“YEAH, it’s not easy. I mean, how many young people want to spend hours pounding on a single piece when they can be doing other things,” laments the impeccably-dressed gentleman sitting just across from me, his brows furrowed in a frustrated frown.
Even in the dimly-lit hotel room somewhere in the modern metropolis of Taipei, Taiwan, Yong Yoon Li, the Executive Director of Royal Selangor, the world’s foremost name in quality pewter, and a brand synonymous with design and craftsmanship, cuts an arresting figure, with his classic Hong Kong movie star looks and easy eloquence.
Fresh from the launch of the Imperial Collection just the previous day, where the brand, in partnership with the National Palace Museum of Taipei, has produced an exquisite collection comprising homeware (tea pots, photo frames, tankards etc) and personal accessories (cufflinks, pendants et al) inspired by the uniqueness of precious antiques, Yoon Li is understandably buoyed — but pensive at the same time.
“Certainly, it’s going to be interesting times moving forward,” he muses, as his eyes wander and eventually rests on a beautifully-engraved object on the table in front of us. As a thoughtful silence descends between us, I allow my gaze to travel beyond the windows to a darkening vista of Taiwan’s most populous city.
LURING THE YOUNG
“So do you still have that problem?” I repeat, looking intently at the newly-minted Managing Director of Royal Selangor, Yoon Li. It has been more than eight years since our hotel rendezvous in Taipei and yet, it feels like only yesterday.
Seated across from each other in the contemporary confines of Royal Selangor Visitor Centre’s café in Setapak, Kuala Lumpur, I note that the affable Yoon Li, slightly older now but no less dashing, looks a little perturbed. His eyes appear shadowed and resigned.
“It’s this Covid thing. We thought it was just going to be in Asia, but now it’s gone to Europe, Australia, and North America. We’re really having to hunker down and do a lot of very tactical marketing,” he confides, before apologetically gathering himself together for the rest of our chat.
Returning to my question, he replies: “Last time, there used to be a big revolving door where the young people would come in and then leave. Now not so. These days, I’m working with a younger generation of managers and also craftsmen. Obviously there’s the institutional knowledge that we have and the innovation that the younger ones bring in… so it’s exciting times for us.”
Continues Yoon Li enthusiastically: “I don’t know whether it’s a fad or sudden self-realisation that this is the thing to go into, but we’re getting school leavers now coming on board and assuming the artisanal or craftsmen’s role. They’re truly smithing and actually enjoying it.”
Suffice to say, it’s not easy to be a (black) smith. “For a person to stay for more than three months, the person would have to possess a lot of passion,” adds Yoon Li, the fourth-generation descendant of Royal Selangor’s founder, Yong Koon. “Of course, it takes longer than three months to train; it takes years. But you’ll know whether a person truly has a passion for the craft after three months. If they survive three months, chances are, they have the staying power.”
“Surviving” is a pretty apt word. In those three months, the young apprentice will find himself “pushed” on many fronts. Smiling, Yoon Li confides: “Our experienced smiths in the factory, their tolerance level is slim because they’ve been doing it for ever. Sometimes they can’t compute why these younger guys can’t pick up fast enough.”
Adding with a good-natured chuckle, he shares: “So the young upstarts stand to get whacked when the older ones aren’t happy with the output! But seriously though, we’re seeing a lot of the younger ones starting to stick to their guns and persevering. That’s a good thing.”
His job, adds Yoon Li, who has a Masters in Engineering, is to try to get younger Malaysians involved in Royal Selangor — not only at the craftsmen level but also throughout the organisation. “Working hand in hand with the older ones, those with experience and knowledge, and coming up with innovative products.”
Asked what the younger set bring to the table, Yoon Li promptly replies: “More bravado, more worldliness. They’d have seen something either on the Internet or spoken to their friends, and they bring to the table maybe a different way of looking at not just the products, but the way to make the products.”
Citing their young head of design, Richard, as example, Yoon Li proudly shares that their 34-year-old design chief has created a new range of products (yet to be launched) that uses “… your technology, like your phone or streaming devices, to enhance your electronics. It could be anything that you can use around the house.”
He’s also coming out with curated products, specifically for the younger market. “It’s still in the gifting segment,” elaborates Yoon Li. “He hasn’t really revolutionised our product range - more like evolutionised it. Essentially, evolving it slowly rather than just throwing the baby out with the bath water!”
HERITAGE AND TRADITION
When a company has behind it 135 years of history and legacy, the last thing you’d want to do is to erase anything. And Yoon Li concurs, adding: “You just want to go for some little upgrades. The good thing about this younger set is they understand that you can’t just erase 135 years of heritage. It’s about building on the legacy and the craftsmanship.”
As the Managing Director, Yoon Li sees himself as the “guide rails”, essentially setting the direction and keeping things within certain parameters. Like a facilitator, even. “I don’t like to tell people they can’t do this or that,” he says, pursing his lips. “I prefer that they come and bounce ideas off me and vice versa. I want them to see me as the guide rail so that they don’t wander too much off the tracks. And I do widen those guide rails every once in a while.”
Asked whether it’s important to pander or cater to a younger target audience, Yoon Li shakes his head. “We don’t see reaching out to the millennials as the be all and end all. Timeless design is what we’re about and that has to be drummed into the team, whether it’s the designers, or product developers, or crafts people.”
Timeless design is of paramount importance, he reiterates, which means that what’s produced must not be fads. His expression earnest, the father-of-two says: “The products have to last for generations so whatever we do, whether it’s with Marvel or Star Wars or whatever, they have to stand the test of time. And that’s what we try to aim for. Of course, there are some products that sit on the fridge that can be trendy or a little bit edgy.”
Fast forward 135 years later, and as Yoon Li will have me believe, the malleable metal alloy that is pewter remains a sexy material. “The beauty of pewter is that it lends itself very well to sculptural pieces. Because it’s a very malleable material, you can really create fine details.”
Furthermore, Yoon Li believes that pewter-ware also exudes a certain exclusivity. “When you move down to the more utilitarian photo frames or tea caddies, it lends itself very well to these things because it doesn’t tarnish as quickly as silver, it’s more affordable but it also still looks precious so you can put your children’s photos, grandparents’ and it still looks nice.”
In a way, adds Yoon Li, pewter is still relevant to people’s lifestyles, especially when it comes to things that are special to them. “So until humans stop liking beautiful stuff, which I doubt will ever happen, Royal Selangor and our material, pewter, will still have a place in people’s hearts.”
Looking thoughtful, Yoon Li muses: “We may not be making billions of dollars but whatever we do, we do it with passion. It’s not about making a fast buck. I mean the company is 135 years old; it’s about longevity. We have to last another 135 years!”
OF DUTY AND CALLING
An MBA holder from IMD, Lausanne Switzerland, Yoon Li started with the company in 2005 and later joined the board as Executive Director in 2012. In his capacity as Executive Director, the genial Aries was in charge of managing the core functions of the business such as design, product development, manufacturing, marketing and sales.
During this stint, he also worked alongside creative and professional designers and managers to collaborate with established museums like The British Museum, London and the National Palace Museum, Taipei; supply bespoke products to Dom Perignon, Veuve Clicquot, Krug and Ruinart, while his cousin, Chen Tien Yue, the Executive Director of Royal Selangor Marketing, drove the business with Walt Disney Co. on Star Wars, Marvel and Disney licences.
Recalling his resume, which I’d managed to peruse earlier, I remember that Yoon Li didn’t immediately join the family business upon graduation in 1993. Instead, he was out of the “loop” for more than 10 years, forging a path in the motorsports and automotive industry as a design engineer with Formula One with Team Lotus International and Nissan Motorsports in the UK.
Why so? I blurt out. The 49-year-old chuckles in response. “We have a family charter, which basically governs how the family gets involved in the business or in businesses. It specifically says that there’s no sense of entitlement. Upon graduation, don’t expect a job here. This allows us to go and find our own calling or expertise. And maybe in the distant future get invited back into the business.”
Sure enough, when he and cousin, Tien Yue graduated, they went their separate ways. The latter was away for more than two years with McKinsey and Co. as a consultant before being invited back to the fold.
So why did HE return? “D-u-t-y!” deadpans Yoon Li, before breaking into a chuckle. “I left my professional job, did an MBA in Switzerland for a year before starting with Royal Selangor in 2005.” As the café begins to bustle with lunch time diners, I realise that I’ve been here longer than planned.
What’s the most important lesson he’s learnt through all these years? I lob Yoon Li my final question. A pause ensues as he contemplates the question. “The importance of empowerment,” he eventually replies, adding: “I’ve been learning to really empower the team to do a lot more strategic decision-making instead of just referring totally to the family members. The bigger decisions we can make, or at least when it comes to setting the directions.”
If there’s one thing that he’s really proud of, aside from the many prestigious projects they’ve successfully initiated, it’s that there are more young people coming into the business. “The fact that we’re able to attract them to join the “family” in this day and age — not only at the craftsmen level, but also management and technical sides. It really is a joy working with these guys.”
Which talent would you most like to have?
The power to read people’s minds!
What do you admire most about artisans and craftsmen?
Their perseverance and discipline. Especially Japanese artisans. They’re producing beautiful work and are so disciplined.
What do you do to relax?
Spend time with the wife. I don’t normally talk about work; maybe just bitch about some family members. It’s very therapeutic! (kidding!). I go to the gym every morning for 70 minutes.
What book are you currently reading?
I’m reading King Leopold’s Ghost, a story of greed, terror and heroism in Colonial Africa.
What are you listening to right now?
American Jazz pianist, Bill Evans and also Keith Jarrett. I’ve been listening to a lot of vinyl. I go to flea markets to buy them.