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Next-gen business: Cornerstone

By Tess De La Mare

I was the youngest in the family and the youngest usually gets to skive, unfortunately that didn’t quite happen to me. My older brother was [lined up] to take over the business because he was by far the most talented. He was interested in wines, he kept wines from when he was fairly young – in his teens – and he would travel with my father. But somehow my brother took a different route and my second brother helped us for a few years before answering the call of the lord to serve in the ministry so I guess I was the default.

Cornerstone started out as a separate project of Hock Tong Bee – I started it when I first joined the business in 1997. When I first started knocking on doors as a sales executive working for my father and my aunties, I realised that because Asians didn’t grow up with wines, we like wines that are a lot fruitier and much softer. I was writing about wines for the national newspapers as well as for magazines and I realised there was really a gap in the market. A gap is all about customisation and the fastest growing cuisine in the world is Asian and so I reckoned that if you could rise on the growth of Asian cuisine you wouldn’t really go wrong.

We now have joint ventures in Australia, New Zealand, France, Italy, Spain and Chile to make wines that are best with Asian cuisine. So that is how we started and that is how we distinguish the differences [between Cornerstone and Hock Tong Bee]. Hock Tong Bee will always be our family-owned entity and our holding company and basically the name of, in a sense, our family office. 

I joined the business when I was 23 and became managing director when I was 29 when my father died. You never really have enough time to learn the ropes, I can only say that I was blessed that I had some time with my father and with my aunties because it was important for me to be able to learn as much from them as possible, but you know they always say “there is no time that is enough time”.

It was extremely difficult taking over the business while the older generation were still there. You can’t blame them because when you have something that works why change it? But we are in a world today where the only constant is change, and you do have to change. They found it difficult because I was fairly aggressive, I was young, I wanted to make my mark. I always admit I could have been a lot more patient in the way I did things. Unfortunately for many years I think the extended family shareholders didn’t really want to talk to me, but from the 10th year onwards when we started paying relatively nice dividends to everybody they started talking to me again.

My eldest brother is a deacon in church, and my second brother is going to serve in the ministry. My sister is a less disciplined Christian like myself – we don’t religiously go to church every week but in heart and soul and in beliefs we do all that is necessary. Also my sister and myself tend to travel very often so it’s a lot harder, but I always believe as long as you believe that is the key, you believe and you practice.

My faith does inform my business. When I took over the business from my father we were supplying to lots of the karaoke bars and nightclubs and I would define them as “girly bars”. One of the key decisions I made was to give up supplying to all these. This was mainly because making a deal is always very complex and often it requires you to entertain to make the deal and that can compromise things a bit. As a company we practise being very family oriented. I always say if you work hard and smart – 9am to 6:30pm with the occasional entertaining over dinner – that should be it. All the rest of your time should be channelled towards having quality of life, work-life balance and family time.

For people who are starting businesses outright I think the key is that no one is perfect. The most important thing is to find people who complement you in all the areas where you lack and together you will have synergies to be able to make it happen. It’s just like us starting our joint ventures in the various counties, making wines as well as distributing wines.