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Richard Eu

Become – High Profiles
June 22, 2018

It's Friday night and the lights are turned down low. A tall figure takes the spotlight, working the crowd at Victoria Bar. As his bandmates rouse the room with jazzy wails from the saxophone and nifty fingerwork on the keyboard, the frontman, with Elvis-esque twitches and jerks down to the toes of his boots, croons with his eyes closed into the microphone.

Electrified by heavy guitar riffs, the space is thumping with the lively bass beats of classic rock 'n' roll. We're jiving so hard now that I see multiple passersby outside peering curiously through the door. Some sidle in to join the fun. Vintage rock and blues always make for a good time. And tonight, Dick Eu and his band, Cat Mountain Kings are showing how it's done.

The moniker sounds convincing for a local blues, roots and classic rock band that happens to bear the same name as a premium type of durian. But Mao Shan Wang, or ‘Cat Mountain King’ durians are especially prized for the bittersweet creaminess of their flesh—making the fruit a fitting match for their particular genre of music. There’s also a playful wryness to their name, which suggests a refusal to take themselves too seriously—a quality I find similarly in Dick, or Richard as he is more professionally known, during the course of our two-hour long interview.

This lead singer happens to be the erstwhile CEO of Eu Yan Sang, a household name for traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in Singapore, Hong Kong and wherever there is a Chinese diaspora. A fourth-generation stakeholder in the family business, Richard has been the main driving force behind Eu Yan Sang’s massive business transformation by dissociating TCM from the dark and musty medical halls with inscrutable herbs and formulas, and turning it into easy-to-understand consumables with a modern and accessible approach.

When Richard first joined the company in 1989, TCM was widely regarded as a ‘sunset’ industry. He was also faced with the daunting task of consolidating control of the now 139-year-old company, as stakes had been dispersed over generations, across over seventy family members. After undergoing a takeover and public listing on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in 1992—which enabled him to buy back a majority stake in Eu Yan Sang, Richard consolidated all of Eu Yan Sang's operations into a single entity. Since then, Eu Yan Sang International has grown to a total of around 300 retail outlets in Singapore, Australia, mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Malaysia and operates 33 clinics in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong.

Most would view this laudable turnaround as a lifetime achievement. But Richard who retired just last year tells me, “I don’t want to be defined by my work at Eu Yan Sang. It was a major part of my life, a large part—but it shouldn’t be the only thing. There are so many other levels of life, such as being able to build a happy family and keeping good relationships—these are the important things.”

When I ask what retirement holds for him, Richard is still brimming with life and possibilities. “Personally, I’m just looking for new things. I turned 70 when I stepped down from being CEO. My father is 95 and he's still of sound mind, so if there's a chance that I'm going to live as long as my father, I have to prepare myself for the next 20 years of fairly useable life left. I want to stay curious and learn what is going on around me. You can't just switch off like that.”

On Life, Business & Leadership: An In-Depth Conversation with Richard Eu

Chairman, Eu Yan Sang International Ltd
Text by Teo Ren Feng
Photography by Yew Jia Jun

TEO REN FENG: Growing up, how much was the business a part of your life?

RICHARD EU: Not very much. I knew our family owned it and I would follow my mother to buy herbs, but that was about it.

REN FENG: What was your first memory of Eu Yan Sang?

RICHARD: Just a very old, musty, dark and rather alien sort of environment.

REN FENG: Was TCM a big part of your life?

RICHARD: We knew about the shop and my mother would give us herbs when we were sick or to fortify our health, which we accepted quite readily. I suppose going to the shop was kind of interesting but not something that I thought I’d do.

REN FENG: So what compelled you to join the business?

RICHARD: My father made me an alternate director of the board back then. Through my involvement as a board member, I learnt a bit more about the business and thought that it had potential, which led to me finding ways to achieve its potential.

REN FENG: You had a vision to modernise the business and bring it forward.

RICHARD: Yes. I thought it was ironic that in the West, there was a lot more interest in natural health than in Asia. They were looking at natural healthcare because they saw the problems that we are seeing in even greater proportions today such as the rise of chronic illnesses, the over-dependence on painkillers, especially opioids, and even antibiotics. Since most of our traditional medicines in Asia are natural, including TCM, which we had the knowledge of—why can't we be a leader or authority then? In other industries, most Asian countries have to learn from the West, because technologically they were the first to industrialise, etc. But when it comes to natural medicines, there really isn't much that they know compared to us. You can't say the same for rocket science though. I didn’t want to wait for the West to tell us about traditional Asian medicines or be sidelined in any conversation on healthcare. So that was the beginning of the thought process on how to change the business and in fact the whole sector, because back then, people were very intimidated to go into our stores. I think there's still a long way to go for universal acceptance, but I felt that we had to start somewhere.

REN FENG: There has been greater push for, and interest in natural medicines. What do you think will be the catalyst triggering a genuine shift away from the predominant use of synthetic pharmaceuticals in medicine?

RICHARD: I don't think one company can achieve this. It has to be a considered effort starting at a policy-making level. There has actually been a lot of evidence that support natural medicines already, but simply realising the problem and doing something about it will take a long time.

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REN FENG: As a natural medicine provider, I'm sure a huge part of your struggle was getting mainstream recognition and acceptance.

RICHARD: Yes. These days, we have young healthcare practitioners, western-trained doctors and so on, who are more open. I think that change will eventually happen. The irony is that consumers accept it, but regulators try to isolate us by putting different healthcare modalities into silos. I can understand why, but we should try and look at everything on an outcome basis rather than the origin. You might say, “This practice is not conventional allopathic medicine, so we can't regulate it.” But I think it is blinkering yourself when you should be looking at the facts: consumers are still using complementary alternative treatments, and in some cases, it does help them. The catalyst has to come from regulators who understand that this other category of "natural medicine" can be used, and allow medical practitioners such as western medical doctors to recommend and prescribe these products—for example, offering alternatives to opioid painkillers. But I don't see it happening quickly because the pharmaceutical companies will work every which way to stop that from happening. The whole healthcare ecosystem is wrong, but it will take a very brave government to try and change everything.

REN FENG: What does modernising traditional Chinese medicine mean to you?

RICHARD: We try to make TCM as easy to understand as possible for the layperson. It's a complicated subject which can go into a lot of technical details, but modernisation is basically shorthand for being able to explain what you have to your consumers, in a way that they understand what you are trying to do.

It's hard to build a business based on myth and mystery.

REN FENG: It seems like common sense now, but I’m sure that wasn’t always the case.

RICHARD: Back in the day, people thought that Chinese medicine was so complicated and consumers were clueless. It was a case of: “Just listen to me and take what I give you.” If you had a cough, your grandmother would tell you to drink soup because the herbs were good for you, but she couldn’t tell you why. That can lead to a lot of misinformation or half-truths. We try to tell you why it's good for you, as part of the process of simplifying it. It's hard to build a business based on myth and mystery. If you are more transparent and people understand, it's more sustainable.

REN FENG: What do you think is Eu Yan Sang's strongest asset?

RICHARD: Reputation. 

REN FENG: What one word would you like Eu Yan Sang to stand for in the minds of your customers?

RICHARD: Trust. 

REN FENG: Do you think these strengths can carry Eu Yan Sang through the rapid technological changes and potential disruptors in the industry?

RICHARD: If we were a business purely focused on technology, it would be easy for someone to disrupt us. However, if your customer base believes in your name and reputation, that you would do right by them, at least that's the basis of a good relationship. It’s probably stronger than saying I can sell you something cheaper, or I have the latest technology, because someone might come up with something better tomorrow.

REN FENG: You joined Eu Yan Sang after a varied career in banking and finance. How much of those experiences would you consider essential to your success?

RICHARD: All of it. It was useful working in different industries and with different people. Everything you do adds up to the next thing. No experience or knowledge gained is ever wasted. It's what Steve Jobs calls “connecting the dots”, where everything that you do are the “dots”, and one day you find that they all somehow connect.

There will always be people who disappoint you, and it's about being able to see beyond that. It’s about believing that no matter what—there is still inherent good in people. 

REN FENG: How’s retirement coming along?

RICHARD: It means doing different jobs now [laughs].

REN FENG: Is the process of stepping away difficult?

RICHARD: Yes, I think you've got to submerge your ego to be able to let go. It's not easy, but you have to see what's really more important: the ego or the business. There are a lot of people who feel that only they themselves can run the business. That's a big mistake. If you can overcome your ego, it'll be easier. 

REN FENG: How do you know exactly when to hand over the reins?

RICHARD: I don't. I just felt that it was a good point because of shareholder changes, institutionalising the company, and as part of that process, have a change of leadership as well. I feel I've taken it to a certain stage and have hit my limit—I don't know where that point is, but we all have our life cycles, and so does the company. If the company's life cycle is the same as your life cycle, that's the end of the business. You can only be a part of it, and it’s up to the next team to take it further. Hopefully, the company can continue to grow from strength to strength.

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REN FENG: Are you a realist or an optimist?

RICHARD: I'm always an optimist. I look at the brighter side of things and just go with it. I think my formative experiences in boarding school made me so. There were definitely tough times: being bullied, racism and all that... but what can I say? [laughs] I still have friends from boarding school—people that I’ve known since 1960 and we keep in touch every year. I’ve looked at that experience in a positive way, instead of cutting it out of my life. 

REN FENG: What's the biggest people management lesson that you've learnt?

RICHARD: Do you want a cynical one or not? [laughs] There will always be people who disappoint you, and it's about being able to see beyond that. It’s about believing that no matter what—there is still inherent good in people. Some people might end up being totally suspicious, thinking that nobody is good and all your staff are out to cheat you, but I'm not like that. You treat people the way you want them to treat you back. It's a golden rule. If people do disappoint you, I see it as an exception to the norm, and exceptions do happen. You just have to move on instead of letting it destroy you.

Most people's vision is to simply make a lot of money, but that's not a vision.

REN FENG: What is your most salient piece of advice for a young entrepreneur starting out?

RICHARD: They've got to have a vision and the passion to pursue that vision. It's easy to say, but very hard to do. Most people's vision is to simply make a lot of money, but that's not a vision. Most entrepreneurs I think are trying to fix something.

REN FENG: What was your vision?

RICHARD: My vision was really driven by the purpose of the company, which is to help people. I think it's a very noble cause to try and help others. If you can grow a company by helping people and be able to make money at the same time, that's a win-win for everybody.

REN FENG: A vision can become very abstract when you are caught up in the day-to-day.

RICHARD: You have to always keep in mind that what you're doing on a day-to-day basis should contribute to your vision and mission.

REN FENG: Do you use it as a litmus test for whether or not you should be doing something?

RICHARD: Yeah, in a way. But you will make mistakes along the way. It's also very hard to get your purpose across to everyone. When you tell your managers that their main KPI is to make a certain profit margin, it's quite easy for someone to take that to mean, "Let’s make profit at any cost." And then you forget the original intent. You have to constantly go back to what your original intent is.

REN FENG: Where lies the balance between profit and social responsibility for you?

RICHARD: Look at the situations where it is win-win for everybody. You've got to be fair to your customers, never cheat and charge a fair price. Just don't make profit at any cost. You are entitled to make good profit, because this is an open market and there are other competitors out there. But hearing a customer share how your product or service has helped to cure their problem or aid them is the most gratifying thing. Making money as a result of helping others, is the perfect scenario.

REN FENG: Who do you see as Eu Yan Sang’s biggest competitors?

RICHARD: I don't know. I think the world is moving so fast and disruption will probably come from someone who's not a traditional competitor, maybe a tech company of some sorts.

REN FENG: How are you preparing for that?

RICHARD: Nothing is a given—you have to constantly be thinking about what someone might do to disrupt you. Just look at the world today and even just the developments that have happened in my short lifetime of working. The changes have been horrendous. In my first job, being able to have a secretary that had an IBM Golfball typewriter was the epitome of success. [laughs] I still find it hard to believe that all I have to do is carry this one little device [gestures to his smartphone], and I can communicate with anyone in the world, at virtually no cost, when back then we were still using telexes, not even faxes. It’s amazing.

REN FENG: We're in a revolutionary age.

RICHARD: Yes. You'd think that IBM was invincible back then, but look where they are now. Another obvious example is Kodak...

The bigger you get, the more humble you have to be.

REN FENG: What lends a business staying power in such a volatile climate?

RICHARD: A great degree of humility. The bigger you get, the more humble you have to be. Just because you dominate a market segment, doesn’t mean that you are untouchable. That's when you get disrupted. You've got to realise that at any time, someone can come up and throw you off. 

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REN FENG: How do you maintain that sort of agile, non-complacency?

RICHARD: Paranoia. [laughs] Constant paranoia.

One of the mistakes that a lot of seniors make is thinking that they are too old to talk to some ‘young punk'.

REN FENG: Do you still think about work constantly?

RICHARD: You have to be aware of what's going on, and talk to young people. One of the mistakes that a lot of seniors make is thinking that they are too old to talk to some ‘young punk'. And that's an issue of humility, isn't it? If you think that as a 70-year-old, a 25-year-old has got nothing to teach you, then you are going to be in for a big surprise. I'm thankful that I married later and now have younger children to keep me connected to their generation—the millennials.

REN FENG: What do you think is the greatest challenge that millennials face?

RICHARD: I wonder if it is the same for every generation, and that they face resistance from the older ones. Every generation tries to push against the status quo until they eventually become the establishment that is being challenged by the younger ones. I grew up as a baby boomer in the 1960s, a watershed era where our generation pushed for change and met with a lot of resistance. So, I'm okay if my children are unhappy with a certain status quo and want to protest. I'm all for it. But I think their generation is more conventional and question less. 

REN FENG: What is an essential skill a young person needs?

RICHARD: They need to have a lot of self-confidence. One of the failures of the Confucian system is the notion of hierarchy, where you believe that the elder always knows better. I don’t believe in that and I think you should always question. So I’d like for the younger generation to not accept everything others tell you. [laughs] That probably sounds anarchist. But we have to question, in order to progress.

REN FENG: Is it part of the reason why all your children attended school overseas?

RICHARD: It's not because I disagree with the academic approach here, but it was an opportunity to open my children’s eyes to the world from a young age since I’ve experienced that for myself, and benefited from it. Although I didn't send them to an English boarding school, I thought the States would offer a more diverse experience, because you get a broader mix of subjects as well as people. They don't have scholarship programmes in English boarding schools but quite a lot of students are on scholarships in the U.S., and they come from different backgrounds. How many Singaporean kids get to interact with African Americans or Hispanics? I’m sorry to say, but if you go to an elite school in Singapore today, what are the chances of you mixing with kids across the social strata, and even racial groups? Can students here relate to people in India or Africa where poverty is still a big issue? And how many Singaporeans even want to go to India for a holiday? There's a lot of bias and prejudices that I wanted to correct in my children, because back in my day, our society wasn’t as segmented.

REN FENG: There's a big difference between studying and learning.

RICHARD: Academic standards are very high here, but that's just one part of the equation. It's not about getting good grades, or going to a brand name university. Life is a continuous learning process. You've got to instill a sense of curiosity in your kids, so that they learn outside of academia. I would have succeeded as a parent if my children are able to try and learn new things all the time.

REN FENG: Isn’t independent learning something they've been trying to inculcate in the Singapore education system for the last decade?

RICHARD: They think that solutions always have to be prescribed and there's always a formula for a successful outcome. Do first, then shoot or aim later, because sometimes you can’t predict what the outcome is going to be. So you just have to jump into the deep end and let things unfold. That's how start-ups happen right? Most of them fail, while few succeed. The key is the willingness to try and that's all you need.

REN FENG: Do you think there is a future for those who think outside of the system in Singapore?

RICHARD: I don't know. I think you should have an obligation to do something for your country that nurtures you. After all, we've benefited from being in Singapore. But at the end of the day, it depends on whether you can live with the system or not. When I came back to work in the seventies, things were different. But changes have happened over time, and if you find that you can't live with that, then you've got to move. We can't fool ourselves that we're living in a utopia, but the onus is on us as citizens of a country, to try and do something to improve it. 

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Richard-Eu-Art-5Dick's eyes closed in rapture at Victoria Bar. Photograph: Eumund Tan

I asked Richard about the most defining times of his life, and he named the formative years before and during his time at boarding school as having the greatest influence on who he is today. A child of the swinging sixties and empowering seventies, here is a list of songs that shaped Richard's youth.

“All these songs were written before the eighties, and played an important part in my formative years. I guess there would be another soundtrack of my life after I got married and had children.”

1. Trouble by Elvis Presley: I wasn’t allowed to watch Elvis movies but I managed to sneak into the old Pavilion cinema on Orchard Road to watch “King Creole”. This might have been the first Elvis movie I saw. The song is from the movie.

2. Tonight by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim from West Side Story: I saw the West End production when I was sent to boarding school in England at the age of 12/13. George Chakaris was playing the lead role.

3. Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by J.S. Bach: I like classical music but don’t listen to it as much as jazz or blues. This is one of my favourites and reminds me of chapel services in boarding school where it was often played.

4. Take Five by Dave Brubeck: I started to be interested in jazz after hearing this.

5. Love Me Do by The Beatles: The first song from the Fab Four that made the charts, it wasn’t number one but I thought that they were a very interesting band.

6. Surfin’ Safari by The Beach Boys: Around the same time as The Beatles, but a good contrast to the English vibe and an introduction to the California lifestyle.

7. Satisfaction by The Rolling Stones: Probably the song that summed up the 60’s for me.

8. I Heard It On The Grapevine by Marvin Gaye: My favourite disco song of the 60’s.

9. Bitches Brew by Miles Davis: I saw Miles in the early 70’s just after this album was released, I could never forget that concert.

10. September by Earth, Wind & Fire: My favourite disco song of the late 70’s/early 80’s.

11. Crazy Love by Van Morrison: I love his songs and recorded a version of this on my album “66”.

12. Born to be Wild by Steppenwolf: My favourite road song and I consider it to be my theme song!

 

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Edited by Wy-Lene Yap