Preparing the “Now Generation” of Asian Family Businesses

Interview with Felicia Heng, Executive Director, FBN Asia, Singapore

Image via Shutterstock.

Through research, capacity building and education, Felicia Heng, Executive Director of FBN Asia, fosters a conducive environment for family relationship health and communal wellbeing.

Heng began her professional journey in Singapore’s Ministry of Defence as an organisational psychologist specialising in psychometric testing and leadership development. When she transitioned away from public work, she shifted her focus to succession planning, executive coaching and private wealth management in the finance sector.

Today, Heng spends much of her time in collaboration with FBN Asia members addressing the core issues of family business: interpersonal dynamics, governance and succession. Where the latter is concerned, Heng’s work demonstrates that the preparation and engagement of future leaders is only part of a successful transition. Building empathy and bridging the generational divide is also critical. 

Balancing the interests of the rising Now Gen* leaders and their elders is a matter of strengthening family identity, building empathy and rediscovering shared values achievable goals, Heng asserts, as long as family members take the initiative to start the conversation. 

We had the opportunity to sit down with Felicia Heng to discuss this balance and the future of Asian family businesses.

Felicia Heng - Executive Director of FBN Asia
Image courtesy of Felicia Heng, Executive Director of FBN Asia

What inspired FBN Asia’s founding? 

FBN Asia started in 2008 – the same time as the global economic crisis. We quickly became a valuable resource, not so much for discussing how the crisis affected the business side of things, but rather, for exchanging best practices on mitigating the impact of environmental stressors.

The correlation between the health of family relationships and health of the family business was immediately apparent: those with shared values, a robust sense of family identity and highly developed communication stood a better chance at not just surviving but even thriving through the tumult.

What characteristics define Asian family businesses?

Asian family businesses boast a singular resilience. Time and again, they demonstrate the ability to regenerate – to lose everything and come back stronger.

They are forward-facing. For example, when they come to us for help with a family constitution, they always emphasise their wish to stay relevant, engage with their communities and innovate for future generations. Philanthropy plays a central role. Families cannot stay relevant and have an impact unless they are doing right in their surrounding environment.

Tradition still plays an integral role, and because of it, Asian family businesses tend to operate differently than their peers around the world. That said, Asia itself is a diverse and complex continent. Practices differ widely from South East Asia to India, China and Japan. Japanese families, for example, have well-established succession structures where lineage is clearly defined and predetermined by cultural factors. Power moves through male heirs, and families without a son will essentially adopt one when their daughter marries. As a result, many Japanese family businesses can trace their lineage back hundreds of years.

“…Their decisions have the potential to define the business’s trajectory…The stakes are high.”

How are Asian family businesses changing?

A new generation segment has emerged – we call them the Now Generation or Now Gen.

Now Gens are defined by a life stage where responsibilities and accountabilities are more material than when they were next-gens. Most tend to be between 35-55, but age is not what defines them. Unlike next-gens, they occupy significant leadership roles in the business or are actively engaged in the family’s governance (e.g., Boards, family office, family council). Simply put, their decisions have the potential to define the business’s trajectory. Therefore, the stakes are high, and miscalculations can be “fatal” for the business.

They find themselves at a point where traditional business models are becoming increasingly disruptive, and business cycles are getting shorter. Often, they feel pulled in opposite directions by having to manage their predecessor’s conservative ideals while simultaneously attempting to integrate the disruptive technology they see.

The technological aspect is changing the way we think about business, much like how social media is impacting business on every front.

More importantly, we’re experiencing a significant shift in terms of how businesses see their role in society. The Now Gens in our network are socially conscious; they’re motivated by the triple bottom line – people, planet and profit.

Do Now Gens typically want to get involved in the family business?

Some do completely of their own volition; others are compelled by a sense of responsibility to the family. Regardless, it’s heartening to see the openness and creativity they bring. Those that do get involved are exploring the full range of options, from family office opportunities to philanthropic endeavours and impact investing.

When it comes to their involvement, one of the most significant challenges is the globalised economy and the opportunities it provides. In many cases, the cultural and generational divide serves as a challenge to collaboration across generations.

“We must be conscious about what it means to be human, to have a business, and what place that business has in the world.”

How have Asian family businesses adapted to digitalisation?

Many family businesses across first-world city-states in Asia adopted the technology early, seeing it as an opportunity rather than something to be afraid of.

For instance, in Singapore and Hong Kong, where markets are dynamic, easily accessible and move at the speed of light, digitisation occurred out of necessity. In many places, cost and consumer demands have made it increasingly difficult to carry out manufacturing and distribution processes in the old manual ways.

Digitisation is an outcome from which nobody can escape, and it’s only part of a much wider technological revolution. Some of the business families in our network exist at the forefront of biomedical AI, robotics and chatbot technology.

Definitions around capitalism that we take for granted are being challenged. We must be conscious about what it means to be human, to have a business, and what place that business has in the world.

What are some highlights of your tenure with FBN Asia?

It is an honour to serve in the space between private and public, family and business. To provide future generations with more than we have received is an intrinsically human, perhaps even biological, ambition. This goal, and the determination to achieve it, is never more apparent than in family businesses. Understanding and appreciating legacy makes us the custodians of tomorrow.

I love seeing the leaders we work with stand up for constructive change. Their assertiveness heightens engagement in the family business and strengthens the network as a whole.

What would you like to see Asian family businesses concentrating on to prepare for the future? 

Problem-solving in the family business revolves around the ability to start conversations and build empathy. The sustainability of Asian family businesses – and family businesses everywhere, for that matter – depends on it.

We have to embrace even the most challenging issues, airing topics that typically don’t make it outside of the family sphere if they’re discussed at all. This means addressing fiscal inequality, in-laws, disability and marriage, which, within the Asian context, are still delicate issues.

We must continue to create safe spaces for family business members to show vulnerability and have authentic conversations. This is especially true in a world of social media, where information is public and everyone is connected. Cultivating private, meaningful interaction is more important than ever.

*At the time of publication, the labels “Now Generation”, “Now Gen” and “NowGen” have been filed for trademark protection with the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (IPOS).