, I believe we should still incorporate a hybrid of both modern and traditional approaches. Interviewer: How did you manage the situation? Terrence Hong: I had to do my best to bring my staff around to my point of view and show them that change management is the way to go. For example, I wanted to be as green as possible and some of the management was afraid

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that it would mean lowering our profits. On the contrary, I have to convince them that it is not expensive, or life-changing, and that they simply have to switch off the lights when they leave the room. Also I installed energy saving lights, and just by implementing these two things I save 20% in my electricity bills every month. So much so that the power supply called me and asked if there’s something wrong with our electricity meter and I said, “No, we just remembered to switch off the lights.” Interviewer: What did you do when some staff were resisting change? Terrence Hong: I gave them two choices: either join me and change, or give up. I will persuade them to try and change, as it will be for their own and the company’s good. In addition I will send them for training, and in fact I managed to retain 70% of all the staff since the beginning. morethanacompany_sgissue-005 Interviewer: Was it a difficult decision to let the 30% go? Terrence Hong: We only did that after a few rounds of meetings to ensure that they understand that with the new management, there will be a new direction. Therefore, if they feel like they do not want to be a part of this change, they are free to leave but we encourage ex-staff to return for company events for old times’ sake. Interviewer: Were you also affected by the downturn in the printing industry in general? Terrence Hong: It depends on which area and where you are standing. If you mention publishing then definitely, because in United States many of people are doing e-publishing with images on iPad. Eventually I think even teaching books will be digitalized, reducing the need to carry a book to school in future. Nowadays, like annual reports, stock exchanges companies just provide shareholders with a CD, or they can even go to the website and download the financial report online, reducing the need to print and be green. We are positioning ourselves differently by focusing on packaging, such as FMCG products. Therefore we are in a growing niche as Singapore is booming and there are many new companies being set up, so there is a demand for our services. Interviewer: What other changes are you bringing to the company to stay competitive? Terrence Hong: We are still evaluating and transforming our company to be a marketing company. When I was in the United States, I saw how traditional printers transformed into a one-stop marketing company. I would say that in the United States they are probably 15 years ahead of Singapore, so they realised this industry shift earlier. Most of them have switched to what we call EDL (Electronic Direct Mailer), which is an online new marketing strategy. Many people are thinking of going into offline print, or to go into digital printing or fully online. In my opinion, it is not online or offline, but it is a combination of both digital and offsets. That way, we can be a complete solutions provider. Interviewer: What do you see for the future? Terrence Hong: I would like to grow the company to expand overseas, but most of all I just want to be able to take care of my people who are loyal to this company, because I have built a lot of friendships in my time here and I treasure this kind of company kinship. Nowadays for Gen Y, family sizes are like shoe boxes that are extremely small, unlike my father’s era where it was common to have ten brothers or sisters. Therefore, I prefer this kind of big family atmosphere where unity is strength and I feel a lot of human connection, as opposed to the lack of social connection. Interviewer: Is that why you wear your company’s T-shirt? Terrence Hong: Yes, in Japan, it is a very common platform for bonding purposes. Initially, my staff were surprised and asked why I dress like them. I told them, “It is to show that we are equals and partners in this company.” Interviewer: What is your main motivation for doing what you do here? Terrence Hong: My family, that’s all it is. Honestly, it is not about profit. I stay in this company and do what I do so that my family members are happy. For example, I’ve seen many of cases from my father’s business associates where their children study and migrate overseas, leaving their parents alone with the business. For the Gen X entrepreneurs, succession planning is even more challenging as the Gen Z youngsters are looking for more flexibiity and a conducive environment, with less committed settings. Interviewer: What do you think has made you successful? Terrence Hong: I would say that passion is a big portion of my success and the rest is up to hard work and luck. I would say luck is very important; luck to find your working partners, your businesses and even support. Fortunately my younger sister, Stephanie Fang, who is the main pillar of this company, has been supporting the company structures and reforms since day one. That’s why I hope we can be lucky enough to gather a total of eight people for our succession planning. Presently, we have got three good supports, hoping to groom more from our internals or hire external professionals. In all honesty, I know people would probably laugh at me on why I am doing succession planning when I am only 32 years old, but it is because I want to ensure that I give continuous good customer service to all my customers even when I am not around. My senior business associates told me that he has found 4 good co-workers only after 18 years of business and I wondered if I have to wait that long? He said, “This is life. All good things come to people who wait and you have to wait for the right people to appear or groom.” Interviewer: So you would rather wait for the right people too? Terrence Hong: Yes, we are constantly hiring and grooming for our expansion plans. Different from most companies, we don’t look at qualifications. Instead we emphasise on the work attitude, commitment and mindset that the applicant has to contribute. This is because we feel that most skill sets can be learned over time. However, not everybody possesses a good character and a good mentality to work with. It was a case of David versus Goliath when Asiawide Print Holdings won the Prestigious Asian Print Awards as the top printing company supporting green initiatives in Asia, despite the fact that it was the first time they joined the competition and they were one of the smallest participating companies amongst 500 Asian printing companies, many of which were big listed companies. Their winning factor was in the deployment over the past two years of soy ink with vegetable oils, and 100% vegetable spray powders which lessen the environmental footprint of the printing industry. Initially the switch to renewable soy ink was not for green purposes, but it originated from Terrence’s concern for his staff, where he wanted to find an alternative ink source and spray that are less harmful for health. Soybean based inks were the ideal alternative, as they come from a renewable source, emit dramatically less odour, are non-hazardous and can be treated easily and cost effectively. Now, even their spray powder can be made into a vegetable mocktail which is called AV-Mock (Asiawide Mocktail) if you dare to taste it.






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