Interview with Yong Yoon Li, Executive Director, Royal Selangor, Malaysia
This is the story of a family whose love for pewter has grown the family business into a global enterprise. Royal Selangor was founded by pewtersmith Yong Koon in 1885. He left his native village in China to move to Malaysia where he started the business with a focus on making ceremonial vessels for the ancestral altars of Chinese tin. Staying true to its core activity in the pewter production, the family business has continuously innovated in the design of its products and expanded its range to lifestyle items, creating customised designs for luxury brands and exclusive trophies for the Formula One races in Malaysia, Singapore and China, Shanghai ATP 1000 Masters, and the Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia Golf Tournament.
Royal Selangor is today a fourth generation family business that has survived world wars, family feuds and an ever-changing economic landscape. The business has employees across Kuala Lumpur and Singapore to Shanghai, London, Toronto, Melbourne, Hong Kong and Tokyo. Yong Yoon Li joined the family business in 2005 and currently holds the position of Executive Director. Responsible for the design, manufacturing and marketing of Royal Selangor products, it is his mission to ensure that the family business continues to be relevant to today’s discerning consumers and to carry on the legacy of his family.
In the third generation, there are four family members involved in the business which includes Yong Yoon Li’s father, Yong Poh Kon, his brother and his two sisters. His two older siblings are officially retired but they still continue to contribute in the business on specific projects.
Part of the 4th generation, Yong Yoon Li and his cousin Tien Yue now work full time as Executive Directors. Two other cousins work part time: Chris, who has years of experience in design, helps to oversee the design department while May Foon, who was working as a gemmologist in Australia, is now Creative Director of Royal Selangor’s fine jewellery brand, Selberan.
Your family business has been through many changes, some voluntary and some forced through the evolution of its immediate environment. Looking back, what do you believe have been the most crucial strategic decisions in your family business history?
I feel that the most crucial strategic decision was to remain focused on and true to our craft. With that in mind, everything else became simpler – we have attempted to build on our strengths and designed beautiful items that connected with our customers throughout the years. We continue to focus on enduring designs as well as on our heritage and craftsmanship, and we built a brand that is true to its name.
This strategy continues to be relevant today as we move into a new century and in view of the younger generation taking over. Although we have married pewter with other materials such as glass, wood, porcelain and high quality acrylic, our biggest investment still lies in designing beautiful products for our customers.
Royal Selangor has been greatly successful in diversifying from its core business in pewter into other industries. How was your family able to replicate competitive advantage into different directions?
With fine jewellery and silver, we actually haven’t really ventured very far from our core business. In fact our various other companies complement one another when it comes to providing a complete offering to our customers. Our fine jewellery business, Selberan, offers high quality bespoke jewellery; while Comyns, our heritage sterling silver brand, has wonderful heirloom pieces for the home.
As I mentioned previously, the family has remained very focused and disciplined when it comes to managing the business. We take calculated steps and weigh opportunities before taking the plunge. In a way, we see ourselves as stewards of the business, ensuring that it is still vibrant and exciting for future generations to own; hence our strategy is creating longevity rather than making quick profits.
Your family has shown an ardent passion for the careful design and execution of all its products and services. What do you believe are the particular characteristics of your family that enable growth?
I think it’s a spirit of innovation that has enabled us to grow. From generation to generation, we have always managed to evolve the brand by being creative – not just in product development but also in manufacturing and marketing.
What are the particular challenges that family businesses with real economy activities face nowadays?
The challenges confronted by family businesses are no different from what other businesses are facing. The Chinese economy, for instance, may be a threat to some businesses but it is also an opportunity for others. The market is also becoming more and more fragmented and it is becoming increasingly difficult to reach customers through traditional forms of distribution. There is hardly any brand loyalty. Hence marketers need to be constantly on their toes to engage with their customers and keep their offering fresh and exciting.
We believe that family businesses such as ours have an advantage in such a landscape because we have an authentic story to tell. The Royal Selangor story is fun to tell because it is about a real family passionately involved in a business that has survived two world wars and handed down its legacy over four generations!
Tharawat Magazine, Issue 19, 2013