C.K. Tang Limited is a story of how the vision and fortitude of a young Chinese immigrant led to the creation of one of Singapore’s premier retail store. Tang Wee Sung, son of the founder of Tangs Singapore, shares with Richard Seah what inspires him to carry on the Tangs brand story.
Playing host to the Global Department Store Summit 2014 which took place in Singapore last month whilst in the midst of a major three-year store transformation, Tangs Singapore chairman Tang Wee Sung was naturally faced with an extremely hectic work schedule. Feeling a little stressed, perhaps?
He loves it. Tang loves challenges and change and he identifies his ability to cope as one of his key strengths. “Change, which is feared by many, actually keeps me going. I love the challenge of change and the opportunities it brings,” he says.
He loves people too and was looking forward to meeting the world’s top department store executives. “I have always been interested in people,” Tang adds. “The cultural zeitgeist that influences the way people think, their perspectives and outlook, what they appreciate in life, what makes them buy the things they buy; and most importantly, how they respond to stimulus. These aspects of human nature intrigue me the most.”
“Retail has always been in my DNA. It makes me happy. The energy and dynamism of retail drives me.”
Most of all, he declares: “I love to entertain. I love to play the host and make people comfortable. I love all kinds of entertaining, from entertaining at home to organising large events, anything as long as there’s good food and good conversation!”
This is something he picked up from his parents, who regularly hosted friends and business partners for dinners. “My father (Tangs founder Tang Choon Keng), who spoke mainly Teochew, had many foreign friends who conversed in ‘bazaar Malay’ with him,” Tang recalls. “There’s nothing like entertaining at home. People will always remember a good party and they appreciate the effort that you put into it.
“I used to cook but now I barely have the time so I just supervise my helper’s cooking. I do have some specialties – pastries, cakes, desserts… but my particular specialty is truffle. It’s something I’ve been doing since I was in my late teens. I love cheeses, coffee and innards (liver, sweetbreads, tripe, etc.) but these are not easy to find nowadays.”
In a different way, he entertains at the store too. Tangs explains: “That love for entertaining is a natural influence to make theatre a part of our environment in Tangs. Be it cooking demonstrations, or events we hold in the store, we go beyond merchandising to entertain – never to intimidate – our shoppers. We want our shoppers to feel welcomed, comfortable and entertained.”
Cooking and other demonstrations, such as those on the qualities of ceramic knives or slow juice extractors, have always been crowd pullers at Tangs Department Store. Now, as part of a S$45 million “transformation” that will take three years to complete by end 2014, these demonstration stations have been made permanent and bigger than ever.
Also made bigger and better are the food outlets and the “new” Tangs will eventually have at least one food outlet on each level of the store. “Food is an essential component of our business; it’s at the heart of everyone,” Tang notes.
Reflecting the Tang family’s love for food and entertainment, the store’s kitchenware section has always been its stronghold. There, the shopper today cannot help but notice something – that some of the kettles, hot water flasks, coffee machines and even ovens are very stylishly designed. This reflects another of Tang’s loves – “for all things aesthetic”.
“My interests extend to art, furniture, architecture, ballet, food, home ware and so much more. It’s hard to list!” Tang says. “Since the 1980s, Tangs has a tradition of supporting the arts and we have a close relationship with the theatre scene in particular.
“Even within the store, we search for unique merchandise. Tangs was the official retail partner for the Elephant Parade during its visit to Singapore in Christmas 2011 and we are now home to two Elephant Parade Gallery Stores in Tangs Orchard and Tangs VivoCity. Each elephant replica in these stores is hand-painted in Chiangmai, Thailand, by genuine artisans.”
Elephant Parade is one of four gift galleries at Tangs, along with Risis, Selangor Pewter and Tangs Heritage, its in-house brand that sells well-designed and affordable products from across Asia. More aesthetics and stylish designs can be found at the Technology section on level 4, not to mention the fashion floors. And not forgetting the standout window displays that Tangs puts great effort into, especially but not, just during Christmas.
Tang and his team travel the world to seek out what they consider “the best” – high quality products that offer good value for money. To Tang, who grew up in a staunch Christian household – the former C K Tang department store used to close on Sundays – this is considered God’s work.
“When I was young, I considered being a missionary at some point,” Tang shares. “Yet there was so much else that I wanted to be – a pilot, because I like planes! Or maybe a race car driver… you know all the things boys want to become when they grow up… an architect, a chef, a car designer – the list was endless. I believe God has kept me in the marketplace, in retail, to provide great service and value for money to our shoppers.”
Although his father had founded the business back in 1932, it was not a given that he, the younger of two sons, would take over. But he is happy to be running the company now and to be running it as a delisted public company.
Tang became chairman upon his father’s death in 2000 and took the company off the Singapore Stock Exchange in 2009. It remains a public company with about 40 shareholders but Tang and his brother hold about 98% of the company’s shares.
“Retail has always been in my DNA,” Tang says. “It makes me happy. The energy and dynamism of retail drives me.
“The biggest lesson I learned from my father would be that having a beautiful store is not enough. It must have the correct focus and operational efficiency to be successful. My father was always a visionary, he was extremely forward thinking. On my own, I learned to be more practical and to understand that not everyone likes what I might like. It’s necessary to broaden your understanding of what people like, which helps as a retailer, of course.
“One of my key weaknesses is that I sometimes over provide, so much so that it can be at the expense of our bottom line. Now as I approach my senior years (at age 60), I’m managing that balance.
“I would love to emulate my father’s qualities of always being honest and honourable and loving justice – to adopt these as my personal values. I would like to be known for relating to people whom I work with and care about, with warmth and sincerity, even if it is to correct or disagree with them. And of course, I like to be remembered for bringing smiles to our shoppers when they leave our store, leaving them with memorable experiences unique to Tangs.”
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