Our annual homage to the Women We Love features six women who have dazzled in their determination to succeed in life.
Mei Tan’s journey to the helm of the family business has hardly been a straightforward one. CEO of Penang-based Asia Green Group, Tan studied graphic design at Ringling College of Art and Design in Florida after changing her major from business and started her career as a website designer for MTV International in New York after graduating from college. “After living in Florida for a few years, I dreamed of going to the big city so I applied for a job at MTV in New York City and I got the job.” She mostly worked on designing the MTV website.
Eventually, it was time for her to make a decision. To follow her passion and continue with a design career in New York, or to come home and help her family business. Asia Green Group was founded by her father and has its roots in timber. In 2004, the family-business ventured into property development. The company has become a much-recognised developer of residential houses, villas, condominiums and service apartments in Penang.
“Since my family is a very important part of me, I decided to move back to Penang. And I started knowing zero about property development. It’s a totally different industry and totally different culture. I was in the United States for eight years, so moving back was tough. And I started from the bottom as an admin staff,” recalls Tan
However, her journey to becoming a leader in the family business was not without its challenges and setbacks. “To continue being creative was tough,” she recalls. “I took on small projects and freelance graphic design work, while still helping my family business.”
She was sent to different departments, to give her the opportunity to learn more about the business. Over time, her hard work and dedication paid off. She was promoted to Head of Marketing and Branding. Where she was able to utilise her design skills to help grow the family business. She was later promoted to Director. And has now taken over the family’s property development business.
A New-Gen platform: Innovatifplus
In addition, Tan is also the founder of Innovatifplus Plus, a platform for next-generation family business leaders that offers support, networking and resources for sharing ideas and learning from other family businesses in Asia. The platform was established through peer-to-peer references, and the group has members from Singapore, Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Innovatifplus helps next-generation leaders deal with the pressure, challenges and expectations from taking over family businesses. “We network together and share our stories and ideas on how to overcome the issues. We also do business study trips, where we travel across Asia to study about other family-run businesses, and learn how they successful continue the legacy,” Tan explains. She also founded Scoopoint, a mentorship programme and co-working space that was transformed into an online mentorship programme for entrepreneurs and start-ups during the pandemic.
Despite being one of six siblings – five girls and one boy – Mei Tan did not let gender norms or traditional expectations hold her back. She has proven herself a capable and innovative leader, taking the family business to new heights. Her father is quite the traditional man, hoping that he would have a son to take over the family business. Her brother, the youngest, now oversees the family’s timber business, Asia Plywood Company, while Tan heads the property development sector.
As the daughter of a successful entrepreneur, it’s no surprise that Tan has chosen to follow in his father’s footsteps. With her father’s guidance and the connections, she’s been able to make through the family’s extensive network, taking the opportunity to learn and grow in ways that other entrepreneurs can only dream of. As with any family business, however, there are challenges that come with working with relatives.
“One of the great benefits of working with family is being able to learn from someone who has already achieved success,” says Tan. “My father has built a successful business over many years, and I’ve been able to gain invaluable knowledge and insights from him. It’s not something that everyone has the opportunity to do.” Still, family dynamics can get in the way of making sound business decisions. “Sometimes there are different opinions on how to proceed, and it can be difficult to find common ground,” she admits.
There’s also the perception that family members don’t have to work as hard as other employees. “That couldn’t be further from the truth,” Tan says. “In fact, I often work long hours and put in extra effort to prove myself to both my family and my colleagues.” Tan also faces the challenge of modernising a traditional family business in the digital age. “Many of the company’s processes have been in place for years, and it can be difficult to convince everyone to embrace new technology and ways of doing things,” she says. “But we understand that this will be an ongoing challenge as the company continues to evolve and adapt.”
Mei Tan at Asia Green Group
Asia Green Group’s property arm, Asia Green Property Development, is a boutique developer that specialises in high-rise residential properties. The company recently completed QuayWest Residences in Penang. A high-rise luxury condominium facing the sea with private lifts and duplex units with an infinity pool on the rooftop overlooking the sea. It is also set to complete two more projects this year: Zen Affordable, an affordable housing project in collaboration with the Penang State Government, and Zen 6, a mid-range high-rise condominium with full sea-view units and attractive facilities.
The company is launching a green building project, The Pier, which will be the company’s first green building. This serviced apartment commands a sea view and features a wave pool. Green elements such as natural stones, wood, trees and landscaping brings nature back to the home.
Asia Green Group is focused on landscaping and bringing green back to the community. This includes collaborating with the Penang State Government to provide bicycle lanes and tree-lined greens to promote outdoor activities. The company believes that the demand for property in Penang is for a medium-market range of properties. Priced from MYR500,000 to MYR900,000, Property sizes begin from 850 sq ft as anything less would be unsuitable for a family. The developer believes that consumer habits have changed, with a greater focus on wellness. It is also expanding its business and looking into residential developments in Vietnam, specifically in Ho Chi Minh City.
Leading the Right Way
As the CEO of the family’s business, Tan has accomplished a great deal. But she’s not ready to rest just yet. Her plans for the future includes taking the company to the next level. Tackling new projects in Penang, and focusing on sustainability and green initiatives. She also recognises the importance of personal growth and healing. She wants to extend her innovative platform and explore her own potential separate from her family’s business.
This year, she plans to focus on herself and her mental health. She is organising an Innovative Plus Next-Gen retreat in Bali for women in business to come together and discuss their experiences. “We go through a lot of pressure and I think, as women, sometimes we care too much. We care about family, about our business and about everyone else, before caring about ourselves. Because of that, we cannot care about ourselves enough. And one day, we will collapse, so I feel we still need to look inside ourselves and heal.”