An interview with Li Tan, Chief Strategy Officer of Asia Green Group, Co-Founder of Rare Whiskey Holdings, and Co-Founder of Audacy Ventures
This episode is brought to you by
A family member’s career in the family business often begins with the famous ‘call to action’. But a long and often challenging journey lies between taking that call and building a career that brings fulfilment to oneself and opportunities to the family. Navigating the complex mix of expectations and obligations can bring unforeseen shifts in relationship dynamics and challenge what success means. After working in her family’s diversified business, Asia Green Group, Peninsular Malaysia’s largest plywood manufacturing and production company, for a few years, Li Tan recognised that striking out on her own would help her be better prepared to find success in her family’s business.
In this episode, Li Tan, Chief Strategy Officer of Asia Green Group, Co-Founder of Rare Whiskey Holdings, and Co-Founder of Audacy Ventures, discusses the expectations next-generation members confront after joining the family business, what lessons they can draw from building their own business, and the crucial role communication plays in enabling healthy family-work relationships.
- Measuring success in the family business shouldn’t be solely based on the validation of family members. Instead, a better approach is to recognise that success can take many forms. For example, the impact and value one brings to the lives of others is a metric that usually signifies accomplishment. But success in obtaining personal freedom and mental well-being often grows in importance as professional journeys lengthen.
- Entrepreneurial experiences sometimes lead to a better understanding of one’s business-owning parents and having compassion for the challenges they have faced. A healthy family relationship should ultimately take priority over the status of their working relationship.
- Managing the expectations of others in a family business begins with personal honesty. Asking questions such as, “Can I do this?” “How would that make me feel?” “How would it impact me or others if I don’t meet their exceptions?” can provide the internal clarity that should be externally communicated to family business members. But honest communication also needs to go both ways, with all parties open to each other’s sensibilities.
- Emotional intelligence has become even more important as a management skill, in part, because of the effect technology-driven change has had on widening the gaps between generations. Leaders with strong emotional intelligence attributes are better equipped to interact with diverse ages and personality types necessary for success in today’s business landscape.
Ramia: Welcome everyone to another episode of women in family business. I am particularly pleased and honoured to welcome my guest, Li Tan. She is the Chief Strategy Officer of her family business, Asia Green Group. She is also a serial entrepreneur, and that is something we are going to define in this episode. Welcome to the podcast.
Li: Well, thank you for having me.
Ramia: We are very excited about your story. Do you want to maybe tell us a little bit more about how your family built the company?
Li: Yeah, sure. Asia Green Group was actually founded by my father. He singlehandedly built the group or the holding company. In 1995, he purchased this company called Asia Plywood. That company was actually established in 1964. At that time, it was a plywood manufacturing company. He actually grew the company, and now is the biggest plywood manufacturing in the peninsula of Malaysia.
My brother joined him in 2016 and since his joining the company, actually now have like more business lines. We are now in forestry and recently, we are going into reforestation, more of a green conscious. My dad did not stop there. He actually decided to launch a real estate development company 20 years ago. In 2003, that is where I actually got called back and join him into building that business sector. I joined him in 2007, actually. That is when the financial crisis hit, and I was doing banking back then, so he is like, “You should come home.
So that is the two main business lines that we have, two main businesses that we have. Now, the real estate company is actually being headed by my one of my sisters. Backstory, I actually have four sisters and a brother. I am actually the eldest, so there is six of us. Family business, hence a lot of family members are involved.
Ramia: Can you tell us a little bit more what that was like for you, growing up with a dad that must have been extremely focused on work and then met with this incredible success?
Li: Growing up, I understand things that he was involved in. But in terms of the scale of things, I actually had no idea until I joined the business. Even when I was in the business, it took me a long time until I really fully understand the amount and the scale of things. I would say knowing what he was doing, to learning about the business, to then looking at the numbers. I would have done it slightly differently for my potential future kids, but I think the way he introduced it … I think, in a way, it is good because then I was taught to be very humble. I did not know anything, really. I was like, “Okay, well, he has a business,” and that is the end of the discussion, right?
Ramia: Do you think that is why he did it?
Li: I felt like he wanted to protect us from knowing too much or be too comfortable. That was his reasoning, but he would never share that. He is like, “Oh, I did it for your own good.” But he will never say that, “It was because I was trying to protect you.” Very, very Chinese. Very conservative type of man.
Ramia: You have this image of a parent, growing up. There is a lot of respect, and they do show you part of the work that they do. You understand what they are doing. But then you join them in the workplace … Did it change your relationship with your dad? Or did it change your perception of what kind of a person he is, or what he is good at, and what his strengths and weaknesses are? Actually, same question for when your siblings started joining the business then afterwards.
Li: As the eldest, I was the first to join the family business. I think my dad was also new to this, not that he joined his father. He created this and then I joined him, him being the first generation. I remember going to work and I went into his office, and I say, “Mr. Tan, good morning.” He said, “Why are you calling me Mr. Tan? I am your father,” and I was like, “I am not going to be calling you Dad in the office. This is work. I am your daughter at home, but here I am one of the employees.”
That was a very strange, strange situation. That goes to show you that my dad was not able to draw the line. Hence, our relationship got pretty … It definitely brought some damage to the relationship at the very beginning, because it was hard for him to say, “Hey, we are in the office, and this is only work. Work stays in the office.” When we go home, if he was unhappy with me in the office, he would bring that to the dinner table, and that was difficult. I always say, “Okay, I have had enough today. Can I just relax, have dinner with my dad and not my boss, right? That is that.” That was one of the most, I say challenging things that happened between us.
Then on top of that, he had very high expectation. My dad did not actually finish school. He quit school when he was 11 because he came from a very, very poor background. Then he sent me to school in the States and I had all this education. Of course, he expected more from me. When I was not able to meet his expectation, then he got very disappointed, and then I got very disappointed with myself for disappointing my dad. So, that really was a very painful to go through.
Then when my siblings joined, I think between me and my siblings it was okay because we have always been very, very close growing up. Being the eldest, I have always played the protector. If something happened, if my sister did something wrong, or my brother did something wrong, my initial reaction is to go and protect them. I eventually learned to let go. I say it is their journey. They have to learn. I cannot keep pulling them back when they are about to fall, then they would never learn a lesson. That was one of the tougher points. They have to grow out eventually, and be their own person. It was tough. It was tough to watch, but at the same time, very, very proud of them today.
Ramia: I think you pointed out such an important thing. When you are the eldest child of founder, you are the first succession moment in the family business. How has that definition changed for you over the years that you have been active with the family business?
Li: When I first started working, I will say definitely in my 20s, well into my mid-30s, it has always been validation from my father. It’s not about what other people think of me. It’s about what my father thinks about what I am doing and how I am doing. “Is he proud? Is he mad?” has always been my questions. The success is always like, I just wanted to hear from him that he is proud of me. That validation that I was after, and that was my measure of success.
As I started my own journey, I also start looking at the numbers in a bank account. Of course, that became very important. Making sure I am feeding the team and everyone is happy and well-compensated. I would say now, 10 years into things, and now I am turning 40, I think things have changed. My priorities have changed. I think that says to me now like, “How big of an impact am I making in people’s life? To the people around me, the society that I am in, am I bringing value?” That’s how I am measuring success now.
A step above that, do I have the freedom to take care of my wellbeing? Mentally and physically, I think, as well as emotionally, I think those became more important as we go along the journey. Success comes in different forms now, I say.
Ramia: Nothing more rewarding than creating success as a family, but then I think you learned so much as well from striking out on your own and finding your own fulfillment. When did it become apparent to you that you could actually do both, like you could fulfill the responsibilities towards your family, but you could also look into industries that interests you, that make you passionate? When did that that tipping point happen for you?
Li: I actually took a break from the family business. I realise until I know and I have the confidence to take over the family enterprise one day, I am going to have to go and earn it. It’s not about keep working for the family, but it is to venture out there and start something on my own. Because I feel like when I was working for the family, I was in my 20s and a big part of me was very naïve. Because things were already established, so I never really had to fight for it. I was more of just doing things and just trying to please my dad and try to grow the company he was doing and following his vision. So, I decided to leave, and I told my dad, “I will be back. Give me some time. I’m going to go find myself.”
I moved here to Hong Kong, found a job selling private jets to the Chinese, and it was an experience for sure. China was up and coming in private jets. I was like, “What am I doing?” But that helped me build my network here in Greater China, so I am very thankful for that experience. Then, because of that, I got to meet one of my business partners, who started the whiskey fund alongside, and so we managed to do that.
Then because I know I have always been interested in finance and investing because that has always been my background, so I wanted to do something and build a name for myself so that my dad could see me on a very different light. No longer is just my daughter who is going to follow my instructions and do things I tell her to do, but she has a mind of her own and she is daring, and be willing to take risks and do stuff. That’s how that started. In the midst of it, of course, it was never that easy. Then you have the pressure of making sure that you are performing. Investors are happy, you have good results, and you are able to exit in the end and make the investors the money that we promised to make.
That was the journey but then in the middle of it all, my dad actually got ill. So, I then flew back home. Had a conversation with him. He said that, “I still need your help. When will you be able to come home?” I said that, “I am in the middle of office. I still have two more years until I am fully done with the fund.” He would say, “Okay, can you do it part-time, then?” Of course, I say yes. That is when I decided to rejoin the family business. This time around, knowing that my sister is running the real estate business and my brother is doing the plywood in the forestry business, then I decided to be the sounding board and the strategy person. Then, at the same time, we have to … I actually assigned myself to help run the family office, take care of the family fund and investment portfolio. That was how it all started. I do believe that everything has its own timing. I wasn’t ready, and I needed that time to grow up.
Ramia: How was your mindset different, joining the second time around?
Li: Definitely very different mindset. I think because I have now the experience of running my own business, I understand my dad a lot more. I was able to be more compassionate towards him when things did not go right or he got upset. I now understand why he would be upset. I also made a conscious decision and say, “When he is upset, I no longer want to fight.” That was very important. I think that is part of growing up. Part of being more mature in dealing with my dad as also my dad, as much as he is my boss. I did go in and say, “Dad, I want to be your partner. I don’t want to be your employee or your daughter, if this is going to happen.”
I think I tried to manage and tried to do as much disclaimers as possible when I joined the second time. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But then it does not matter because I think it is important that I have the right mindset going in, rather than just join and let history repeat itself. I don’t want to lose my dad. I cannot join the family business, but I do not want to not have my dad as my dad.
Ramia: I always say, anyone who is part of family enterprise or a family business, there is a lot of expectations from our families, from the business, from society. What do you do to manage these expectations?
Li: I say this with everything I do in life. You have to be honest with yourself. There are going to be expectations that are pushed on to you, and you have to be honest and say, “Okay, can I do this? Can I deliver? How would I feel? How would that impact me? And if I don’t deliver, how would that impact the other family members or the people around me?”
Once I have that clarity, then I always choose to communicate. I will confront and I will communicate over. I think the timing of communication is also very important. Don’t bring up a very sensitive topic when everyone is having fun, but pick and choose a time where you could actually communicate. Everyone is in a mood to receive such comments. Yes, I do not shy away from telling them how I feel and what I think.
I think sometimes, I would say things and not everyone is pleased with the comments or my thoughts, but eventually things work out. I think you have to stay very fairly consistent. I guess you have to be very persistent in things you believe in, because I am honest. I want you to understand where this is coming from, but I also am open to hear what you have to say about it. I am open-minded at the same time, not just going to be like, “This is how I feel, what I think, and take it or leave it.” When I say open communication, I meant it is both ways.
Ramia: What do you think are the skills and the mindsets we need to bring to the family enterprise and any venture that we start, in order to be successful today?
Li: In the past, I think as the family legacy, we always talk about values. Values should never change. The core of it, the core values should always stay. But in today’s day and age, you have one new iPhone every year. You have to catch up. Every three years, it’s now a new generation. Unfortunately, that is the truth. Bigger than all that, you have global warming. It’s real. We cannot just avoid that.
I think in terms of new skills, definitely we now need to use technology to help us to move forward. Natural science is another thing. I think there’s two areas I have been spending a little bit more time doing and putting more capital, fronting some of the up-and-coming companies hoping to make an impact with our climate issues as well as the society. Food shortage and all that it is also very real. So, hoping that we could solve some kind of issues there. Then I think in terms of skill, I am not going to be an engineer or anything, because I am way too old to go back to school now.
I think emotional intelligence is way more important now than ever. Being able to manage people is only going to get more challenging as the society … As the generation gap increases because, again, things are changing so rapidly. I would say, between me and my brother who are 10 years apart, the things that we were handling with, it is also very different now. His group of friends and my group of friends are almost from two different worlds, even though it is just 10 years.
Yeah, I think having the emotional intelligence to be able to deal with people from all ages is probably like, I would say, one of the most important skills to learn and be able to deal with scientists and I guess the tech bros, if you will. They are very different type of people. Personally, I am learning to be better at this and not get upset of like, “Hey, where is the financial projection?” when a scientist looks at me like I’m a crazy person.
Ramia: Any advice for family business members out there as to how to make a success of it, or how to know when to leave?
Li: I think everything starts from yourself. You have to know if mentally you can no longer handle it, it’s best that you just walk, knowing that the obligations, the … I do not want to use the word burden or responsibilities. I think in a way, it is a blessing. You have to know that your family is there.
I think the word family business is family has to come before business, so knowing that relationship should be your priority, not the business. If you do not have a good relationship, you are not going to have a good business. I think that is very clear to me. I think I would want to share that with everyone. I think because I now have a better relationship with my dad, I have a better relationship with my siblings, we all are able to work together and that is how we grow together. I think that is very important.
Once you know that emotionally and mentally you are not in a good place, you know that it is time to take a break. There is nothing wrong about taking a break. In a Chinese saying, a break is meant for a longer journey ahead. That is the direct translation. Yeah, don’t be afraid to take a break when you know … You will know when your body, your mind and your heart sometimes will need a break.
Ramia: Fantastic. While you are all taking that break, please listen to this episode with Li Tan. Li, thank you so much for joining us on Women in Family Business.
Li: Thank you.
Ramia: We really appreciate it.
This interview is part of the special series “Agile Minds: How Family Enterprises Evolve” in collaboration with KPMG Private Enterprise.
About KPMG Private Enterprise
KPMG Private Enterprise is dedicated to working with business families and understands that the nature of a family business is inherently different from a non-family business and requires an approach that considers the family component. No matter where you are in your growth journey – whether you’re looking to reach new heights, embrace technology, plan for an exit, or manage the transition of wealth or your business to the next generation – working with KPMG Private Enterprise, you’ll gain access to trusted advisers who share (RC) your entrepreneurial mindset.
The KPMG name and logo are trademarks used under license by the independent member firms of the KPMG global organisation.