When it comes to next-generation involvement in the family business, there is no definitive model for success. Family businesses are as unique as the goods and services they provide, and circumstances of succession are similarly exceptional.

Phyllis Ong’s career, which eventually led back to the family business, took an indirect route. While she became established in her own right taking on managerial positions at Beiersdorf and later Johnson & Johnson, she remained unaware of the pre-eminent position her family’s firm, Armstrong Industrial Corporation, had been carving out for itself. Asia’s leader in noise, vibration, and heat management solutions (NVH), Armstrong currently employs 3800 people across seven countries.

Her story of coming home with a decade of external business experience provides a favourable case study of what the next generation can bring to the family business.

Recently, Tharawat Magazine had the opportunity to speak with Phyllis Ong, Deputy CEO of Armstrong, about her circuitous professional journey, the learning curve that came with her new position in the family business, and the realities of conducting business in a fast-paced and ever-changing environment.

PICTURE: Eugene and Phyllis Ong, courtesy of Armstrong
PICTURE: Eugene and Phyllis Ong, courtesy of Armstrong

Tell us more about the entrepreneurial story of your family business. How did they build Armstrong and what was it like 44 years ago when they started?

It’s interesting because my father initially set up this company for a friend. He had his own job at the time, and he was trying to help an associate who had always been very kind to him. Despite the best intentions, this entrepreneurial role was not suitable for the friend, and so my father decided to step in and take the reins. This would be his first formal taste of entrepreneurship and was highly motivated by the fact that he had grown up with very little.

When I was young, there were nights when he wouldn’t come home until 3 AM and had to go back to work at 6 AM. His generation never complained about things like that. Both my parents just worked hard and got on with life. As entrepreneurs, they had to make incredible sacrifices just to get through the tough times.

Those experiences made my father extremely resilient. It taught him the value of never giving up. This instilled trust in his partners – here is a man who loves his work and honours what he says.

What was the turning point for Armstrong?

Originally my parents were in the auto-parts industry, buying supplies from all over the world to sell to automotive companies in Malaysia, Singapore, and elsewhere in the region. They soon discovered that the foam and rubber products they stocked were ideal for technical dampening, insulating, sealing and cushioning functions. They saw an opportunity and set out to start making these products in-house.

In 1988, my father established a very strong relationship with the Japanese conglomerate Bridgestone. This was huge for us. In those days if you said, ‘I’m from Armstrong,’ nobody was interested. However, he was persistent and trustworthy enough that Bridgestone set up a joint venture with him called Bridgestone-Armstrong. All of a sudden, doors flew open. Other potential partners began to see the family business as a reliable and credible supplier because a huge organisation like Bridgestone doesn’t partner with just anyone.

PICTURE: Auto insertion for high precision components, courtesy of ArmstrongWhat was it like when you entered the picture at Armstrong?

When I came in, most of the staff had already been here for 15 to 20 years. In some ways, they were more like my parents’ children because they saw each other every day and my father typically works quite closely with people. When I arrived, my priority was to learn as much as I could about our operation and our customers. I believe that customers define you as a company and I was surprised to learn that so many of the top global brands are our direct customers. I was under the impression that we were a small player selling foam and rubber things, I had no idea. I was like, ‘Wow, you have Audi, Volkswagen, Mercedes Benz, Seagate, Western Digital, Sony, Panasonic and Yamaha’

It was only after the first few years that I started to embrace the immense responsibility of being part of a business-owning family. My parents gave more than 40 years of their lives to this business, and I’m deeply invested in ensuring its longevity. My perspective has changed significantly compared to when I came in thinking, ‘Oh, I can just give some support here and there and then say bye after two years.’