Rise, Fall and Rise of the EYS Family Business

Asian giant Eu Yan Sang (EYS) International is a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) provider. The company was established in the late 1870s and has been in operation for 138 years. It is managed by a combination of fourth-generation descendants and professional managers.

This article highlights the complex nature of family businesses and the even more complex and often unwieldy interplay of preserving family values, managing sibling rivalries, personality differences, and reviving a century old business using modern management techniques.

Adding to the 100 year old drama that almost imperiled the business was the murder of Eu Tong Sen’s wife by his brothers, the sellout to an outside investor and the repurchase by the fourth generation members giving back control of the business to family.

Growing the Family Business

In an interview by NUS adjunct Prof Alison Eyring, she asked Richard Eu, the great grandson who led the buyout for his advice to leaders who want to grow a family business…

“Every generation, you’ve got to think what you want to do with the family business. Is your business the right business for the future? Is it more important to preserve the family or more important to preserve the business? That’s a discussion that you’ve got to have within the family and there’s many different parts to this. The family must have ongoing conversations about its future. This isn’t just about the patriarch or the founder – it’s got to include everybody.”

The entry of the fourth generation was a period of ups and downs but would end up as Eu San Sang’s defining moment.

Sell out due to 10 Uncles and 72 Cousins

In one newspaper account, Richard persuaded the board to make him general manager in 1989. But he ended up running  into a brick wall when the clan, comprising of mostly extended family members that included 10 uncles and aunts and 72 cousins, did not support him.

Instead, they sold their shares to the construction company Lum Chang. For the latter, it was a just an opportunistic investment in taking over the company.

Despite losing control, Richard navigated the company to steady growth, with the launch of a breakthrough product, American Ginseng Tea in 1991. The year after, the company listed in the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

Four years later, Richard Eu and two of his cousins engineered a buy out of Lum Chang’s shares in EYS Holdings – making the firm a family business once again.

Back to Being a Family Business

Expansion went full-blast in Hong Kong, with its facility receiving ISO certification. In the coming years, the company achieved one milestone after another. The company would also end up becoming the majority stockholder of Australian health giant Healthzone.

With the company pursuing online automation for quality control, it aggressively expanded to more than 300 stores and clinics across four continents with $230 million in sales.

Growth and Expansion

Richard acknowledges that professionals are necessary in a huge enterprise, but he once told Asia Society that non-family managers tend to think short-term rather than long-term. For him, family is still paramount.

Since it was publicly listed in 2000, Eu Yan Sang has delivered double digit growth. In its core markets of Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong – the business enjoys the largest market share in its sector.

Many thanks to the participants of my Family Constitution seminar (Manila Series) last Saturday at the Tower Club in Makati as well as the participants who attended my talk in Jakarta the week before. These talks are extremely important for business owners in their quest to create a lasting legacy for their enterprises.

(esoriano@wongadvisory.com)

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