Scion of Julie’s Biscuits, Tzy Horng Sai, has been involved with shaping brand identity for several years now. And as the reins of the family business are placed more firmly in his hands, he’s led the charge to regroup and re-engage with young customers. From cinematic Youtube shorties to a charming new logo, his campaign reminds us that relevance is a quality that must be wrangled by the horns.
Very much an entrepreneur in his own right, here’s a look at the paradigms he’s using to expand his business in the new normal.
Based on who you are at this very moment … what do the terms entrepreneur and entrepreneurship mean to you today?
I increasingly think that entrepreneurship is about the collective and social value one introduces to the world and that entrepreneurship should have an aspirational tangent to it. What I mean by an aspirational tangent is that it should allow us to keep working in that direction to drive value not just for consumers, but for the world, in terms of sustainability, inclusion and betterment of our social and physical world.
To better serve your current customers and win new fans, what sort of leader have you decided to be?
It’s hard for me to think of myself as a leader per se and I confess that I mostly am not comfortable being called a leader. Of course, that’s not to say that I am unaware that I am in a leadership position, providing thought leadership and responsibilities to others. And perhaps knowing that being a leader is more about the doing of leadership that inhabiting a particular role is the differentiating point. I tend to think pragmatically about what needs to be done to make Julie’s Biscuits a better brand for our current fans, future fans and internally in our Julie’s family. It’s important to have an outward and forward-looking perspective in everything we do. I think my colleagues would often catch me saying that “you must leave the village to get a better understanding of the village” or “don’t stay too long in the village.” What I mean is that we can’t be complacent and have to look outward into the world for inspiration all the time. I believe that people’s stories are important and that brands such as Julie’s can be great storytellers.
Considering the legacy that has been passed on to you, in terms of business acumen and leadership, what are you keeping and what will you change?
Humility, I believe, is one of the strongest suits in the Julie’s culture. Julie’s Biscuits arose from very humble beginnings and ambitions. Humble because the founders’ earliest aspiration for the company was to deliver tasty biscuits at an affordable price to people. The idea was that biscuits are yummy and should be enjoyed. Humility also reminds us of where we came from and how interdependent we are and thus being humble at Julie’s refers to a constant reminder to put other people and matters before ourselves first. That allows for clarity of vision and thought to be facilitated. I think lack of clarity often arises when the ego is overrepresented. And I am blessed to be reminded of that on a regular basis by virtue of humility at every turn in the Julie’s culture.
That said, humility can sometimes and unfortunately also lead to reticence and insularity, and as a result close our eyes to the exciting world of perspectives and experiences outside our own. I’d like to think that if I were to leave a legacy behind it would be to open our sights and possibilities humbly yet bravely to the outside world. It’s important for any company or entity or person to look outside itself and learn to be excited by the things that other people are doing and appreciate the external eco-system.
How has your character changed or developed in the past 12 months?
The lockdowns during the pandemic has allowed me to be more introspective and be braver in my thinking. It’s also taught me to understand the trust I have for my colleagues at Julie’s Biscuits better. It’s taught me to be more optimistic and appreciative about the world and people, because it is peoples’ undying will to live and thrive that has tided and will continue to tide us through the pandemic crisis. I have also learned to “cut the oxygen off” the ineffective and inconsequential things in my life and be more intuitive about their emergence. If discussions arise in the social or public sphere that do little to help us move forward or are deleterious, I won’t pay much heed or give much space to them.
When it comes to building a new team or strengthening the current one, having a team of leaders to realise your business goals are not an easy task. What guarantees or support are you offering to encourage greater participation or personal responsibility?
There are many meaningful lessons to glean from the millennial generation and Gen Z and that is their propensity and eagerness for collaboration. I believe that the social incentive is a powerful and valuable driving force of many young enterprises and I am delighted by and consider myself fortunate to see this development. And in my leadership, I am learning from this collaborative spirit. I believe people enjoy working in great teams and doing great work with other people. Greater participation and personal responsibility will arise when Julie’s continuously strive towards building great teams. It’s important to remind people that they have mutual obligations to each other, in their teams, organisations, community
etc. and they have a greater good they are working towards.
Every business person wants to grow and leave the business stronger for the next generation. What legacy are you working on from today?
Building a robust brand for Julie’s Biscuits is always a work in progress. So far, my work has been to build the brand internally and externally. Internally by consolidating the existing value system and creating a better environment for the system to thrive. Externally by making sure that we communicate and resonate closely with our fans, winning fans in the process too.
I am interested in building a Julie’s that grows sustainably. The sustainability question is always in the back of my mind – sustainability in an all-encompassing sense of the world i.e. social, environmental, economic and psychological sustainability. Some of the worst things that have happened to the world was a result out of growing too big too fast.
Everyone talks of turning crisis into opportunity. What does this actually mean to you?
Crisis management doesn’t occur overnight – it requires foresight and planning and making it part of the work culture. I feel that Julie’s has been blessed with leadership over the years that values resource and financial conservatism and sustainability over growing at an unsustainable rate.
In many instances, I think the first step of turning crisis into opportunity actually means listening closely to the people who are experiencing the crisis and being attentive to their needs. It’s also knowing that things cannot be rushed sometimes and that during crises a lot of anxieties may be exacerbated if things are rushed. Thus, it’s important to remain calm even when people are pressuring you to react. Only then can you really exploit the mantra of “turning crisis into opportunity”. And in Julie’s Biscuits, operationalising the mantra means constantly putting it into pre-emptive thinking action i.e. how do we find a better way out of this (crisis) and emerge stronger or how do shift the outcomes so that it works better for everyone? That way, over time, it becomes an integral part of our thought and work culture.
In your opinion, what are the three most important skills a business leader must have to succeed?
Being open to learning, being a good listener, and being decisive. You’d notice I use the term “being” namely because I don’t think they are skills that can be picked off an educational catalog and acquired. I think these are things you have to selectively choose and hone.
Being open to learning means that I have to be conscious that almost everything is a learning process. I would very much like Julie’s to be a company that is continuously learning. It’s important to listen to your employees, your fans, your non-customers, collaborators, and competitors. At the same time, leadership isn’t a forever project of finding or building consensus. When it is time to make a decision, you must do it firmly and stand behind your decisions without regret.
What efforts have you taken to expand your entrepreneurial influence among your customers, colleagues, competitors, and the wider community?
I haven’t actually planned to expand my entrepreneurial influence. I tend to shy away from thinking that things entrepreneurial necessarily couples with influence. I think doing the work is more important, be it in a meeting room with colleagues or in the social work that Julie’s does or in the brand videos that Julie’s put out.
When it comes to shaping company culture, what words do you often use or express to your team? And why?
Being bold asks us to think outside our comfort zones. Change because we must embrace change; change is constant. Creativity because it gives us energy to try different things and work in a fun and exciting way.