First Family of Pewter

Packed tour buses arrive daily at the Royal Selangor headquarters in Setapak Jaya, Kuala Lumpur with eager tourists from the United States, Europe, Asia and Australia. They are piqued by Malaysia's famous pewter brand, Royal Selangor. A common remark is that Royal Selangor's story is closely linked with Malaysia's social and economic transformation that began in the tin mines. Inside a dramatic glass and steel-clad building that also houses a museum, visitors are reminded of the Royal Selangor story that grew from a modest shophouse operation to an international brand.

In the museum, multi-lingual guides begin the tour at the large panel where a black-and-white photograph of an old Hakka man with wire-rimmed spectacles hangs. The steady gaze of Yong Koon Seong tells an amazing story of a city's beginnings, the tin industry and of a pewtersmith and his family. If the visitors are fortunate, Datin Chen Mun Kuen nee Yong, the 64-year-old granddaughter of Yong Koon Seong, would pop in and enquire if they need any assistance (her grandfather subsequently shortened his name to Yong Koon).

The Yong family story began at the time when Kuala Lumpur was already a state capital. It was in late 1885 that the founding father of Royal Selangor, Yong Koon, sailed from the south-eastern Chinese port of Shantou in Guangdong province to Malaya. He was 15 years old then. Three years before sailing to Nanyang (as Southeast Asia was known in the Chinese world), Yong Koon was already an apprentice pewtersmith in Shantou.

"I don't remember much of my grandfather," says Mun Kuen in meticulous English picked up from the Pudu English Girls School in Kuala Lumpur. "But what I do remember is my grandfather being fiercely proud of his Hakka origins. He would scold his grandchildren if we spoke another dialect, saying Hakka people must speak Hakka, otherwise you are a foreign devil! We spoke English, Malay and Cantonese instead."

Mun Kuen recalls how her grandfather's story was handed down to the grandchildren by her father, Yong Peng Kai. After landing in Malaya, Yong Koon joined his two brothers, Chin Seong and Wai Seong, in the newly established tin mining town. "He left neither diaries nor letters," says Mun Kuen. Besides early photographs, there are also Yong Koon's tools and a pewter melon teapot he designed in the museum. "There is an interesting story behind the melon teapot," says Mun Kuen, while holding it to be photographed. "We call it the lucky melon-shaped teapot."

"When bombs were being dropped during the Second World War, hungry villagers in Kajang were scrambling for rice in a godown. One of the villagers, Ah Ham, ran in during the bombing. Instead of picking up the rice bags, he saw a melon-shaped teapot on the ground. As he bent to pick it up, shrapnel whizzed over his head. Ah Ham was convinced the teapot saved his life. In the 70s, Ah Ham sent his teapot to a pewter factory for cleaning. Someone immediately recognised the Ngeok Foh touchmark (Yong Koon's handiwork) at the base. "Today, the teapot is part of the museum collection and has since inspired a new range of melon teapots."

In 2003, Mun Kuen's daughter, Chen May Yee, who studied journalism in Columbia University and is now based in the United States, put together the family story in a coffee table book – The Royal Selangor Story. Harvard Business School's John A. Davis promptly referred to the story as "a model family business story".

May Yee's story traces the pewter business to a shophouse in 23, Cross Street (the present Jalan Silang). Yong Koon and his tinsmith brothers made a variety of simple household items at Cross Street, from pails to gutters and weighing scales, and selling pewter incense burners, joss stick holders and candlestands for the altars of Chinese prospectors. As his pewter business flourished, Yong Koon returned to China to bring back a bride, Loh Pat.

They had sons Peng Pow, Peng Sin, Peng Kai and Peng Seong who were, according to Peng Kai, "born and bred in Pewter dust" since the family worked and stayed in the shophouse in Pudu. "Yong Koon would not have gone far without his formidable wife, Loh Pat, by his side," writes May Yee. Loh Pat was described as a "no-nonsense Hakka woman" who saved enough money to buy their own shophouse at 219, Pudu Road, where Malayan Pewter was established.

Yong Koon and his sons later went separate ways because of differences over how the business should be run. From the split, three other pewter companies – Tiger, Lion and Selangor – emerged. The eldest son remained with Malayan Pewter until it was taken over by Peng Seong. The struggling company folded in 1950. Before this, Peng Sin, Peng Kai and Peng Seong had set up Tiger Pewter at the original premises after parting with their eldest brother. Within a year, Tiger folded but was revived as Selangor Pewter. While the other two brothers branched into other businesses, Peng Kai, the third son, focused on pewter and established its name.

In 1952, the patriarch Yong Koon passed away, aged 81. Peng Kai had by then married Guay Soh Eng, a Hokkien and this is the branch of the family that has kept Yong Koon's pewter business alive. Peng Kai once remarked to his friend, retired Singapore police officer Sun Sai Lum, that Soh Eng was his right arm. "She was the stabilising factor, very calm and very level headed. He was the highly stressed worrier," recalls Sai Lum. Their eldest son, Poh Sin, was born in 1939, daughter Mun Ha in 1941, Mun Kuen in 1942 and youngest son Poh Kon in 1945.

Subsequently, they moved operations from Pudu to the present factory in Setapak. Peng Kai "worked alongside his employees, sweating in his Pagoda-brand white cotton vest, always paying his staff promptly and never raising his voice". One employee, Hoo Wee Meng, remembers: "It was not unusual for a Chinese businessman to scold and use foul language. But Peng Kai treated us like family. I worshipped him."

Once pewter became an item of fascination for tourists, it spawned a variety of decorative items. The company's royal link is a story which Mun Kuen relates with fondness. "The late Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah was in Australia when he entered a store and was asked respectfully where he came from. He replied 'Selangor' and the store assistant gave a look of recognition by saying 'Selangor Pewter'. The Sultan was impressed that pewter was making his state famous. On his return, he decided that the company should have royal status, which he conferred in 1979."

Today, the younger generation such as Chris Yong, Andrew Yong, Sun May Foon, Chen Tien Yue, Yong Yoon Li, Yong Yoon Kit are involved in the family business in various capacities. "They are taking it to another level," says Mun Kuen. It was the third generation of the Yongs led by Datuk Yong Poh Kon and Yong Poh Shin who took Yong Koon and Peng Kai's vision further by going global. As May Yee says: "The enterprise has sprouted wings."

Along the way, Royal Selangor acquired Canadian Seagull Pewter, Englefields, a 350-year-old London company, and set up Selberan, a jewellery company. Royal Selangor also went into silver with acquisition of Comyns, the London company of silversmiths whose designs date back to the 17th century. Today, the company exports to more than 20 countries and has retail stores in London, Toronto, Melbourne, Tokyo, Bangkok, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore. If Yong Koon was alive today, he would be proud that his humble business has grown into a giant.

(Source: New Sunday Times, 7 January 2007)


Royal Selangor to Stay Fresh with New Talent

Royal Selangor will focus on developing its staff to ensure that the brand and company stays up-to-date and relevant. Two years ago, the company undertook a rebranding to project a new attitude through its product offering, an advertising campaign and a new store concept. This year, Royal Selangor Marketing Sdn Bhd will hire young talent who can reflect the new attitude and inject freshness into the company.

Recently-appointed general manager Chen Tien Yue said the retail industry in Malaysia was not appreciated enough as a career option. "People do not think of retail as an attractive career. If they have options, they will choose the usual path. "We hope to change their perception through our retail management executive (RME) programme, " he told StarBiz.

The programme will see Royal Selangor recruiting new staff and rotate them among the company's different operations. This would give the candidates a wider exposure in retailing, corporate sales and marketing. "Besides getting an overall feel of the various departments, the candidates will also be mentored by senior managers," Chen added. In Malaysia, Royal Selangor has 25 stores and more than a hundred staff.

Chen said the company wanted to be more innovative in its marketing strategy. "We can get younger and less experienced people and evolve them either in the retail structure or other parts of the organisation. Retailing is a good way to expose them to the company's business and we will let them decide if they want to remain in retailing or other department," he said. The RME is targeted at fresh graduates, including those with a few years' working experience who are hoping to change career path. "We want to use this programme to identify high performers and promote them very quickly," Chen said.

(Source: The Star, 3 February 2007)


Adorable Gifts

Royal Selangor ushers in the Year of the Boar with four new designs. The Limited Edition plaque, Bountiful Blessings, depicts eight piglets gamboling amongst abundant peach blossoms and peaches, illustrating an abundant and joyful spring, and adding to its auspicious significance. The last and twelfth of the Zodiacal Animals, the boar is popular symbol of wealth, believed to bring bountiful riches and good luck, while peaches are associated with wealth, longevity and well-being. The peach blossoms accentuating the wooden frame are embellished in 24K gold for the added touch of luxury. A beautiful poem is engraved onto the plaque. Only 1,000 units are available for sale worldwide.

Another of Royal Selangor 's offering is the Prosperity Pig pewter figurine. Affectionate and endearing, the figurine is meticulously rendered to reflect the abounding joy and felicitous blessings associated with the Lunar New Year. Embellished with the character fu, which means blessings and prosperity, the Prosperity Pig is surrounded by exuberant foliate motifs in high relief.

Royal Selangor 's Year of the Boar zodiac range is made complete with a smaller figurine of an adorable piglet as well as a charming decorated plate. Prices for the zodiac range start at RM120. In addition, Royal Selangor also offers five Chinese New Year gift packages. An ideal gift, Fortune is an auspicious trinket while Bountiful, Oriental, Peace and Longevity present the perfect setting for a warm family reunion. The Chinese New Year gift packages are available at all Royal Selangor stores and authorised dealers. Prices range between RM50 and RM450.

(Source: Star Special, 5 February 2007)


All in the Family

They're the young and dynamic great-grandchildren of Royal Selangor founder Yong Koon, and they're poised to take the more-than-a-century old family business into new and interesting directions. For cousins Yong Yoon Li and Chen Tien Yue, it's an exciting industry to be in, but according to them, they were never groomed to take over the business. Rather, they were given a freehand to determine the direction of their own lives. Yet, somehow, they've found their way back home to the Royal Selangor brand.

"There was no overt pressure or expectation (to join the company)," said Chen, 29. "But there was a lot of covert pressure!" said Yong jokingly. "Under the surface, now that you mention it!" Chen chipped in. "But really, none of us were told that we have to work with the company. So, we all went and did our own thing, and those who ended up wanting to join the family business did so. So it's not the sort of stuff where they hammer it into you right from the start."

Doing their own thing

Yong, 36, added: "In fact, we were encouraged to get a university degree. But once we got our degree, we were encouraged to work elsewhere for four to five years, get external experience rather than go immediately into the company. We were not offered jobs after we graduated."

Chen graduated from Oxford University's Balliol College in 2000 and worked as a risk management trainee and business analyst before joining Royal Selangor in 2004. Now, as general manager of Royal Selangor Marketing, he heads the corporate sales team.

Yong has a Masters in engineering from the University of Birmingham and a Masters in business administration from IMD Lausanne, Switzerland. He started his career in the auto industry, and was, at one time, a design engineer for Team Lotus International in Britain. He continued to work in motorsports before returning home in 1994 to be involved in the start-up of TVR Malaysia. He joined Royal Selangor in 2005, and is now general manager of Royal Selangor International.

So what made them join the company, since there was no pressure from the family? Said Chen: "In my case, I think it's a very interesting industry. It's a business where you design and make nice things that hopefully people will be proud of. So forget the fact that it's a family business. It's still not a bad industry. At the time, it wasn't a conscious decision where I thought I would do this for the rest of my life. It was something I wanted to try to see what it was like working here. And I'm still here!"

Said Yong: "I was in a different industry for seven to eight years before I decided. It's not just that the industry is interesting, but the company is also good. As you can see, not many companies in Malaysia have a heritage as long as we have. Also, there are a lot of potential and opportunities to develop the brand." But both agreed that working for one's own family does not make the job any easier. They still have to work as hard as anyone else, and because there's a family legacy involved, they have to live up to that in some ways.

Working under pressure

Yong explained: "People expect a lot ... This company is four generations old now. A majority of our employees have been here for a long time, 20 to 30 years. They would have seen how my grandfather worked, how our parents work. Obviously now, they are going to see how we work. So there's that legacy as well. We're continuously being scrutinised by everybody. No, it's not any easier. I haven't got my sports car yet," he laughed.

Chen thinks there are pros and cons to working in a family business. "The pros are that you get exposure to every part of the business even if you take on a specific role," he said. "The cons ... (laughs) I think there is some pressure." Yong recalled that when they were children, they spent a lot of time at the factory in Setapak Jaya, KL, where there is now a Visitor Centre. Chen remembered how they would always be at the office after school. As such, most of the staff still working there would have seen them as children.

"We used to wear these T-shirts that said, 'Beautifully handcrafted,' " Chen laughed. "Walking advertisements!" And whenever there was a VIP visiting the offices and factory, everyone would be there. Yong recalled visits by such famous folk as actor Lee majors, boxer Joe Frazier, pop stars Donny and Marie Osmond, Prince Edward, and astronaut Richard Clifford. Majors even carried some ingots that were tied together, since he was famous for playing the Six Million Dollar Man.

"But they weren't real ingots," said Yong. "We still have the photos! I was in diapers when Lee Majors came here," Chen laughed. When Mel Gibson visited sometime in the late 1990s, both of them were not there to witness it. "But (Tien Yue's) mother was and she didn't recognise him," Yong quipped. "It was very funny," said Chen. "They took photos and sent them over, and my mum asked me, 'Who's this guy? Everyone went gaga over him!' "

Enjoying themselves

These days, both men are kept busy by their jobs. They joked that even on weekends when they go shopping at the mall, they would visit the Royal Selangor stores or check out what their competitors are doing. "But in a way, we're lucky because it's enjoyable stuff," said Chen. "You want to know about the retail market, what the other brands are doing. It's not such a chore."

Yong tries to get home on time every day so that he can spend time with his two children. As for Chen, apart from time with his girlfriend, he involves himself in some active sports once in a while. In fact, he broke his ankle wakeboarding last August, and spent two weeks in a wheelchair. Yong said motorcars still fascinate him. "So, once in a while, I still do something related to that," he said. "I have a couple of old cars that I look after. But with two young kids now, I hardly do any of that anyway."

(Source: The Star, 20 February 2007)


Perstima Raising Output

Tinplate maker Perusahaan Sadur Timah Malaysia (Perstima) Bhd plans this year to increase production at its Pasir Gudang plant by 20% and install an additional shearing line for its Vietnam plant. Chairman Tan Sri Ab. Rahman Omar said: "We need to increase our capacity given the strong demand for steel and steel related products."

He told StarBiz that the upgrading process in Johor was expected to be completed by year-end. "This will enable Perstima to capture new markets and ensure its price competitiveness," he added. Rahman said Perstima had been performing well with the improved demand in the domestic market. "However, due to the limited nature of the local market, the group will need to focus on exporting more value-added tinplates especially with the current strong overseas demand."

Of its total production of between 200,000 and 240,000 tonnes annually, about 20% is exported to countries such as Iran, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Rahman also said tinplates had shown good growth potential in Vietnam. Perstima set up its wholly owned subsidiary Perstima (Vietnam) Co Ltd, the first tinplate manufacturer in Vietnam, in 2002. The company produces prime grade tinplate equipped with a Halogen type Continuous Electrolytic Line with a capacity of 90,000 tonnes per annum. "We have a significant 70% market share in Vietnam and hope to maintain it," said Rahman.

On the tinplate outlook, he said there were threats such as alternative packaging materials, potential increase in raw material prices like metallic tin and cheap imports of tinplate from South Korea, Taiwan, China and India. "The tinplate business is expected to remain stable depending on the movement of the US dollar," he added.

Looking forward, both prices and demand will strongly depend on South Korea POSCO's new ETL (electrolytic tinning line) venture in China, which is expected to begin operations by year-end. Analysts said the new China-based Baosteel ETL plant and India-based Tata Group-Corus merger may somewhat disrupt the overall regional steel business this year.

(Source: The Star, 21 February 2007)


Endangered Animals Immortalised in Pewter

Royal Selangor introduces Spring 2007 Collection
Royal Selangor has introduced its Spring 2007 collection, which features a wide range of pewter ware encompassing a variety of designs and styles, from classical collections to children's gifts and homeware, recently. "In bringing this season's designs to life, we have recruited the help of a few distinguished international names – Danish legend Erik Magnussen, British designer Nick Munro and Australian design studio zuii," said Royal Selangor marketing general manager Chen Tien Yue during the media preview.

Five ranges – Mandarin, Erik Magnussen wine accessories, Palladio Home, zuii, and home and bath range Island – will be launched on April 13 at the Royal Selangor Visitor Centre in Kuala Lumpur. According to Chen, Mandarin is a brand new range that features 12 items, including photo frames, vases, candle stands and platters, while Palladio Home was introduced last spring; this time around, another 15 items in different designs for the table top are being added to complement the existing photo frames in the collection.

The Erik Magnussen collection comprises 11 sleek wine accessories in simple yet stylish designs. Among the items are a bottle stopper, wine funnel, decanter, corkscrew, pitcher and wine cooler. The range reflects Magnussen's minimalist approach in overcoming complex issues in usage. The zuii range highlights the lustre of pewter through the movement of subtle undulating curves. The collection comprises 12 designs of various items from salt and pepper shakers to photo frames, candle stands and vases. The range was also exhibited at the recent Freestyle: New Australian Design For Living exhibition in Melbourne Museum.

Bath and home accessories in the Island collection exude tranquillity and beauty with textured surfaces. The vases, in different shapes, are named after popular islands such as Pangkor, Redang, Andaman and Lombok. Other items in this collection include beakers, candle stands, soap dishes and soap dispensers. For the kids, Royal Selangor has added six new designs to its Teddy Bears' Picnic range, which will be perfect as gifts for christenings and birthdays. Meanwhile, Nick Munro's Ark Collection features some of the most endangered and threatened species in the world and proceeds from the sale of this collection will be contributed to the Malaysian Nature Society Habitat Conservation Programme to save the Malayan Tiger. The Ark and the Teddy Bears' Picnic collections will only be available at all Royal Selangor stores in July.

(Source: The Star, 19 March 2007)