The pastry business is no cakewalk for Kee Wah’s third generation
During the tumultuous period following the second world war, Wong Yip-wing, a neighbourhood tuck-shop owner, started using leftover shop supplies to make pastries to sell to the local Tankas boat people. Little did he know at the time, but this was the birth of what is now the Kee Wah Bakery, one of Hong Kong’s most well-known traditional Chinese patisseries.
Kee Wah now has 56 shops in Hong Kong, 15 in Taiwan, seven in the US and seven in China. It sells over 500 types of Chinese pastries, snacks, cookies, traditional Chinese bridal cakes and mooncakes. Recent years have seen it revamp its image and also capture the souvenir market with its Kee Wah gift range. Now in the hands of its second and third generations, the business is run by three of its founder’s grandchildren – cousins Max Wong, 44, executive director; Mark Wong, 37, executive director of operations; and Karlson Wong, 32, executive director of sales and marketing – under the leadership of two of their uncles.
It’s easy to imagine that Max, Mark and Karlson, looking dapper in business suits and spectacles, have had an easy life. Max, the eldest, says they are accused of just that all the time. “But then, we’re just a bakery. Not a gold mine. We’re quite small so we basically do everything. I try to plan our company’s business development and work with Karlson to look into what areas we can grow into. Then I work with Mark on how to increase our productivity to capture those businesses. It’s just like a huge Lego set with pieces that need putting together,” he says.
When the three were starting out with their careers, however, none of them were interested in working for the family business.
“I never thought of going to work for the family,” says Mark, who used to work at an architecture firm in San Francisco. He thinks fate brought him to the family business after one day when his friend told him about finding Kee Wah’s products in the area. “I said, ‘No, that must be a fake, I must investigate.’ I called my dad, who said they were real. All this time, he didn’t tell me we had two bakeries there.”
Like Mark, Max never thought of working for the family when he started his career in private banking at Citicorp in Los Angeles in 1992. It wasn’t until he returned to Hong Kong in 1997 looking for a finance job that he was tempted into the company. “My dad said, ‘You’re looking for a job anyway, why don’t you just come and help us out because we’re going through a lot of changes?’” Max says.
It was the family bond that helped bring Karlson back home from working in Beijing. “My mum was in hospital and I saw how much love she was getting from my dad’s siblings,” he says. “Somehow she inspired me that since I was out [there] working for other businesses and brands, why not use my time and my skill set to help the family business?”
With the sprawling presence of Western patisserie goods in Hong Kong, it is challenging for the bakery to keep up with the ever-changing palates of younger generations, while maintaining the core business of traditional Chinese pastries. Karlson insists, though, that the priority is to protect the brand. “It took a lot of effort and time in building it to be where it is today. We don’t want to dilute the brand, so when we come up with new products, we can’t go too far. We’re not going to all of a sudden start selling chocolates or strawberry cupcakes,” he says.
Max says there are ways of getting around the issue. “We’re always testing the boundaries to see what works and what doesn’t. One example is our Taiwanese pineapple shortcakes, which we tried with strawberry and blueberry. We all liked them but customers didn’t, because they’re too Westernised,” he says.
High rents create an additional business challenge, but Karlson says they have no intention of moving their two Hong Kong factories – in Cheung Sha Wan and Tai Po – to China. “We are an authentic Hong Kong brand. We are not saying that you can’t make good quality elsewhere, but for us, we know how to make good quality stuff in our home,” he says. He adds that consumer confidence is a huge concern these days and the brand’s core identity – “Made in Hong Kong” and “Hong Kong Souvenirs” – actually draw consumers from the mainland and overseas.
According to Mark, Chinese-pastry-making skills are also on the decline as traditional chefs retire. Hiring suitable replacements is becoming an urgent problem, but the Wongs have no intention of replacing human hands with automated methods.
“We don’t want to have machinery dictate the quality, because anybody can buy the same machines and then chuck out the same product. That’s what’s happening [elsewhere] actually,” Mark says.
Mark explains that as a family company, the working dynamic is very different to other types of business. “It definitely has a layer of complexity because not only do you have to deal with your work, but also the family relationship. It’s difficult. It’s a tough balancing act,” he says.
All three agree, though, that it is important to treat their 1,000 employees as equals and not make them feel ostracised in a close-knit family business. “We are the Wongs, so there’s bound to be employees who think, ‘I shouldn’t say this to you. I’m afraid to say an idea that contradicts with what you’re thinking,’” Karlson says. “But we’re all in this together. It’s important for me to hear what you think about this matter. We can’t do it alone.”
Max says that even though the business is experiencing a lot of challenges, one thing keeps the family together. “It’s the passion. If I’m a banker, or Karlson is in a big marketing company, or Mark is an architect, maybe, possibly, we’ll make more money. But then I think the job satisfaction would be very different.”
They also agree that while they all entered the business without any pressure, they are responsible for continuing the legacy. “It’s the satisfaction that drives us to work every day, but we do have to be careful,” Karlson says. “I’ve obviously thought about the saying that it’s the third generation that usually screws things up, so we just have to prove that wrong.”
SWEET SECRETS OF SEASONED SUCCESS
The Wongs reveal some of their business mantras
Treasure your staff “‘You have to treat your co-workers like members of your family.’ This comes from our grandfather.” Max
Ensure successful successions “For one generation to pass to the next, they need to think of ways to attract them into the business, not force them.” Mark
Understand that brand is power “You don’t want to dilute the brand. We’re known for being a Hong Kong souvenir and a part of Hong Kong culture.” Karlson
Respect traditions “We are gradually automating our manufacturing process, but we try not to sacrifice the quality [of the products] and the technique.” Mark