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How the Amarasuriyas run Singapore’s oldest family business, BP de Silva

The Amarasuriyas might own one of the oldest family businesses – B. P. De Silva Holdings - in Singapore, but it has never been about prestige or profits for them.

Most people would ignore a dog tethered to a lamp post – but not Navin, Rehan and Shanya Amarasuriya. A couple of decades ago, they were in the car on their way back home from school when they saw the canine whimpering by a construction site at Holland Hill.

“They made me stop so they could get out to ask the security guard about the dog,” reminisces their mum, 61-year-old Nimi Amarasuriya. It turned out that on the morning of that day, the dog had been scampering up and down the road, seemingly lost. The guard tied it to the lamppost for its safety. It had been close to 10 hours by then and the dog had not had any food or water. The children begged her to let them bring it home. Of course, she relented. “We try to help when we can, even when we don’t know what to do next,” adds Nimi with a smile.

The Most Important Business Value

For the family, kindness is not a weakness. Rather, it is one of the core qualities that guides their stewardship of B. P. De Silva Holdings, which owns The 1872 Clipper Tea Co., Risis and B. P. De Silva Jewellers – and is now firmly in the hands of the fifth generation. It also has a stake in Audemars Piguet.

Rehan, now 33, recalls when he had just joined. While working at Senso, an Italian restaurant formerly in Club Street that the company had a stake in, he saw the elderly female cleaner struggling with the trash and offered to help her take it to the rubbish bins on the first floor.

“The CEO was a Frenchman. He saw me carrying the rubbish and jested, ‘Ahh, Rehan, you’re a cleaner now.’” It incensed him. “I knew he would never do such a task. This is what it means to be a leader and a member of this family. All of us will go down to the ground to help if we have to.”

(Related: How Shawn Lim is modernising his family’s 73-year-old clock business)

Creating A Legacy

Such noble qualities are a testament to their upbringing. Even though they grew up in privilege, their mother and 71-year-old father, Sunil Amarasuriya, now executive chair of the group, taught them the values of human dignity and empathy for others.

It’s best encapsulated in a personal experience the patriarch shares. While on a trip to one of his tea plantations in Sri Lanka, he visited the toilets the labourers used and found the conditions appalling. The executive toilet, on the hand, was sparkling clean.

Without hesitation, he dropped to his knees and started cleaning the washroom. Now, every time he visits, he makes it a point to drop by the same toilet. Ever since that incident, it’s always spotless.

He wasn’t out to make a point. It is just how Sunil had always conducted himself and his business. “In today’s world, the most important quality is trust. And to gain trust, you need to be a person who is well-respected,” he explains.

While he no longer plays an active role in the day-to-day operations, he has passed this quality on to his children. Today, Rehan and 29-year-old Shanya lead their respective companies – The 1972 Clipper Tea Co. and B. P. De Silva Jewellers – with the same care their father has demonstrated for the past four decades.

The eldest, 35-year-old Navin, struck out on his own in 2018 after eight years in Risis. He’s now the chief international officer at The Contentment Foundation, an organisation that creates pedagogies and tools that aim to holistically impact the lives of children and adults.

From left to right: Sunil, Rehan and Navin Amarasuriya

From left to right: Sunil, Rehan and Navin Amarasuriya

(Related: How Jesher Loi is taking the family’s Ya Kun Kaya Toast business to the next level)

What The Future Holds

“When I was in the family business, I was interested in trying to understand the externalities of the operations. In every company, there is accounting impact, which is what you see on annual statements. But there are other consequences to actions that are not so easily measured, such as the environmental impact of long supply chains,” explains Navin.

It’s something Shanya is also building in her company. Besides creating a Fairmined gold collection and working with traceable sapphires, Shanya is also working to turn B. P. De Silva Jewellers into Singapore’s first certified B Corp (or Benefit Corporation) jeweller.

Navin’s quest to build a triple bottom-line accounting framework – social, environmental and financial – for the family business, while successful, has made him realise that many of his employees did not understand the importance of being socially and ecologically responsible.

He realised then that education, especially with the young, is an important tool to instil these values. While no longer actively involved in the day to day, he still contributes when he can.

“I think you can support family businesses while not being in the thick of it. Over time, we’ve realised that those with long legacies have members who have realised their limitations and stepped aside to let the best people lead,” says Navin.

(Related: Shanya Amarasuriya is making her mark as the creative director of her family’s luxury jewellery business)

Keeping It In The Family

This question of succession constantly looms over any family business, and especially one with a legacy as storied as B. P. De Silva Holdings that has been in the hands of the family for 148 years.

Interestingly enough, Sunil never broached this topic with his three offspring. It was enough that they grew up to be happy, thoughtful and kind human beings. “I wanted the children to understand that if they are good, then they should take on [the responsibility of running the business]. If they are not capable, they should have someone on the outside to take care of it. It’s fine.”

When they joined, Sunil emphasised the most important responsibility to them: “We have to keep people paid.”

And, of course, regular conversations about the state of the business at the dinner table and a slew of work attachments with different subsidiaries made them realise that they could each contribute in their own special way.

All three faced unique challenges upon entering the business. Navin, while unconcerned about his parents’ expectations, grappled with the familial legacy. Rehan constantly worried that he wasn’t executing things at the right level in his first four years. And Shanya had trouble convincing her father to approve her desire to study gemology and fine jewellery design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. “He was concerned because it was America. He was more comfortable with me going to London,” says Shanya.

Now, all have settled comfortably into their respective roles and are cementing the legacy of the business for the current generation. And, although it’s early days yet, they have discussed succession plans for the future.

For instance, they agree that the consolidation of power and responsibilities should be the next step, if only to avoid the politics and fragmentation in the 1970s when there were too many family members vying for control. Sunil’s father had to take a large loan to buy a controlling stake in the company. When he became paralysed after a stroke, Sunil had no choice but to take over.

In the foreground is Shanya Amarasuriya and at the back is Nimi Amarasuriya.

In the foreground is Shanya Amarasuriya and at the back is Nimi Amarasuriya.

Building Something That Lasts

Navin, Rehan and Shanya are also thinking about creating a framework to introduce future generations in a structured manner.

“My dad had a very open style of exposing us to the inner workings of the family business. A plus of this method was that we understood every facet of the business,” shares Rehan. “Unfortunately, you never really understand where your contribution was. For a young individual, that can feel quite stifling.”

Shanya also sees the family business as a vessel that can help perpetuate important values. When she was younger, she told her parents she did not wish to expose her children to the business.

“Now, after working with some of my father’s long-serving staff, I can see how they have flourished under his wing. We have a 34-year-old designer who joined when she was 18. She treats my father like her own and I can see that she’s picked up certain values from him. In fact, she’s quite similar to me. It’s beautiful to see,” shares Shanya with a laugh. “I think I would hinder my children if I were to pretend that I wasn’t part of this family business and the opportunities it provides for great joy and fulfillment.”

Sunil has also asked his children to continue giving to charity. Currently, the holding company contributes 10 per cent of its profits to a charitable organisation. He hopes that with each generation, the charity component increases.

And, despite their busy schedules, everyone makes it a point to meet for weekend meals and pay regular visits to individuals who have contributed to their lives. For example, every Chinese New Year, they visit their former driver and his family, even though he left the family’s employ 15 years ago.

The children also continue to break bread with friends from their secondary school days and their parents, all of whom have become close family confidantes.

“There was always family to be made beyond family,” says Shanya. “And when you distil the essence of the Amarasuriya family, it’s really just about being a good human being.”

The Amarasuriyas were photographed according to safe distancing guidelines.