Business

Taking on the family firm: A daughter's reluctant journey

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Media captionJoyce Chou reluctantly started running the firm after her father died

At the age of 44, Joyce Chou suddenly found herself in charge of running the family business her parents had started. It wasn't part of her life plan, and at the time, she had no interest in it.

Her parents owned a manufacturing company in Taiwan which specialises in the production of sportswear.

When she was young, she had helped out at the company - Sabrina Fashion Industrial - during summer breaks and after she graduated from college. But she never harboured any intention of making it her career. Instead, she focused on her passion and joy - opening and running several pre-schools.

"When I was working here after college, I was an assistant, junior staff. This business is very detailed; there are a lot of hiccups every day. It seemed like my parents were watching me, the staff were watching me; there was a lot of pressure," says Ms Chou. "At that time I knew this was not a business I wanted to get involved in, for sure."

Reluctant successor

But the situation changed six years ago, when her father died from cancer and her mother fell ill.

Refusing to sell the company, her mother convinced her to take the reins.

"She kind of talked to me in a very soft way and said 'you're our only hope'," says Ms Chou, who is now the executive director of Sabrina Fashion.

It was not an easy start.

Joyce had a challenging time winning the trust of the senior staff who had worked for the company, and her parents for decades. She also had a tough time convincing the long-serving staff that changes needed to be made, for the business to grow and prosper.

Image caption The biggest hurdle for Ms Chou was winning over long-serving staff

"In my pre-schools, everybody listened to me, but here nobody listened to me. The first three years, I really wanted to run away and to tell my mum 'Give it to whoever wants to run this business,'" she says.

For Ms Chou, the biggest hurdle was winning over the senior staff, whom she grew up calling "aunties" and "uncles."

"They had been working with my parents for 25 to 30 years and when I knew them I was only 19 or 18-years-old, so they saw me as a baby and I always called them uncle and aunty.

"So when I joined the company, they really wanted to protect me and they still do things the way they think is right, but back then when I took over, I was 44-years-old, and I had my own ideas of how to run the business.

"So I first had to win their trust to believe I wouldn't mess around with the business and I wouldn't sell the business," Ms Chou says.

Image caption The company has opened new factories since Ms Chou has been in charge

She decided to learn about the industry from the long-time employees, while convincing them to adopt new ways of doing business.

That strategy worked. Together, they've opened new factories, including their first production facility in Vietnam and a second factory in Cambodia. The number of employees has doubled, and revenue has jumped by 50%.

Turning point

The company now has 11,000 employees and annual revenue has increased to $250m (£163m).

For Ms Chou, the turning point was when she stopped seeing the business as her parents' but her own.

"I'm no longer doing it for my parents. I'm doing it for myself and for the people who are here …11,000 families who are with us," she says.

Image caption Joyce Chou took a break from managing pre-schools to run the family business

What happened to Ms Chou's family business reflects what's happening in Taiwanese society.

Many of the island's small and medium-size family-owned enterprises were created during the past few decades of rapid economic growth. But their founders are now ageing, and only about 30% of them have a succession plan.

Experts say these companies should start grooming successors while the founders are still alive.

"US companies have been through three to five times of successions; their boards ask about succession plans. In the UK and US, they have a system for CEO turnover.

"In Taiwan it's still the emperor's succession. No one outside can see what's going to happen. It's the founder's decision," says Yeh Yin-hua, a professor at the Institute of Finance, National Chiao Tung University.

Like many, he warns that while some businesses prosper after being handed over to the next generation, many fail because the successors are either incapable or lack any passion for or understanding of the business.

While there's a happy ending for Ms Chou and Sabrina Fashion, experts say many of Taiwan's family-owned businesses have had to be merged or sold because the second generation is not willing or able to run them.

Image caption Ms Chou's wining strategy included learning from staff who've worked with her parents

"Founders must treat succession as a very important part of doing business.

"It's a very important issue. The founder or leader will age, but the company must continue, so they must have a succession plan," says Professor Yeh.

He notes that an increasing number of Taiwanese companies are shifting to outside managers, with ownership still retained by the founding family, or they find successors from outside the family. His research indicates the percentage of family successions has fallen from 74% in the 1980s and early 1990s, to 41% in recent years.

'Vacation place'

Ms Chou has retained the senior staff while hiring some younger talent and bringing in more modern ways of running the business. And she spends her spare time at her pre-schools, which inspires her.

"I still have them (the kindergartens). I go there and have fun; that's sort of my vacation place," says Ms Chou, laughing.

Image caption Ms Chou visits the pre-schools once in a while

And she still calls the senior staff aunty and uncle from time to time.

"After my father passed away and with my senior staff's help, our company has done better than before," says Ms Chou.

"I still love to tease them and call them uncle and aunty, because they feel respected and it maintains the connection between me and them."

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