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He ain’t heavy, he’s my father

He ain’t heavy, he’s my father

The Business Times, by Leow Ju-Len

Charmain Kwee, group executive director, Eurokars Group (left) with her father, Karsono Kwee, the group’s executive chairman.

What might have been a car park is now the S$106 million headquarters for Eurokars, the dealership group owned by entrepreneur Karsono Kwee that handles 11 car brands in Singapore, Australia, China and Indonesia.

“I didn’t have any intention to build this,” Kwee tells The Business Times from his corner office in the eight-storey showroom and workshop complex, as well as new corporate base. He spent S$28 million to acquire the land in 2011, with no specific purpose for it in mind. “At the time, honestly I had no idea what I was going to do. This space was available, so I just bought it,” he says. “My intention was to support parking for my Leng Kee showrooms.”

Staff have worked in the Eurokars Centre for around two months now, but Kwee is officially opening the doors to two new showrooms there on Dec 15. Both are landmarks in their own way.

The ground floor houses the largest Rolls-Royce centre in the Asia-Pacific region. Customers walk through doors that mimic the brand’s famous Pantheon grille, and assuming they can tear their eyes away from the posh cars inside (one Phantom limousine has so many custom features that its price tag is S$5 million), they’ll eventually find a speakeasy-style bar. It’s there for Rolls’ clientele to socialise while immersed in the opulence they’re used to, but it presumably also lets them have something to steady the nerves when signing on the dotted line for a car that costs telephone numbers.

The second floor is home to Singapore’s first BMW “Experience Centre”, a showroom designed according to the Retail.Next Concept that the German brand is rolling out worldwide. It leans heavily on digital tech to let customers find out about BMW and its cars, but its homely decor is designed to entice customers to linger.

Showrooms usually have to conform to strict design rules set by a brand, but the Retail.Next Concept is more loose and local; Eurokars keeps customers caffeinated with beans from Tiong Hoe, a speciality coffee chain headquartered nearby.

Kwee spent S$3 million on the BMW facilities and an eye-watering S$6 million on Rolls-Royce, on top of the S$106 million it cost to put up the building. The numbers are large even for the notoriously capital-intensive motor trade, but what might really raise eyebrows is that, having built his new headquarters, Kwee has signalled that he is ready to start handing the keys over.

The 75-year-old motor tycoon has tipped his two adult children to take over, although without a fixed timeline. His son Herbert, 45, runs the group’s Indonesian businesses while his daughter Charmain, 27, recently took on the role of group executive director here. The two share responsibility for Australia, while managers run the China dealerships.

They will eventually oversee an empire that currently sells around 15,000 cars a year, with more than 1,600 employees. But neither will have to jump in at the deep end. Earlier this week, Kwee told staff that he is promoting Ong Lay Ling, Eurokars’ group managing director, to chief executive officer in January. The Kwee children will continue to report to her, and are expected to learn from her.

“She has been with me for 30 years, and she knows the culture of the company. She knows my style. My two children must support her. She can also give guidance to them,” he says. “Maybe for them it’s easier to talk to her than to me.”

That’s something Charmain Kwee can agree with. She says the incoming CEO can be something of a referee figure sometimes. “There are going to be times when my dad sees me as his daughter and not his employee,” she says. “In his head he’s the father figure, and with me, it’s ‘what do you know, you’re just a kid’.”

The younger Kwee says Ong is the impartial presence that can weigh in when father and daughter disagree. “It’s good to have that neutral party there to help make the decisions that are best for the company,” she says.

Charmain points to the BMW Experience Centre as one example where she didn’t see eye-to-eye with her father. He had wanted to house BMW’s more mainstream models there and put the high-end, luxury cars in another new showroom for the brand that Eurokars will soon build at 29 Leng Kee Road.

“I disagreed with that,” she says. She reasoned that the most expensive BMWs belonged near Rolls-Royce and in Eurokars’ own flagship building. “There was a lot of back and forth. Some people sided with me, some people sided with him,” she says. She got her way after selling her idea to all the internal stakeholders.

While Charmain is currently working on business development projects, building the BMW franchise was her big break. BMW Asia took the unusual step of appointing a second dealership for the brand here last year, and named Eurokars its new partner. Just months after leaving Sterling Law Corporation to join the business, she had to scramble to learn the ins-and-outs of both the car trade and the BMW brand. She put a new showroom together in a hurry, had to oversee renovations to the Experience Centre and then plan the new BMW and Mini complex that the group wants to open next year.

Asked to assess herself after less than two years on the job, she is relatively harsh. “In terms of how much I’ve achieved, out of 10, I’d give myself a 4,” she says. Coincidentally, Eurokars now sells four out of 10 BMWs here.

She feels that, while she’s grasped the basics, she wants to manage her time better, know the numbers inside out and be able to instantly switch her mindset out of BMW and into any of the group’s many other brands from, say, China’s MG to Ferrari. “There’s a lot more to learn,” she says.

Yet, Charmain has something to teach, as well. Company patriarchs struggle with handing businesses over to their children all the time, and living through an ongoing succession has given her valuable insights on how to do it better.

Father and daughter are both quick to point out that Charmain was never forced to join the company (although she says she was constantly cajoled from childhood). “If you’re a parent, let your child do what your child wants to do. You only have one life, you’d better live it,” she says. Family businesses are easy to join but difficult to leave in good circumstances, she feels.

In a similar vein, kids should step in only after experiencing life in the wider world, she says. “Go outside and learn things. The world is a lot bigger than your parents’ company. You can only see so much from your little fish tank,” she says. Doing so leaves fewer itches unscratched, too.

But above that, she says the children of business owners need to find a better reason to work for their parents than a sense of filial obligation. She admits she joined Eurokars because, in her words, she loved her father and wanted to help him.

“One year ago, I would have told you that loving your parents is enough to get you through. But I will tell you that business is tough enough on some days that you really have to find something that grounds you. You have to find a love for the business, for the thing that you do,” she says. “I don’t necessarily have to have a big passion for cars, but having the drive to really see and realise the potential that this business has, and to take care of my team, that’s a good grounding for me.”

For his part, the elder Kwee seems relaxed about letting go. “I’m not really stepping back. (But) the decision makers don’t necessarily have to come to me,” he tells BT. “They can make good decisions together with my two children.” His new building may not be a family home, but it is the next best thing: a home for his family business.