It’s easy to talk of modernisation and its IT-forward cousin, digitisation, for age-old companies with nary a care for the spectre that is heritage and by extension, legacy. Yes, there’s concrete benefits from bringing an organisation up to speed – and equipping it with tools to obtain said speed – but there’s also much to be said about keeping what’s stood the test of time.
It’s a balance that third-generation owner of bespoke family-run jeweller H Sena, Medhanie Senanayake, had to find rather recently. She’s no greenhorn at the biz – she’s been at the helm for a decade of the house’s 101-year history – but she, like so many others, was faced with a threat of isolation, bordering on obsoletion, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Before, the legacy brand – founded in 1919 by Henry Senanayake – served a string of high-profile commissions to royalty in Malaysia and Thailand, notable political figures and even the late Prince Philip in its heyday in the 50s. The legacy was continued by Medhanie’s late father Dharma Senanayake since 1962 as he continued to provide custom pieces for royals and elites alike, until finally Medhanie took over in 2010.
We speak with her to find out how she brought the label into the modern age while retaining its hard-wrought legacy, helped along by her parents. It is Father’s Day after all – which means there’s no better time to talk about how to juggle moving forward, while looking back.
What were you doing before taking over H Sena?
I was actually living and working in Australia until I decided to return back to Singapore in 2010 to take over from my dad. Looking back, it was challenging. I may have been exposed to the business since I was young, but there’s so much more that I had to learn from scratch.
I had to learn how to manage the staff and constantly improve my communication with them to create a more effective work environment and flow. Most of my staff has been with us since my father’s time and they are pretty much considered family to me so I try to ensure that the closeness remains.
Another challenge at the adaptation stage, was gaining trust from our clients. Being the new face managing the business then, there were plenty whom I’ve never met before and I had to gradually reinstate that trust. Bespoke jewellery is an intimate business and clients have always associated H. Sena with my father, Dharma Sena.
He must’ve played a pivotal role in guiding you then?
He taught me the importance of relationships. A customer’s journey is one that cannot be replicated. Since before I even took over, he has always stressed about maintaining good relationships with our clients, especially when we’re a traditional business that used to rely mostly on referrals, and jewellery being a personal investment for most people.
My mom helped as well with lessons in scrutinizing every stone to the nth degree. Though it was a skill she picked up from my dad over the years, it was she who mentored me during my earlier years, teaching me everything she knew about appraising diamonds and coloured stones.
How has that translated into what you’re planning for the business now?
For the last decade, we were mainly focusing on servicing our existing pool of clients and referrals. Being a small-scale family-run luxury business, we kept our operations lean so we could cater better to our clients, especially long-time customers. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, most of them are now unable to fly into Singapore – which in turn has affected our revenue.
To progress through this pandemic, we had to tap into the local market with the understanding that most of younger generation are unaware of us – despite us being around for more than a century. As that target audience are digital savvy and visually driven, we had to digitize the business with efforts like a refreshed and more user-friendly website, dedicated product photography and tighter social media curation to showcase our products as they should be.
Was all this a big part of your business previously?
Not really. We’ve always relied on word-of-mouth and walk-ins. Digitization and social media may be part in parcel of most brands today, but for us, it’s a huge pivot.
That’s good to know. Did you have trouble back then convincing your father to digitise? How did that turn out?
Of course, and I believe this is something most of my generation can relate to. My dad was not tech-savvy at all and he loved using the fax machine as a form of communication. So, when I brought up switching to email, he was very hesitant as it was foreign to him. He’s also a firm believer of “if it’s not broken, why fix it?”. It took a while for me to convince him to try using email and when he finally saw just how much faster and convenient it was, he relented. There’s a bit of resistance to change, but my dad was adaptable and always chose what’s better for the business.
Do you still seek advice after running the show for a decade?
Definitely. From time to time, I still seek out my mom’s advice on family business matters. Since taking on the business, she has been a huge pillar of support professionally and personally.
Not a day goes by that I don’t think about and miss my father. I will always admire, respect and love him because he is my hero. I wish he was still around so that he can meet my family, and guide me through the business with his indispensable knowledge about work and life.
Could you share with us something that you loved, or love, to do together?
My dad worked seven days a week so when he came home, he made sure that everything about work, stays in the office. Family time was strictly for leisure and we’d usually play board games together, talk about our day and have a family meal. We also used to catch tennis matches together.