Jonathan Kwan, scion of the family which owns Kwanpen and first-born of the company’s current president, is well aware of the challenges he faces as the third-generation’s eldest in the Singapore family business.
“There’s this Chinese saying that all family businesses don’t get past the third generation, so that’s a stigma that we have to overcome,” he says matter-of-factly.
“However, I’m not the only one in the third generation – there are my brother and sister, and cousins. I happen to be the eldest,” he tells D:Code. And together, they have a strategy to take the company beyond their generation.
Jonathan, 36, never met his grandfather, who passed on a year before he was born. But he is very much in touch with the spirit of grandpa’s enterprise.
“I feel that we should always be focused on why my grandfather started the business,” he says. “The company was founded in 1938, but before that, my grandfather (Kwan Pen Seng) was already working.
“He migrated from China in the 1930s, met my grandmother in Singapore, and got married. They had five children, all boys. Of course, he needed something to build and sustain his family, so he made use of his skills as a craftsman,” says Jonathan, recounting his family history. And that’s how they got into crocodile leather.
“Before grandpa became a leather maker, he was a goldsmith. He was very nimble with his fingers and handiwork. But being new in Singapore, he didn’t have the capital to get enough gold to work with. So the need to feed his wife and children made him use his craftsman’s skills to go into leather-making, as leather is of course cheaper than gold.”
According to Jonathan, his grandfather wanted to make a niche for himself where he would stand out, which is why he chose crocodile leather.
“So he set up his workshop behind his house to make bags for retailers. That time, he was practically an OEM leather bag maker, selling to retailers because at that time, brands weren’t a thing. Then as the children grew up, my dad (current Kwanpen head Leonard Kwan) thought that they should go into retail as well.
“So they pooled their resources and with the help of some friends, started the retail business (in 1976).”
In accordance with his grandfather’s initial intention to feed his own family so that everyone could grow up well, Kwanpen has remained a family business, the essence of which is family.
“Family comes first, business second,” says Jonathan. “My dad made it bigger by expanding overseas – this was necessary because the brothers all had their own families to feed. Which is why we are now in 10 countries.
“My dad and his brothers – the second generation – expect us to expand the business even further,” he adds.
However, as director of special projects in Kwanpen, Jonathan is under no illusion that he is running the company.
“I’ve not taken over the business yet. My title means that, if anything special turns up, I get sent there to fix it. It is a multi-role position that allows me to understand the different parts of the company. The thing that is passed to me is that I have, first and foremost, to maintain the reputation of the company.”
Kwanpen is not his company, it’s the family’s
And it won’t be his to do what he likes when he eventually takes over the reins.
“I have to understand one thing: The company is not mine; it belongs to the family. Whoever is sitting at the top or sitting on the board of directors is just taking care of it, ensuring that it is still here for the next generation.
“You try to make it better when you hand it over, so that the next generation will have an easier time. That’s what our roles are. It’s not like we are tasked to make more money, but that you maintain it or make it better so you make it easier for your son or your other relatives when it is their turn to take over,” says Jonathan, whose son is 17 months old.
“It is what every family does: Every parent will want to make things easier for their children, the next generation, so what that means for us also is that all our decisions as a company, all the directions, are very family-oriented.”
So as heir-apparent, he grew up knowing he would eventually be part of the family business. But as a child, did Jonathan ever want to become, say, a doctor, a pilot or a lawyer?
“No,” he says firmly. “Firstly, being in the luxury retail business is very exciting. Every day, there’s something new. Every day there’s news coming out, and new products being launched somewhere. So the industry is ever changing and exciting. You don’t have a chance to get bored,” he says. And he considers himself fortunate to be born into this industry.
“Secondly, when I was growing up, it was just me, followed by my sister and my brother before all my other cousins were born. So, for a long time, we were the only kids in the family. I think my dad was sort of starting to groom me from young.
“It’s like inception. Father’s expectations were already there. But luckily for me, it’s quite interesting, this industry, and I really like being here and never felt like I was being forced to do this,” he says.
Following his father’s standards
He will have big shoes to fill – his father has been a much-loved boss to the staff.
“I’ve met first-generation ex-staff who had worked with Kwanpen for 20 to 30 years and they always tell me what a good boss my father had been to them. He takes care of the staff. He genuinely cares about their well-being,” says Jonathan.
There’s another thing his father does that may have endeared him to his staff – even if they had to work overtime, he would make sure nobody stayed beyond 7pm because he wanted everybody to go home for dinner.
“My dad was traditional in that family dinner time is a very important time for him. We all had to sit at the table and eat dinner together. So he made sure also that even if there was OT, nobody crossed the seven o’ clock mark,” says Jonathan. “And the staff appreciated that about him.”
Does he feel any pressure, seeing that his father has set such a high standard?
“It’s a good thing,” Jonathan insists. “I feel relieved, in fact, that there is something positive which my father did, which I can learn and follow. It is actually less stress for me – an arrow pointing the right direction. I know that if I did that, people would appreciate it.”
He also feels that people need to remind themselves why they are in business.
“People are caught up with the ‘what’, they forget about the ‘why’,” he says. “We become involved in projects and we forget ‘why’, while pursuing the ‘what’. It becomes so tiring, you lose your momentum.
“So every two, maybe three years, I find myself taking stock, so I can refocus and get my energy back, and restore the fire and passion which is the reason I’m doing this,” he explains.
The future of Kwanpen
When Jonathan does eventually take over at Kwanpen, he will be focused on overseas expansion as well as raising the profile of the Kwanpen brand.
“When I do take over the captain’s role of this ship, I will definitely try to expand more, especially to markets like China because we’re not there yet and we see that as the biggest growth market. We would also strengthen our presence in Japan, and explore Russia, the US and Australia.
“Australia isn’t really such a big market, although they had Crocodile Dundee,” he says, in a light-hearted reference to the fictional character of the 1980s comedy movie of the same name set in the Australian Outback.
Lamenting that millennials live for instant gratification, he wondered if anyone would want to work as a master craftsman with Kwanpen in a decade’s time.
“It’s not a problem now, but it may be so in 10 years – finding people to do that kind of work. Youngsters now, they want to be investment bankers or have a job with a sexy title. Would they be interested in working 50 hours on one bag while wondering whether or not the customer is aware of the amount of effort put into the making of the bag, the handiwork, the delicate stitching? I’m not sure if they will have a sense of the craft or the passion for it. That could be a problem in 10 years,” he says.
“But we are training people now, younger craftsmen.”
He feels that one way of getting people to be interested in such a craft would be to raise the profile of the brand.
“If you told someone, would you want to work in Hermes as a craftsman? Learn under an Hermes master craftsman? I am sure that many Singaporeans would, because of the brand.
“Would they say yes, if we asked them to work under Kwanpen’s master craftsmen? Well, no. Not yet, but we are getting there. We have to raise the profile of our brand,” he concedes.
“Hermes took six generations. Louis Vuitton took six generations. But hang on: We are still only two-and-a-half generations, not even three – because I haven’t even taken over yet,” he says.