Part of Lifetime Legacies, a series produced by SilverKris for Opus by Prudential
At first glance, the 17-year-old Gryphon Tea Company has all the classic hallmarks of a multigenerational legacy.
The founder, Lim Tian Wee is the fourth generation in his family to be involved in the tea business. It’s a legacy that began in 1918, when his great-grandmother Lim Kheng Thiam started Lim Lam Thye, a provision shop selling Chinese tea on Singapore’s Hokkien Street.
Tian Wee’s father Lim Keng Tong took over the business in the 1970s, and Lim Lam Thye gradually grew to become one of Singapore’s biggest tea traders. Less than two decades later, Tian Wee and his brother Tian Peng each had a turn working at the Lim Lam Thye warehouse as young men. Tian Wee spent many of his teenage days blending tea with a shovel for a reported salary of S$5 an hour.
“That taught me the value of money. As a boy working alongside with the adult workers, I felt proud I didn’t let my father down and put in my fair share to get the job done.”
At the same time, Tian Wee and the Gryphon Tea Company are living proof that the strongest legacies are those that allow future generations to find their own way in the world.
In fact, when Tian Wee finished his marketing degree from Michigan State University in 1993 and returned to join Lim Lam Thye, his father refused at first. The elder Lim was concerned that Tian Wee had no concrete experience in tea, and couldn’t tell a sencha from an oolong. Tian Wee went on to do marketing for multinational companies Unilever and Beiersdorf AG for a decade before returning to the family business and becoming a tea master.
But the story doesn’t end there. What in other multigenerational business narratives would be a prodigal homecoming was for Tian Wee the beginning of journey – a journey of forging his own path, while taking a three-generation legacy along for the ride.
A legacy that grows to fit new dreams
Entering the family business was not without its challenges, starting from the casual new dress code to the constant work talk that followed the family members back home to the dining table. “But most importantly, we needed a sustainable brand,” Tian Wee recalls.
In a rapidly changing market, he felt Lim Lam Thye’s over-reliance on B2B relationships left them uninsulated from future challenges. Their clients eventually became their competitors, not to mention the company was not capitalising on the retail boom.
In 2006, Tian Wee proposed to his father a bold new direction: a wholly owned subsidiary that would focus on retail. “Our conversation extended beyond office hours into after-dinner talks,” Tian Wee recalls. “It did not take him long to agree, as I agreed to start small with the project.” His father shared his blessing as well as S$2,500 in start-up funds.
“Both generations agree that the business should be a living and evolving entity,” Tian Wee says, “which reflects both the past and present, and always striving for a better future.”
Tian Wee’s father also shared a third thing: old logo designs that he himself drew back in the 1980s, when the elder Lim dreamt of starting a retail brand. One of those dragon drawings became the DNA of the Gryphon Tea Company. In a poetic twist of fate, in going his own way, Tian Wee took on the mantle of his father’s legacy.
Nearly two decades since it was launched, Gryphon Tea Company has grown in a very different direction from its parent company. It has embraced both institutional clients – most recently the hotly awaited Mondrian hotel on Duxton Hill – as well as e-commerce. The company launched several new lines of bold new premium teas, including the newest, Monogram, which invites tea-lovers to layer their own preferred flavours.
Gryphon has even expanded into what might seem like counterintuitive markets, winning over the Japanese with earl greys and other black teas. Expanding beyond tea, Tian Wee’s Ujong Gourmet is a heritage food brand focused on Singapore-inspired coffees, tisanes, jams and granolas. “Gryphon is a master of distilling ingredients into harmonious brews that balance art and science. My vision for Gryphon is to take the expression of tea and herbs beyond the boundaries of food & beverages,” he says.
Though he has forged into vastly different territories than his predecessors, Tian Wee has relied on his parents’ experience to guide him. “The experience and opinions of our predecessors have helped us to navigate in times when opportunities looked too good to be true,” he says. “For example, I have made mistakes in buying tea that purported to be of much higher quality, only to realise I have been duped after receiving the shipment. It was a small price to pay for a valuable lesson in being more aware during business dealings.”
Business should be a living and evolving entity which reflects both the past and present, and always strive for a better future
Singapore’s legacy, forged by generations
Of course, multigenerational legacies need more than just guidance and wisdom to thrive. They need good business practice and a favourable infrastructure, too. After all, SMEs – a large part of which are family-owned businesses – don’t have it easy.
“There’s the high cost of operations, increased competition from overseas, a fast-paced consumer market and a tight labour market,” Tian Wee warns, speaking from personal experience. “Family businesses in Singapore will need to relentlessly adapt and innovate.”
At the same time, he credits Singapore’s business-friendly policies and statutory boards such as Enterprise Singapore for nurturing businesses such as his. “SMEs can take advantage of government incentives and grants to invest in new technologies, optimize their operations and engage in product development and intellectual property to differentiate themselves from the competition.”
It’s not a one-sided relationship between SMEs and the Singapore government, though. Tian Wee points out how integral the former are to the health of the nation. “Family businesses comprise over 48% of the GDP and employ 65% of the workforce.”
Inspired by international influences
A good legacy is strengthened by receptivity not just to previous generations, but to outside influences as well.
One remark Tian Wee often gets from associates on his overseas travels is that they didn’t know Singapore is a tea-producing nation. It’s not, of course, but he believes it’s this lack of tea history that makes Gryphon so receptive to innovation.
“With better education and exposure, the next generation may bring fresh perspectives and ideas, bring new technologies to operations and diversify the business,” he says.
One bold example of this spirit involves a trip Tian Wee took to Japan in 2007. Tasting a sublime bowl of dashi broth at the old Tsukiji Market, he was struck by a new thought: why can’t teas be savoury? This idea led to partnerships with some of Singapore’s biggest culinary names, such as Ryan Clift of Tippling Club and Janice Wong of 2am:dessertbar.
Similarly, a trip to Tuscany, where Tian Wee encountered beautiful orange bergamot flowers – hard to come by in Singapore. This experienced eventually led to the development of Gryphon’s Earl Grey Neroli tea.
In previous interviews, he has pointed out that the US is not a coffee-producing nation either any more than Singapore is a tea-producing one. And yet, unimpeded by unchanging coffee traditions, it has managed to raise the profile of coffee around the world through innovation. That’s what Gryphon can do for tea – and for Singapore’s legacy in the world.
Preparing a legacy for the next generation
Though he has journeyed a long way on his own, Tian Wee is mindful of the role his family’s legacy has played in his success – and the responsibility he bears in carrying that legacy forward.
“Long-term succession planning comes up frequently in our family conversation. Identifying the next generation of leaders to take over the business and ensure continuity is extremely important,” he says.
He is determined to pass along best business practices that have served him well, such as building a strong customer-facing brand, diversifying revenue streams, maintaining excellent cashflow and staying debt-free.
But there’s more to the Lim legacy than simply business acumen. “Keeping our family legacy includes retaining our business value system,” Tian Wee says, “including integrity, compassion and being earnest.”
Without spiritual support and my immediate family members, the joy of business success would not be a fulfilling one
This legacy of earnestness is readily apparent to anyone who spends time with Tian Wee. It’s not just Gryphon’s philanthropic efforts and increasingly eco-conscious packaging – part of the company’s desire to leave the world a better place. It’s also the founder’s open, gentle demeanor and readiness with just the right Chinese adage that speaks to a business mind with a strong spiritual compass.
“My own legacy is a trinity of God, Family and Business,” he says. “Without spiritual support and my immediate family members, the joy of business success would not be a fulfilling one.”
This feature is part of Lifetime Legacies. Produced in partnership with Opus by Prudential, the series explores the longevity and legacy of some of Singapore’s most well-known multi-generational family businesses.
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Interviewees’ words are their own and may not necessarily reflect the views of Prudential.