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Entrepreneur Asad Jumabhoy goes On the Record with Bharati Jagdish about staying competitive, how he feels about the problems that plagued the Jumabhoy family business and more.

SINGAPORE: Entrepreneur Asad Jumabhoy is a member of the once-powerful Jumabhoy family whose name is synonymous with Scotts Holdings, one of Singapore’s pioneer property giants. Years of family feuds including one between Asad’s brothers weakened the family business and by the late 1990s, Asad decided to go his own way.

One of the first things he started as CEO of his Scotts Group was Asia Tax Free Shopping, a GST tax refund platform. Over the years, he’s been able to adapt and zero in on opportunities.

His latest project is UTU, a cross-border loyalty and reward points platform for consumers – a project he is working on with his son.

He goes “On the Record” with Bharati Jagdish about this, about staying competitive, and how he feels about the problems that plagued the Jumabhoy family business. But first, whether he felt a sense of apprehension in stepping out of his family business to go his own way.

Asad Jumabhoy: I come from a long line of entrepreneurs going back several hundred years, so my ancestors started out by taking sailing ships across from India to the Middle East. My grandfather came to Singapore and started with nothing. My dad started his business with his brothers with nothing. So, it was kind of par for the course really. I didn’t think twice about going out to start on my own because we’ve been doing this for a long, long time.

Bharati: We’ll talk more about the issues that plagued your family later, but first, you’ve said in a previous interview that your wife lent you S$250,000 to start up. Why was it that you had not a dime in your pocket and she had to step in here?

Jumabhoy: Well, it wasn’t “stepping in”. It was the way our families are structured. You work for the family and the family saved for you. I stepped out and I wanted to go my own way, so I kind of took the “go your own way” direction.

I really started bootstrapping the operation. It was kind of a good strategy. Well, it wasn’t really a strategy. It was more of a coincidence as well, but on the one hand it makes you accountable to somebody as opposed to pulling it out of your piggy bank and blowing it and have nobody to answer to.

So I had this family I had to answer to. I had my wife, my kids to support, so you’re very focused and you think, “Okay, how best do I use this opportunity?”

Bharati: Did you always know that this was what you wanted to do – go into business?

Jumabhoy: Oh, from a very young age. I think I remember talking to one of my siblings as we went to pick up my mom. I must have been about nine or 10. And I said even if I have a newspaper shop, I want it to be my newspaper shop. And it wasn’t a question of making money or not making money. It was having the freedom to choose, to paint the picture the way you wanted to paint it, to do the things you wanted to do.


Bharati: What or who has shaped your business philosophy over the years?

Jumabhoy: Lots of things. You start with your parents. My mother prepared us to pick up the skills we needed to deal with life. My father taught me that no hill was too big to climb and to try. And between those two big guiding lights, I studied in the US and I kind of got adopted by an American family.

He was a businessman who started with absolutely nothing as an insurance salesman and ended up a huge owner of insurance companies and I learnt a lot from him. I used to go with him to the office when I was in the States, so I learnt a lot about corporatised businesses and then I came in to my own family business and I started to understand how you deal with relationships that were close to you and how you had to understand how to attract talent and retain talent. Because you’re family business, you have as good or an even better chance at attracting better talent.

A lot of people turn around and say, “Sorry there’s a glass ceiling. There’s this and there’s that.” It’s really a question of attitude because take this business we’re running right now: there’s an Asian angle. There’s a European angle. There’s an angle in the US. Maybe I would really look forward to having some of the junior people go out to Europe from Singapore and run the business there and I don’t mean my young son. I’ve got other young people working in the group that are very talented.

Bharati: But one might say there’s a glass ceiling for outsiders in a family business. How do you ensure that people get the message that is not the way you work?

Jumabhoy: Look at some of the large companies in the world. IBM was a family business. Coca Cola was a family business. Mars was a family business. Cargill is still a family business. All these businesses have demonstrated that there are ways in which you can cross from small businesses to big businesses, how you cross from startups to professionalisation and I think professionalisation is really a frame of mind as opposed to a degree that you earn somewhere.

If you’re mentally organized to understand and respect other people’s contribution to the firm, why should there be any difference? I’m also a firm believer in paying for talent and paying for performance. So whether that person is your family member or not, frankly speaking, is irrelevant.

Bharati: So aside from paying for talent and performance, what are the other strategies you use to attract and retain the best from outside your family?

Jumabhoy: Well, at this stage, there are different things you need at different stages. At this stage, we’ve just commenced our business after a couple of years of R&D. So it’s really finding people with high energy, high integrity, the ability to be flexible, etc. Having knowledge in areas that you need and also people who know they don’t know everything and where to go to get what they don’t know.

And as the company matures as I’ve seen my other past businesses mature, you start bringing in the specialists because you can then afford to bring them on board today full-time because there’s just that much more to do.

For me, I’m looking to provide people with opportunity, help people develop themselves, people who enjoy teamwork, collaboration. I think these are very important ingredients in the mix that you put to attract and retain talent. They’re not the only ingredients but these are some of the things that come to the top of my mind.