SCALING GREATER HEIGHTS
“In life, it is difficult to say that what one would have done differently. I believe in the story of how the fluttering of the wings of a butterfly can set off a consequence in something deemed entirely remote.”
After graduating from the National University of Singapore in 1984, Ms Chew Gek Khim took up her grandfather’s offer to join the family business following a three-year stint at Drew & Napier. Today, she is the Executive Chairman of The Straits Trading Company Limited, founded in 1887 as a tin smelting company but is today an investment company with diversified interests across the Asia Pacific. First appointed Non-Executive and Non-Independent Chairman in 2008, she has since held the position of Executive Chairman from 1 November 2009.
Ms Chew is also Executive Chairman of the Tecity Group, which she joined in 1987. She is Chairman of Malaysia Smelting Corporation Berhad and ARA Trust Management (Suntec) Limited, and sits on the Board of ARA Asset Management Holdings Pte Ltd as well as Singapore Exchange Limited.
The Deputy Chairman of Tan Chin Tuan Foundation in Singapore and Chairman of Tan Sri Tan Foundation in Malaysia, Ms Chew is also a Member both of the Securities Industry Council of Singapore as well as the Board of Governors of S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. She was Chairman of the National Environment Agency Board of Singapore from 2008 to 2015, and was previously a Director of CapitaLand Retail China Trust (formerly CapitaRetail China Trust Management Limited), a Board Member of the Singapore Totalisator Board, and a Member of the SSO Council.
An accomplished leader and well-respected figure in the corporate field, Ms Chew was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite in 2010, the Singapore Businessman of the Year 2014 at the Singapore Business Awards, and the Meritorious Service Medal at the National Day Awards in 2016.
What were some of the hardest challenges you had to overcome in your initial years following your joining the family business?
One of my toughest challenges was building up a new skill set. I had worked as a lawyer in a law firm and practised law but I had never conducted business before. I did not study accounting and I had to learn how to read a set of accounts. I also needed to understand how businesses operated.
What is one advice you would give to second- and third-generation entrepreneurs taking over their family businesses?
If you have very good familial relations with the person you are working with, do not let work ruin it. When I asked to work with my grandfather, one of my conditions was that it should not affect our relationship as grandfather and granddaughter. Hence, I suggested to him that we would try the working relationship for two years. If at the end of two years, he found me unsuitable or if I did not like the job, we would part ways amicably. That way, we would continue to have a good relationship as grandfather and granddaughter.
Was your grandfather strict in his professional expectations toward you, regardless of how he doted on you as his granddaughter?
I think my grandfather tried his best to be professional in his behaviour towards all family members. To illustrate, all of us who worked for him had to write to him and address him as “Tan Sri”. He also tried to treat all family members who worked for him no differently from any of his professional staff.
From its purely tin smelting days, Straits Trading has undergone a major overhaul. Will we see further diversification or transformation of your business? Are there more phases to the overhaul?
There is no further diversification for now, but it would be unrealistic to say that a business cannot diversify further in the future. I would not describe these changes as “phases to overhaul” but rather a form of business evolution and capturing opportunities to make new investments in the same field.
What would you consider to be some of your better judgement calls?
My better judgement calls have been to accept my limitations and to try to find good partners and good CEOs to help me.
Is there anything you would have done differently? If so, what is it?
In life, it is difficult to say that what one would have done differently.
I believe in the story of how the fluttering of the wings of a butterfly can set off a consequence in something deemed entirely remote. A different action would or could easily lead to a host of different consequences.
How do you keep the company up to date and/or take it forward?
We try to keep up to date by reading, arranging for talks with experts from various disciplines, and generally encouraging our staff to keep learning. I don’t think it is possible to prepare entirely for the worst. Everything depends on the circumstance, and I don’t think one can generalise. It is very difficult to prepare for the worst.
To what would you attribute your success as a businesswoman? Is it tenacity, sheer hard work, or does good fortune or “luck” play a part?
It is too early for me to say I have been successful for my life is not yet over. There may be successes or failures or interesting adventures yet to happen. Having said that, I have found that hard work, tenacity, luck and good fortune all play a part in business.
What kind of philanthropic work do you support or are involved in personally?
The Tan Chin Tuan Foundation was started in 1976 by my late grandfather at a time when Singapore was a developing country. The constitution stated that it must help the poor, the widowed and the orphaned. Today, many of these needs have been met. As a result, we try to “fill the gaps” in the philanthropic sector by being an “aggregator”, “educator” and “benefactor”. As an “aggregator”, we try to bring different groups together and get them to learn from each other or to collaborate, while as an “educator”, we try to lead by example in areas where we think philanthropists can make a difference.
Your family’s philanthropic arm follows a similar philosophy as your business. How does supporting projects with good governance and accountability produce a multiplier effect for each dollar donated?
The underlying philosophy is that without accountability, there is no certainty that the person running it is doing it properly. It follows that with proper accountability you are likely to have a more successful business or nonprofit organisation. I would not go so far as to say that with proper accountability one will produce a multiplier effect, but we have seen that with proper accountability and a well-run nonprofit, other donors are happy to contribute to the same cause. Furthermore, while efficiency and governance are important, we cannot be overly onerous or harsh. Care and compassion are critical and more important than financial efficiency where people are concerned. The needy require multiple levels of support, and if we exact a financial model all the time, it can be hard to offer them the support that they need.
Why do you think there are less women than men in business? What in your opinion is holding women entrepreneurs back from attaining success, and what can be done to help them?
I think the reason is that women have a broader definition of success. Many women find success not in business but in their families and in helping others and so on. Hence, you can find very successful mothers, who would probably have been successful in business but who choose to focus their efforts on their families. One of the best ways to help women would be to mentor them. Ideally, women should have both male and female mentors. I had male mentors and I benefited tremendously from them.