Datuk Sydney Tan was just 27 when her father decided it was time for her to hold the reins of the family business, Kian Hon Tyres Sdn Bhd. It wasn’t at all what she had planned for herself – Tan had just graduated with a degree in finance from Emory University in the United States and was eager to venture into the corporate world of finance.
But she complied and flew home to Malaysia seven years ago from the US to learn about the business her father built.
“I didn’t know anything about tyres. Kian Hon Tyres was started by my father and uncle and even though I am the eldest child, I didn’t grow up thinking that I’d take over this business.
“I didn’t know what to expect and I had no idea what my future would be like. But I decided to go in with an open mind and take each day as it came. I definitely never expected to find this work so interesting …but it really is,” says Tan, 34, who is now the managing director of Kian Hon Tyres, the sole distributor of Maxxis International tyres in Malaysia. Based in Taiwan, Maxxis (also known as Cheng Shin Rubber Industry) is the ninth largest tyre company in the world.
The task was challenging but Tan has never been one to shy away from a challenge. She worked hard to learn about the business and the people who were at the core of the 50-year-old company that has its roots in Penang, where her family is from.
“There was so much to learn about the trade. In the beginning, I’d spend 12-hour days at the office just trying to get a handle on the different aspects of the business. I won’t lie … it was really hard in the beginning and there were moments when I did think of giving up,” she shares.
Being a woman in a male-dominated industry was challenging enough but being so young meant that Tan had to prove her mettle and gain the respect of her colleagues.
“There wasn’t any trust. I’d see doubtful looks and a lack of respect from the staff. People were sceptical but I told myself that I couldn’t give up. The more people looked down on me or didn’t believe in me, the more I was determined to prove them wrong. And I think I did,” she says.
Tan started by being empathetic and by listening to her team.
“Respect has to be earned, not commanded. And the only way I could earn their respect was by knowing the trade. I tried but to be honest, I am still learning, compared to many of my colleagues who have been in the business for years.
“So what did I do? I listened to them and their experience. I still do. I welcome and value their ideas and opinions because I believe that together we can come up with solutions that make our customers happy,” says Tan.
Her leadership caught the attention of Dr Wally Chen, president of Maxxis International who made Tan managing director for Maxxis Asia Pacific. He also became her mentor.
“He has given me so many opportunities to shadow him and learn from him which I am grateful for,” she says,
Kian Hon Tyres has branches in Penang, Perak, Selangor and Kedah and two concept stores – Maxxpit – that offer car care services for 4×4 vehicles, trucks, lorries and passenger cars.
Tan also set up an education centre at their plant in Penang to raise awareness among clients on how to look after and prolong the lifespan of their tyres.
“It took me a while to adjust to this environment and while it was challenging, it was also very empowering. There were ups and downs and thankfully, I had my parents and my siblings’ support,” she says.
Family has always been Tan’s anchor and her support system. As a child, Tan was diagnosed with lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease where her immune system attacks her tissues and organs.
“I was diagnosed when I was nine. I couldn’t walk and was in a wheelchair and my dad had to carry me upstairs and downstairs even when I was 12 years old. I felt so helpless. My mum and dad were always so strong and they were there for me even though they both had to work. I owe them a lot,” Tan recalls.
Thankfully, Tan recovered and is now in remission.
The experience of being so ill and then recovering made her want to become a doctor. It wasn’t just a childhood ambition – she worked hard through school and earned a place to study medicine in Dublin, Ireland. However, midway through her pre-medical course, Tan reluctantly decided to pull out.
“I really wanted to study medicine. Because of my illness, I saw how medicine can alleviate pain and help people. I too wanted to help others. But during the pre-med course, I got an insight into how life would be as a doctor, particularly since I wanted to specialise in cardiac medicine – there would be absolutely no work-life balance.
“It’s not that I minded the hard work. But before I left to study, my doctor warned me not to exhaust myself as too much stress could trigger my illness. I didn’t listen and I pushed myself until one day I got really sick. I realised then that I had to give up my dream,” she shares.
Her interest in medicine remains – “I still read a lot about new medical discoveries” – but Tan picked herself up.
“Things happen for a reason,” she says, simply, with a slight shrug of her shoulders. “If it wasn’t for my illness, I wouldn’t be as resilient as I am today.”
Tan has big plans for Kian Hon and Maxxis International, including diversifying the business to remain resilient through the changes in the global economic climate. However, the core of the business, she says, will remain.
“I feel responsible in making sure that every one of our customers has a safe ride home to their families. That’s really my business. When I am home, I wait for my parents to come home for dinner every night. Tyres are essential … the condition of the tyres will dictate the safety of the people inside the car. That’s my business,” she says.