Sister Act: Redefining Family Business in the Age of Innovation

chicks

The fourth-generation heirs to the Chicks legacy open up about their transformative journey

Alicia and Jennifer Tam had no plans to join or run their family business, Hong Kong-based lifestyle brand Chicks. Despite being heirs to a decades-old legacy, they were never pressured by their parents to take over the company.

All that changed, however, after a chance conversation with their father and executive director of Chicks, Robert Tam, about his retirement, the sisters realized that they didn’t want to leave the running of the company to uncertain hands. The situation renewed the sisters’ interest in the heritage business and its future.

“That’s the point where we realized that we really love the brand, and we want to keep this legacy going. That’s when we started to think about coming back together,” Alicia, an economics graduate who has worked as a banking consultant, tells Jumpstart.

Jennifer, who majored in graphic design and was an account executive for Hong Kong design and branding agencies, currently focuses on brand awareness and marketing for Chicks. Alicia, with her previous experience, manages the company’s finances and operations.

What affirmed their decision to join the family business was not only their attachment to the trade they grew up with, but the opportunity to revitalize the company and make room for Chicks to showcase its unique brand story to a new generation.

Humble beginnings

Chun Au Knitting Factory was the 1939 starting point for what eventually became the Chicks lifestyle brand. Chicks became a popular innerwear brand in the 1950s and 1960s, after the company’s second-generation leadership realized the value of its delicate and fine knitted cotton yarn and decided to retail knitwear. It grew out of a desire to offer local people better clothes to wear during a time of many shortages, and put food on the tables of workers and suppliers.  

The business was passed on to the product-oriented third generation, who brought technological innovation to the company, augmenting Chicks’ philosophy of providing superior materials to its customers.

Now, Alicia and Jennifer are shaking things up. Building on Chicks’ reputation, the sisters are looking closely at highlighting how their brand serves current consumer needs, such as through Chicks’ sustainable collections Silky Touch and Cotton Paradise.

“All our four generations think about quality material as our core. Our other core value is treating our vendors, colleagues, and customers with honesty and respect as if they are our own family,” Jennifer says. “It’s the same throughout the four generations because this is how we were brought up, but we translate it into different visions.” 

Managing a family business

The Tam duo is not afraid of making mistakes and wants their experience to do the talking. The Chicks brand, and the sisters, in particular, eschew the top-down managerial approach and have adopted a collaborative approach to working with their team.

“One of the pillars of our family is treating people with respect and sincerity. This attitude towards people helped us a lot in order to flatten the hierarchy structure in the company. To achieve this, it’s about that trust we built throughout these years and the transparency from our end,” Jennifer adds. 

The sisters believe in the importance of cross-pollination between teams and taking criticism in stride where one’s experience is lacking, even as heirs to the family business. Jennifer notes that to be a good leader who drives the company in the right direction, the company’s people must be valued as its core strength.

She adds that open communication also is key to a successful transition of power in a family business, as the expectations between the older and younger generations are bound to differ, leading to disagreements about the approach.

“Misunderstandings happen when we don’t say what we really want to say sometimes. It is something that a lot of people are facing because there’s a lack of communication and transparency in their families,” she says.

A significant change at Chicks this year has been the movement of ideas and information within the company. 

As Alicia explains, “We wanted to involve more people so their voices can be heard directly. People take a lot more ownership and initiative for new product trials because ideas are not just limited to top management; they also come from the day-to-day staff.”

The sisters view changes in product, marketing, and management as a process that’s much like untying knots one by one. The culture they believe in is one that adapts to change with everyone on board, and where decisions are made with company-wide consensus and a sense of comfort.

Understanding the family business

No journey is free of the occasional speed bump, but the sisters feel that there are some common mistakes that young leaders make in a family business.

For one, it is vital to have a deep understanding of operations before jumping into management. Jennifer stresses that knowing what the business is and understanding how it runs are two starkly different things. Incoming generations need to get their hands dirty before they take the reins.

“For a lot of family business, the next generation comes straight into a managerial role first thing. They don’t know the real pain points for their colleagues,” she says. “We were the same, but after a change in our roles, we actually know every single department, the processes, and the pitfalls, so when you make a decision, it’s different already.”

Alicia believes that getting valuable work experience from outside the business helps, too, unless young leaders can get a real dose of business at their family company like in the American reality television show Undercover Boss.

“I always think it’s really good to experience the world before going back to the family business. Once you’re in, people see you differently because they know who you are,” she says.

While creating intergenerational value is about continuity and establishing a growth mindset for the next generation, the sisters believe it’s also about whether the previous one is willing to relinquish control.

“Otherwise, the company will go in different directions, and that will slow it down. Our dad and uncle are open-minded, so I think we’re very lucky in that sense,” Jennifer explains.

At the same time, it is also essential to maintain a divide between work and family, Alicia adds. It is easy for families to fall into a loop where the two mix too often, which can lead to the family members who aren’t involved in the business feeling left out of important conversations.

“You have to remind yourself that work is work and family is family, and you have to separate the two,” she says.

Ultimately, the family unit fuels the team and the company, but it doesn’t define them. Younger generations stepping into the family business must put thought into why they are doing so, and how they will take the family’s legacy forward.

“You will want to give up because it’s really tiring sometimes,” Jennifer says. “We reminded ourselves why we want to come back, and that’s how we carry it forward.”

Top: Sisters Alicia (L) and Jennifer (R) unexpectedly returned to their family business, Chicks, to spearhead a new era of growth.

Header image courtesy of Chicks.

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