BOYS TO MEN: A SUCCESS(ION) STORY
Five years ago, when brothers Morgan, Lincoln, and Ryan Yeo suddenly lost their father, Roger, to cancer, they found themselves having to carry not just newfound grief, but also the mantle of the business that he had left behind. Wanting to continue the legacy of their father, the brothers banded together, pulled up their sleeves, and took on new roles. In just five years, they’ve managed to turn the business around, putting it on the map and in the green.
Today, Roger&Sons is known for its bespoke, design-led carpentry services, having helped furnished the interiors of businesses like Employees Only, Palm Avenue Float Club, PS. Cafe at One Fullerton, and The General Co. Their metamorphosis, however, was no walk in the park. When the brothers first took over, no one knew about their father or his business despite its thirty-odd years of existence because of the company’s status as a manufacturer. So they decided to overhaul the company, which involved a major rebrand and strategy change that ultimately saw them out of the woods.
Here, Morgan shares about what it was like to take over the reins then and Roger&Sons’ current efforts to empower locals through education. He also talks about why coming together and supporting each other, whether within the business or the industry is so important. The concept of family, no doubt, is not unfamiliar to him.
Was the rebranding process difficult?
Yeah, it was. The first thing we wanted to do was to rename the company so we changed the name from JR & P Industries Pte Ltd to Roger&Sons, mainly to let my dad know that we will do our best to keep the company and that we wanted to carry on his legacy. The rebranding was done by my brothers and myself, and it was quite tough at the start deciding how to do it and how we want to be able to tell the story to the public, as we had no reference point. Technically, we’re like contractors since we have the skills to make anything. Deciding to just focus on carpentry was tough — it was a big step for us.
And how do you and your brothers balance maintaining your father’s legacy while pursuing your contemporary visions for the company?
I think those two things are interconnected. Whenever we make a decision, the three of us do it based on if it helps to preserve my dad’s legacy and grow the company at the same time. For us, it’s important to sustain the business, provide for the guys who have been with us, and to put food on the table. Past that, my brothers and I have the dream to be able to make a difference moving forward. That’s why we’ve been trying very hard to think of ways to reduce the amount of waste we generate.
We’re doing something called The Local Tree Project which we’ll be launching sometime this year, where we try to make furniture with wood from trees in Singapore. About 100 trees are cut down every day here, mainly for development, or if the tree is very sick — though as a garden city, Singapore also plants a tree for every one they cut down. But nobody knows what happens to these trees. Through The Local Tree Project, our aim is that the trees don’t go to waste and there’s a story to tell, so you feel connected to your furniture and feel proud when you see it.
How do you think Roger&Sons has been able to reinvigorate itself through design?
All of our designers start as carpenters first so they know how things are made before moving on to become a designer. We try to marry both design and carpentry, so that our products are well-designed and well-made — when we design something, we also make it ourselves. The carpenters and designers are constantly talking to each other. We also try to have a good mix of carpenters, so we have the older guys who have been around for some time — they are more traditional and old-school. And then we have three or four younger guys on the team too.
The thing about carpentry is that everyone has their own method of making furniture, whether you’re influenced by the Japanese or European genre. Even in Singapore, we have our own way of doing things. So it’s just using all these different methods and trying to marry them together, so that when people think of Roger&Sons, they think of a certain style or a certain genre that’s unique to us.
You guys also put special focus on design-led, bespoke services. Has that worked well?
Yeah, it has. It’s tough because when we first started, people weren’t too into bespoke furniture. It’s grown since then and now there’s more demand — people are becoming interested in craftsmanship and spending more money getting that one piece of furniture that is a statement to them. But it came with a lot of education and marketing to tell people our services; what we’re capable of; why it costs more; and why they should get bespoke, rather than mass-produced furniture. I mean, there’s no way to compete against something from Taobao or IKEA. But we’re not trying to convince people to deck out their house in bespoke furniture — that’s a crazy amount of money. Just that one piece, say a nice side cabinet for example, that you can use for years and pass it on to your kids and your grandkids. I think that part is important because then you have a story to tell.
We feel like education is very important, which is why we’ve been doing more workshops. We want to be able to talk to students as well and help them eventually become designers within the industry. We’ve worked with tons of interns and new hires, and every time they tend to do design drawings heavily influenced by how the US makes their stuff, for example. They also choose materials that are impossible to find in Singapore, because we work with a different set of standards here. That’s why we want to be able to educate about how things are being made in Singapore, what materials we have here, and just let everyone develop an appreciation for working with our hands.
What are your thoughts about the local furniture community?
It’s a very competitive industry. If you talk about kitchen cabinets for example, a carpenter might charge you $5000. But someone will then say they can do it for cheaper. It happens all the time: everyone is just trying to undercut each other. If this keeps up, I think a lot of local carpenters are just going to die. They’re not going to be able to compete.
I think that’s where education comes in — we tell them the market rate is $5000, but if someone can do it for $3000, they have to understand that certain materials have to be cut, and if the carpenter decides to use a cheaper material, they will never know. They will only find out in five years’ time when the piece starts to warp. If Singaporeans know a bit more about carpentry in general, then when they get a house, they can make more informed decisions regarding how they want to furnish it.
You’ve mentioned in past interviews that Roger&Sons isn’t just a family business — the business is run like a family. Can you share more about the culture you guys are cultivating?
I think it’s the way my dad had been running the business and how my brothers and I continue to run it now. Hierarchy is very flat in the company and everyone supports each other all the time. It’s just the small things that really matter: when I speak to my staff, I will say “can you help me?” as opposed to “go help me do this, go help me do that”. Or if they need help, I’ll go and help them, even if it’s carrying stuff and getting my hands dirty.
You guys have done a few collaborations, such as with Panelogue. How was that like?
Working with Panelogue let us do something cool and different, and also allowed us to make something with a new unique selling point. We also enjoyed being able to use different materials while collaborating with them because that’s the only time we can learn. My brothers and I and the whole team — we’re geeks. We like to try different things and the only way to do that is to work with others. We always believe that in Singapore, companies — especially SMEs — have to work together and support each other. That’s the only way we can be able to sustain in the industry long-term.
And how does it feel that your entire family is in the business together? [Ed note: The brothers’ mum helps with the company finances as well]
It’s nice, but at the same time, it’s scary because all our eggs are in one basket. (chuckles) If the company ever fails, we’ll all be out of jobs. But I think that’s the beauty of it — that we know that we’re in this for each other. To us, the most important is putting food on the table for my family and my guys as well, cause the moment anyone joins us, it’s our commitment to them that they’re able to provide for their family too. I mean, we’re just an SME trying our best. Life is really short and we just want to do our best and hope that we get better in the next few years.
When we first started, we were lucky because we got picked up by a couple of media outlets about how my brothers and I took over my dad’s business and that we’re trying to revamp carpentry. Back then, I was new and didn’t know anything. But my brothers and I have grown and learnt so much over these last five years and we want to tell people that we’re no longer just those three brothers that took over from their dad. We want to tell people that “hey, we’ve grown up and the company has grown up”. Part of this was moving into a new space at King George’s Avenue. It’s a big risk on our part, especially because there’s no carpenter out there taking up such a big space in the middle of Singapore. But I think it’s important to show growth and tell people that we’re serious.