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It was a curious sight. A boy, just a shade taller than a metre, hoisting his arms above his head to hold on to the handlebar of the shopping cart while traversing the supermarket aisles without parental supervision. He would occasionally fish out a handwritten grocery list from his pocket and scan it for the next item he needed to buy while making sure the money his parents had entrusted to him was safely ensconced in the other pocket.
These supermarket expeditions were pivotal to Glenn Tan’s growing-up years. “My parents travelled a lot, so from young, my siblings and I were taught to be independent. To me, it seemed normal to be alone at the supermarket,” Tan reminisces.
Being a child, he was naturally tempted to indulge with the cash in his hands. But buying a chocolate bar or a McDonald’s meal meant lesser money for other household essentials. Others his age studied Saturday cartoons. Tan learned to budget.
It’s a lesson he’s passed on to his daughters – Georgia, 5, and her sister Carla, who will soon be 4. Tan teaches them the value of money and reminds them that nothing comes to them on a silver platter. In his household, crying accomplishes nothing.
“My wife and I make it very clear that if they want something, they will have to explain why they need it. If they cry, they go back to their rooms and don’t get anything. It’s taught them to be responsible,” says Tan.
The managing director of Tan Chong International (TCI) is also a big believer in the power of play. He regularly buys toys for his girls, much to the chagrin of his wife who has to deal with a growing pile of playthings. “I feel that playing with toys builds their imagination, and that’s important. I limit their digital screen time to an hour or two a day.”
While their parents have been teaching them the keys to navigate this world, the girls have also taught them many valuable lessons. Tan says they have taught him patience – a quality he used to be in short supply of – and perspective. The latter has proven to be useful in business, helping Tan to put himself in the shoes of the party on the other side of the table.
It’s a lesson Tan has imparted to the people in his organisation as well and he encourages them to ask as many questions as possible and to understand the other party’s perspective before coming to a decision.
Age and children have not blunted his sharp business sense and legendary explosive temper. To his credit, and true to his honest, straightforward nature, Tan doesn’t shy away from the words exchanged in hushed undertones about his eruptions. For him, the equation is simple: if you do not perform, you need to buck up. “This is not just a job to me. My family owns a majority of the company. Ensuring that the business runs smoothly is my responsibility. If you screw up, you are burning my family’s money. I cannot in good conscience allow you to do that,” Tan explains.
Tan is not bothered by the pointed criticism of his management style. A man of action, who wants to get things done, he hires people with the same attitude. Tan does not care about your educational qualifications nor your background. He is prepared to give anyone a chance as long as they are willing to work as hard as he does.
It’s a philosophy that has enabled Tan to safely guide the subsidiaries under his care past some of the most trying times in the organisation’s history – the bigger flashpoints being the 2008 global financial meltdown and, presently, the Covid-19 pandemic. No stranger to crises, he adopts a Zen-like attitude when tackling such problems. “The more you let fear get to you, the worse everything will become. To me, it is most important to be clear and decisive in what needs to be done, so there is stability for everybody and it is easier for your people to function in a crisis,” explains Tan.
His leadership quality came to the fore when the South-east Asian countries he has business interests in began shutting borders and issuing movement restrictions to their citizens. Tan and his team worked around the clock to ensure daily operations and business in the different cities in the region could carry on as usual, despite the lockdown.
His razor-sharp business acumen served him well during this time, too. Tan shares a debate he had with staff regarding car stock orders at the beginning of this year when Covid-19 was a mere footnote. An employee was bullish about sales prospects and questioned the reasoning behind his conservative projections. Tan preached caution because of the uncertainty caused by this new virus. Naturally, he was right.
Tan is also cautious about electrification in the motor vehicle industry. “Yes, it is coming because of climate change. Nissan has been at this for a long time. In the future, the carmaker will introduce either an electrified or hybrid variant for every model in our lineup. Even Subaru is going to introduce more hybrid models in the future,” shares Tan.
What he’s less certain about is ground sentiments and infrastructure. Tan believes consumer acceptance is going to take time and a lot of work. The bigger challenge he foresees is building a robust charging infrastructure.
“It’s easier to build in Singapore, but it’s still a challenge. What about bigger cities such as Malaysia or even parts of Europe? In the city, you can probably develop a full infrastructure. But when you go to the outskirts, where will you charge the car? These are the problems that government regulators need to sort out,” opines Tan.
Tan is even less optimistic about car-sharing. His pessimism, however, is more about numbers and less about other extenuating factors. While it might make sense in densely populated urban areas, the same logic doesn’t apply in the suburbs where there are fewer people and cars.
Even in Singapore, Tan suspects that car-sharing has peaked. “There seem to be more available vehicles than drivers. Car-sharing operators have been subsidising the full cost, so when the actual cost is priced in, people aren’t willing to pay. Car-sharing serves a particular need and that’s the problem; it’s just transportation.”
Tan is an ardent believer in the customer journey. Because of TCI’s unique position – it controls the entire value chain from production to sales – Tan is better able to understand the nuances and, subsequently, changes in the automotive business. He has witnessed first-hand the customer’s evolution and noticed an important trend: brand loyalty is dead. “Today, if I want to buy a car, I’ll do my research online. Based on my needs now, I will determine the car to purchase from there.”
He’s responding to this trend by improving the customer experience. It’s no longer just about selling the car but engaging them at the point when they begin looking for automotive options. Tan stresses the importance of understanding the customer’s needs and providing solutions that fulfil these desires.
Social media has also dramatically changed the way cars are being sold. “Now, customers want to know how a car will become not only a part of their lifestyle but also their social media life.”
And while he is not bullish about car sharing, Tan has spotted an opportunity. He is exploring the idea of converting a former showroom in Toa Payoh into an automated parking system and car workshop.
The idea is simple: private-hire drivers drop off their cars at the facility for servicing and receive another car to continue picking up passengers. With no downtime, these drivers can earn more money. The beauty of automation means that the facility can be open 24 hours, seven days of the week. Tan plans to begin construction next year and, if all goes well, envisions that it will be up and running in 2023.
This diversification strategy has become an important cornerstone of Tan’s vision for the organisation. Other than the automotive business, TCI owns multiple subsidiaries across Asia that manage different offshoots – property, F&B and even waste management. When considering new opportunities, he looks for synergies between his current business interests and future ventures. For him, diversification enables the organisation to be nimble and flexible.
With so much on his plate, Tan turns contemplative at the question of burnout looming large in the rear-view mirror. In January this year, his mother, a pioneer within the fashion industry, passed away. She battled leukaemia for a year before succumbing to the disease. They were very close. Both Christians, they would visit the Barker Road Methodist Church together. Coincidentally, four days before her passing on a Saturday, Tan had written a prayer about God’s will that he was going to read out in church.
“It showed me that my mum’s passing was God’s will. You cannot question why. I think my faith is the reason why I’ve been able to go back to regular life for a majority of the time. If you ask me, I’m still not great but I am certainly not where I was three months ago.”
The massive turnout at her funeral also moved him quite a bit. It reminded Tan of the incredible impact she had on so many people throughout her career.
How incredible? On the third day of the wake, Tan received word that florists around Singapore had run out of flowers. She’d always loved flowers, so everyone bought her favourites to remember her by.
Ever since then, Tan has been reconsidering his single-minded devotion to his business, sometimes at the expense of everything else. “In the past, my whole life revolved around the business. That was a big mistake,” he says. His aim now is more holistic. “My mum truly set the benchmark high. She was always helping people without a thought for what she got back. I want to continue her legacy.”
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“This is not just a job to me. My family owns a majority of the company. Ensuring that the business runs smoothly is my responsibility... If you screw up, you are burning my family’s money.”
“In the past, my whole life revolved around the business. That was a big mistake.”
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