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Suite talk: Tan Wee Keng, CEO, Tollyjoy Baby Products

Despite being hesitant to join the family business at first, Tan Wee Keng, CEO, Tollyjoy Baby Products, shares his experience in this exclusive of weathering through the storm in transforming reluctance to recognition. 

Q You have been part of the Tollyjoy business since your school days, yet you were reluctant to join the family business. Where did this reluctance stem from, and how did you overcome it?

I've always had ambitions to become a doctor. My two older brothers who previously worked in Tollyjoy had no interest in taking over. So when my father fell terminally ill, he pleaded that I join the business to eventually take over the reins. Setting my own dreams aside, I joined Tollyjoy immediately after university and took helm five years later when my father passed on.

Having to take this business on for me was very much like learning to swim in the deep end. The 1997 Asian financial crisis hit us hard and when I took over, Tollyjoy was almost in the red. I was very fortunate to have the support of my mother, also the co-founder of Tollyjoy, and to be surrounded by a very strong and loyal team who stood by the company in our quest to turn it around.

Q When did you first take over as CEO of the business, and what were your first 100 days on the job like?

I had a lot to grapple with – the passing of my father and having to assume what seemed to be like the gargantuan task of turning this company around. It felt like we had lost our compass, amd expectations for me were that I would just step in and sort it all out.

To be honest, I was very reluctant to take on the position of CEO as I felt I was forced into it and that the years of education I had spent on was going to waste. But the future of the company lay in my lap and it was up to me do something to secure survival.

The sheer tenacity of our team and the faith they had in the company are what continued to push me forward. We managed to overcome one hurdle after another, adapting our approach to the shifts in the market to regain our firm standing. Today we are a profitable company with a turnover of S$15 million.

The sheer tenacity of our team and the faith they had in the company are what continued to push me forward.
Q In this journey, what has been the most challenging part for you, and what was your solution to tackle that?

There is no question that my journey has been fraught with challenges. Having to deal with so much uncertainties and the many curve balls that came with competition, the changing faces of the retail industry and the economic downturns.

Drawing on the business ethics of my parents, I went back to the basics. This meant understanding the market, the needs of consumers and, at the end of the day, staying true to our promise of delivering durable, value-for-money, quality baby care products that parents could trust and afford, particularly in difficult economic times.

Q On the flipside, what has been your greatest pride as CEO of Tollyjoy?

I am most proud that my team and I have weathered several economic storms and remain a profitable company today.

Together we have adapted our practices to new developments and shifts in the market, which include extending Tollyjoy’s footprint beyond Singapore to countries across Asia and driving our e-commerce reach that has been instrumental in growing our market share in India.

Seeing our products gain recognition through numerous awards is something I am also very proud of.

Q Tollyjoy is one of Singapore's oldest companies, established in 1971, yet you cater to the youngest of our generations. What kind of culture do you try and establish for the workforce?

"Treat others the way you want to be treated” is the golden philosophy we abide by.

This defines our culture and attitude, both internally and towards our partners. Being in the business of mother and baby care products, most of our team members are women, and we try to maintain a pro-family and inclusive working environment that supports their roles both at work and at home.

Q Having a manufacturing set-up is certainly a challenge. How do you ensure your employees, both inside and outside the office, are motivated and aligned to the corporate vision and behaviours?

The most important would be leadership, incorporating integrity and grit. Leadership at every level is about being able to gel your team around an idea or objective.

Often people look for integrity in their leadership. With integrity and grit, I believe leadership will command the respect, cooperation and motivation, which are vital in keeping all our staff aligned to a common goal.

Q With more than 200 employees currently, what is your number one talent challenge? And what are you doing to overcome that?

I think every human being has the inherent need to feel that they are contributing to a cause, to belong and to find meaning in what they do. That’s one of our greater challenges with respect to managing our human resource.

By design, we foster an environment where people possess mutual respect for each other regardless of position, and that they are empowered to make a difference in the way they carry out their work to the extent where we are able to achieve productivity and staff satisfaction.

 Leadership at every level is about being able to gel your team around an idea or objective.
Q In our previous interview with Chong Swee Lian, your HR manager, we found that the average employee tenure is 10 years. What is your secret to retaining employees, yet keeping them engaged?

We need to be open to change and nimble in embracing new practices and policies as the workforce evolves. For example, we introduced the work-from-home option to help our staff stay engaged in both their professional and personal roles.

With technology, they can still respond to urgent requests remotely and check in with work while attending to other personal matters. Our flexible work hours have also allowed parents to better juggle between caring for their family and their work responsibilities, and we have found that this arrangement has made them more efficient and committed to their job.

Our healthy retention rate is partly due to the flexible and family-friendly policies, but credit also goes to our employees who have the right attitude and are keen to grow with us.

Q How closely do you work with your HR team? Is there a pet HR project that you are closely following?

HR is an integral part of our organisation. We view it as a key ingredient that has contributed to our continued success as well as future endeavours.

HR and I are intimately involved in all our corporate planning because in the grand scheme of things, all the cogs that run and turn the organisation depend on each other to contribute their part to ensure that all achieve a common objective.

Q Finally, as CEO, I'm sure you live, eat and breathe your family business. Do you get any rest at all?  How and when do you take a break?

I have learnt over the years that as much as tending to the business is important, family always comes first. My family is the bedrock of my being - without whom, I would not be the person I have come to be. One must realise that there’s an unceasing amount of work that needs to be done. I have learnt to “let go” in order to have better work-life balance.

It is absolutely refreshing to revitalise your inner self simply by connecting with your family and going for activities together. For it is when you’re refreshed and recharged that you will be at your peak, both mentally and physically.

Photo / Provided

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