Ee Soon Wei, CEO Of Malaysia's Art Printing Works, On Reforming Family Businesses
Tailing on the wind of change sweeping our nation, we speak to self-professed 'creative rebel' Ee Soon Wei for our June cover story. Here, this Generation T lister talks about the realities of reinvigorating his family business and explains how Lee Kuan Yew influenced his leadership style.
A day before our scheduled interview with Ee Soon Wei, Malaysians woke up to a new government—with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad leading the charge for a new Malaysia.
“It feels like there is a new dawn waiting for us, which promises restored hope,” Soon Wei commented wistfully at the start of our interview.
If there is anyone who could talk at length about change and its impact on a legacy, it would be Soon Wei. The CEO of Art Printing Works (APW) has been working tirelessly the past eight years to breathe new life into his family business—a commercial printing entity that was said to have turned in good profit during its heydays in the 1980s and 1990s. APW was an offshoot of The Royal Press, a letterpress printing house in Malacca, that was founded by Soon Wei’s grandfather Ee Lay Swee.
But Soon Wei did not start in the family business after completing his studies in marketing and management in Melbourne. Instead he chose to go into a corporate career—contributing to top companies like Sara Lee in his early 20s, where he was in charge of marketing and branding.
A Pivot To Remember
Soon Wei first stepped a foot into the family business by embarking on a personal project to conserve The Royal Press (TRP) into a museum, where he successfully obtained a grant from Sime Darby Foundation.
In 2009, after checking in to the family’s commercial printing facility APW, he was alarmed to discover there was a large debt to be settled. Upon getting appointed as CEO, he laboured hard to pay back what was owed, be it through chasing payments from customers, selling old machinery and trimming down the cost of print operations.
“It was becoming clear that the print business would not sustain APW for long,” he said. It was necessary for him to make a pivot—and this would mark the turning point of APW’s transition from printing into real estate.
With the empty warehouse space available for rent in Bangsar, Soon Wei envisioned a ‘creative campus’ where people could come together to meet, be inspired and indulge in culture, through food, art and events.
It all started with a cafe called Pulp by Palheta, which was then rapidly followed by other exciting F&B setups like Kaiju, Breakfast Thieves and Proof. People soon started calling in to host their parties and events at APW; Soon Wei also worked on a co-working space in the floor above a now-smaller printing facility which boasts a pocket park and more.
The Price Of Change
“You put in long hours and a great sense of responsibility, but you are also dealt with a heavier stakeholder pressure, which is made complex because they are your closest kin and family members,” says Soon Wei about what it’s like to lead a family business.
An assessment of the business’ financial health saw that it was necessary for him to categorically streamline human resources, from 148 employees down to 20. It was difficult for Soon Wei to make this decision—and even harder for his stakeholders to accept. There was a lingering sense of nostalgia among his staff, because of the glorious days of APW’s past.
“My mother, who worked at APW before she married my father, always reminds me, these employees during attrition are her colleagues. That’s why it is taking so long, because I needed to ensure this is done with care and dignity. It is my responsibility to do things correctly. It’s tough—I won’t lie—but it was necessary,” he says.
In this regard, conflict is inevitable. “It can be a strain because some people think they are always right and do not try to see your point of view. More often than not, I end up being in the middle of conflicts or disagreements. What do you then? Sometimes the only way is to either seek permission or forgiveness—and you do your best to move on after,” he says.
Soon Wei described himself as ‘naïve’ when he first started out at APW. Conflict and uncertainty has taught him the resilience that shifted his thinking patterns to be more measured and calculated.
“In my journey as CEO, I have experimented with many leadership styles. I started by turning to my roots and my family’s management ways at first, but I learnt quickly that it doesn’t work for me. I have also tried out trust-leadership, by stepping back and empowering my second-liners to make decisions, only to realise I was creating a barrier between myself and the lower rungs of the company due to silos,” he relates.
Until today, he is always thinking about how to be a better, more effective leader. His current management style is inspired by Lee Kuan Yew, the late Prime Minister of Singapore. “Now, I still listen to opinions, but when push comes to shove, I will say ‘Thank you, but let’s do it this way’ based on gut feel,” said the voracious reader, who is now reading about Southeast Asian leaders.
Spaces With Purpose
As the dust settles around us after the historical general election, Soon Wei is looking forward to chart a new course for APW in a new Malaysia. Currently, aside from APW Bangsar, Soon Wei’s team is also looking into events and promotions for properties around Asia.
On what he looks for in promising projects and spaces, he says, “Visually I am captivated by space positioning and crowd flow. But above all, I am attuned to the sound and noise a space makes. When I go to a space that is really crowded, I always try to come back again when the space is quiet. I want to be there to see and feel the void,” he shares.
Soon Wei, who is turning 40 in a few years, is eager for new possibilities for APW in this new era. There’s also an interest in putting APW onto the path of hospitality business.
“Once the attrition is completed, there are more horizons to pursue—with our new government, there’s hope we could have new definitions of what real estate could be. I hope for a seamless integration and assimilation of spaces, people and culture,” he said eagerly as our interview drew to a close.
To read the full story, grab a copy of our June issue out on newsstands now or click here to subscribe for a digital copy.
Also read: Discover another Generation T lister blazing trails in the country—Teach For Malaysia's Dzameer Dzulkifli
Photographer: Kah Mun Ho
Styling: Sarah Saw
Creative Direction: Syahlia Albina Sari
Grooming: Joey Yap and Mavis Ang
Outfit for Main Image: Emporio Armani
Location: Tamarind Square, Cyberjaya