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Women Taking the Reins in Asia's Family Businesses


From the family of Hong Kong's tycoon Li Ka-shing to the Ayala dynasty in the Philippines, the reins of most family businesses in Asia are handed down from fathers to sons. But this trend is slowly changing, as more and more women are taking over the family trade.

A large percentage of businesses in Asia are controlled by families - from small shops to huge conglomerates such as Samsung Electronics or Hyundai in Korea.

Most of them are run by men; while wives, sisters and daughters work mainly behind the scenes. And when the head of a family enterprise retires or passes away, traditionally one of his sons has taken the reins.

But Christine Blondel, director of the Wendel International Center for Family Enterprise, which has campuses in France and Singapore, says tradition has been changing in recent years, particularly in some of the mid-sized family businesses in Asia.

"In the past, women were the "invisible giants". Now the daughters are becoming successors to take leadership positions as well as their brothers," said Mrs. Blondel. "They are considered as potential successors and more and more of them are going to be the successors."

One of Asia's best-known female successors is Pansy Ho, daughter of Macau tycoon Stanley Ho and chief executive office of the family's Shun Tak Holdings Company. Another example is Marjorie Yang, who took over her family's Esquel group in Hong Kong, one of the world's leading textile producers.

Mrs. Blondel and her colleagues have noticed an increasing number of fathers taking their daughters to family business seminars in Asia.

She believes the trend reflects the fact that many daughters now have more education than they used to, that the business world has become more accepting of women and that some fathers have simply become more open-minded. She also says that a father-daughter succession can sometimes be easier because there tends to be more competition between fathers and sons.

But heading the family business as a woman is not always easy. Jocelyn Chng was 21 when her father passed away and she took over his small business making food sauces in Singapore. Within a few years, she had developed the once unprofitable enterprise into a regional exporter with 70 employees. But along the way, she faced a lot of gender discrimination.

"A lot of people's mindset is that women normally become housewives, so I really had a lot of difficulties, as a young woman and also along the years when I started to develop the export market, people still feel that, especially in some countries they prefer to work with men," said Ms. Chng.

Attitudes towards female succession vary across Asia. Mrs. Blondel says that while it has become more common for women in Chinese families in places such as Hong Kong, Singapore and the Philippines to take over leadership roles, it is much less accepted in India. There, family enterprises tend be older and more traditional and women are expected to be active in philanthropy rather than business leadership.

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