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RJ Paper is poised to take on future challenges with local creatives young and old.

heart 2 heart with...#06

©Somewhere Else
…when stakeholders see us changing… we reinstate a trust with them that we’re still progressing. It’s a renewal of our values, and this can also benefit our customers...

Over cups of coffee, tea, milo, we catch up with Jeanette and Jane from RJ Paper.

1) Good Morning, Jane and Jeanette. How did you get involved with RJ Paper?
My ex-husband started the business through his connections in the paper industry, but the partnership failed. I was travelling a lot through Indonesia at that time and I was roped into help with marketing and managing accounts, eventually helping throughout the business.

I didn’t know anything about paper then, but I believed that if I could learn the product, I wouldn’t fail. RJ Paper gained a reputation for being very aggressive because I was running around, going through the A to Z listing in the Yellow Pages, everyday. I worked 7am to midnight, seven days a week. I’m very proud of what we do as we have become a part of so many creative projects, and I’ve made so many friends through the years.

From the late 70s to 90s, we grew the business alongside Singapore’s economic growth. Then SARS arrived, and that was the beginning of much change. The economy wasn’t faring well, which cemented a change in ordering behaviour. And when businesses started to move online, we saw our volume decreasing sharply as well. Thankfully, we’ve always kept a focus on promoting high quality, niche products and that kept us relevant, even as times changed. Right around this time, Jeanette joined us to grow that niche further.

I started helping around during school breaks, when I wasn’t teaching as a tutor. I went overseas for school and came back to help RJ Paper computerise, and I continued to stay on.

Jane wanted to me to help manage our boutique agency clients, those closer to my age, as I would be able to relate better.

In 2004, business was down. In 2002, I had visited a friend in China. As it seemed like a great time to be in China, I took up language classes at night and relocated there. I found a job, got married and we eventually moved back to Singapore to raise our child.

That’s when we swapped roles. After 20+ years of work, I took a break for 6 years to look after the grandchildren, while Jeanette co-managed the business.

2) What’s your industry landscape looking like now?
It has changed and is definitely still changing. It’s not just us; change is upon all industries. It’s all just part of the momentum of the evolving global economy.

We have grown to a certain size, but the market may no longer be able to sustain it. So at this juncture, we’re thinking—what are the costs that we should keep? Which values do we want to continue to uphold? Do we adjust our value system to stay profitable? Or do we just stick to all our values but cut cost so we can stay afloat?

I’m sure most traditional businesses like us would have similar sentiments.

3) What’s your perception of branding before you joined RJ Paper?
34 years ago, I was with Jardine Offshore Group as a financial controller, and I had some experience with the brand consultants we engaged. I knew branding was important in helping Jardine Matheson Group maintain our name. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have meant much to me. In 1987, branding was a rarely used term.

Before I left for China, Jane would do sales calls with brand consultants like Addison, DIA and such. I had always thought branding was a huge expense and frankly a waste of money which didn’t apply to SMEs! When I went to Shanghai, I noticed how overseas MNCs used branding to attract/hire people — it helped the staff develop a sense of pride.

While there, I also saw how Chinese start-ups didn’t care about building a brand. They grabbed market share by cost competition. And yet today, Chinese brands have become very savvy with their branding efforts.

All that said, branding to me is the consolidation of values, and our reputation developed over the years. That then allows us to grow abroad, or enter new markets. It makes it easier to translate to overseas branches — it’s portable.

4) What’s your favourite Singaporean brand/Why?
I used to like Song & Kelly (now Akin). They were unique, and in those days, it was difficult to find a local brand that was so well received. They were great people!

When I think of Singaporean brands, while there’s the huge government linked establishments but I think more of those small moms and pops stores that I grew up with — well, these are the kind of businesses I can actually relate with, so in that vein, perhaps Sheng Siong? I respect local brands that manage their heritage.

While we’re proud of our national brands, we don’t really have much personal relationships with many of them.

As a customer yourself, what’s your disappointment with how traditional local brands have developed?

Prominent curry puff chain comes to mind. They only sell fried stuff and I can easily find a cheaper/ better version at the market. It’s not traditional anymore, with too many changes to the recipes. Soya bean chain too, they took the traditional flavours off the menu. They’ve lost their original taste, they’ve forgotten about people like me, that’ve helped make them.

It’s like that Chinatown soy-sauce chicken stall. Before it was famous, I introduced it to my family, but have not been back since they’ve gotten a Michelin star! (heard it’s not as good anymore)

I feel sad when small businesses have to either sell out or close due to market constraints. The market forces push so many of them out of their authenticity. I know of business owners who would rather close than sell out that way.

With big local brands, I’d like to see them take care of their local vendors better, and help to nurture smaller players. We’ve seen how the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Taiwanese, and even Europeans take care of their supply chain, nurturing their own counterparts. I’ve not seen much of that in SEA.

What do you think people expect of companies/ brands these days?
I believe brands can stay traditional; it’s not always about following trends, adopting new tricks. Being old-fashioned can be unique in its own way! Of course, not forgetting to innovate, but not to lose its soul.

Today the market values things very differently. People don’t appreciate processes, they just want a one-stop one-step solution. They’re not willing to deal with multiple parties to get their final product. This seems to be the mindset. They want information to be handed to them, on how they can quickly get what they want.

Therefore, as a traditional business, we need to consolidate information to serve these customers. The supply chain will have to consolidate.

People don’t google for the “process” but the “outcome”, so how do we change what we do to serve them? Services like Grab have changed our customers’ expectations and that transfers to our business!

How does RJ Paper try to navigate this uneven evolution?

Much has improved, like moving from the pager to mobile phones. Remember, I used to keep a manual notebook to store my contacts? In the past people didn’t expect immediate information. Service-level expectations have become much higher. Change is indeed stressful — you just can’t dwell. You have to move on.

We’re forced to be more efficient with our costs especially since we are a fixed-cost setup. It’s not just about working harder. It’s more of a thinking game now. People see value very differently now, so we need to always ask: how can we best serve the market’s needs? For us, as suppliers, it’s a very existential challenge.

8) What are key challenges navigating within a family business?
Anything that I feel I might be wrong in, I have to apologise first. I try to give in to Jeanette’s ideas and I won’t comment unless I can add to it. I always try to create less room for conflict. And most importantly, no work discussions after hours.

Being with a person for 24hrs isn’t easy. For e.g. when my friends bitch about their bosses, I just listen. What can I say? I can’t join in that banter. It’s also not like I can actually change jobs that easily. It’s not just a simple professional relationship, which is emotionally easier.

It’s also hard to access expert opinions. There’s an added responsibility for us to make it work, but who can we discuss our challenges with?

9) Having been in this so long, do you feel like it’s baggage or opportunity? How have you shaped the future of the company?

It is nice to be able to run your own business, but it is not easy to build it to a thriving state. The challenge is in the running of it. People often want to be their own bosses until they realise they’ve built their own cages. While running your own business can be more profitable, how do you manage or let go of the ship when the time comes? As a 73 year old, how many holidays have I taken? So few — every trip abroad has been for work! In the early days, when cashflow was tight, I even had to pawn my dowry to keep things going.

It’s tricky. We are in a traditional industry. I work a lot with older folks — their circumstances in these changing times affect me a lot, so I make a clear note to myself that I cannot turn work into a habit. I’ll force myself to take leave, to switch off. I’m very clear the business always needs to be an opportunity and not a burden. I always try to create distance to see the bigger picture.

In the past, people willing to work hard would see some results; but now, working harder wouldn’t bring the same level of results. Hard work alone is not worth it, it doesn’t work for our times.

Covid-19 has helped in the sense that I’ve gotten time to try a lot of new things and build new connections. We have to believe we’re not in this alone, so talking to people helps me appreciate our circumstances better — and has made me more aware of our employees’ mental states too.

10) Looking back, what’s one key thing you would’ve done differently?
Perhaps, we should not have grown so big. At our size, it’s harder to slow down and adjust our pace now. However, even if we had wanted to, it would be difficult to stop the growth as it was tied to Singapore’s progress.

I do wonder if I should’ve exited earlier? But I chose to fulfil a duty to the stakeholders that need us, especially the customers we serve. You see, this journey has been so rewarding — all my lifetime friends, 30-year old friendships that are so cherished by us all. Some of our customers were students when I first met them! These relationships I treasure more than money and having learned more about design has given me an extra lens to appreciate the value of our products.

Business has many life stages. It’s just part of doing business. Don’t take this the wrong way, but there’s nothing I’d go back to change, I own the decisions I make. It’s about how I can move forward — going back to change things does not mean a change in outcome. Market forces are market forces.

11) Looking forward, what’s a key move that you’re working on?
My retirement! I’ve worked non-stop since I was 16, but I know I can’t sit idle. I’m intending to make my own paper out of waste for RJ as a new line!

I don’t know. To be frank, I’m on a constant search. It’s hard to put my foot down quickly; there’s a lot to consider.

12) As a brand owner, you’ve engaged us to adopt a more B2C branding approach but you’re really a B2B business. Why?
We recognised a shift in the market’s value perception. We knew we had to open up and be more visible. When stakeholders see us changing and making new moves, we reinstate a trust with them that we’re still progressing. It’s a renewal of our values, and this can also benefit our customers. We don’t know if these moves work, but sitting still wouldn’t work any better, anyway.

13) Any (branding) advice for SME brand owners or managers?
Jane & Jeanette:
Like Jane’s curry puff chain example, stay true to what the company stands for. That’s very important; don’t rebrand to become something you can’t even associate yourself with.

14) Any advice for fellow 2nd generation business owners or managers?
Jane & Jeanette:
Family always comes first. There’s no point losing that over a business.

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