Ties That Bind In The Family Business: Nyee Phoe Group

A 100-year-old horticulture business tells us what they do to keep their great-grandparents' company running — even in an increasingly digitised world.

Ties That Bind In The Family Business: Nyee Phoe Group

Anchor image: Andy Eng, 43, senior project manager, Kenny Eng, 45, director, and Shannon Eng, 40, senior designer

What does it take to keep a horticulture business running, and in the family, for 108 years? As the Eng siblings — Kenny, Andy and Shannon — put it, it’s being able to change with the times.

Their latest venture was the 2,800-sq-ft Mosscape Concept pop-up at Scotts Square, which married modern design aesthetics with innovative plant designs. It featured terrarium workshops and preserved plants like moss preserves (naturally dried and preserved to last up to three years) that have found fans in green-starved millennials hoping to bring nature indoors. Vlogger Nas Daily even has one in his new Singapore apartment.

Business acumen aside, family support is just as crucial to keep the business going. The siblings make it a point to gather for weekly dinners, never mind that shop-talk often sneaks into the conversation.

Your great-grandparents and grandparents started Nyee Phoe as a nursery to sell potted plants, and your parents branched out into landscaping. How have you kept up with the times?

Andy When my brother and I joined in 1999, we were so inexperienced we couldn’t help with anything. So we worked on smaller projects like water features, and our confidence gradually grew.

Kenny But in 1997, the lease for our land in Jalan Kayu and Bukit Panjang expired and we had to move to Kranji with thousands of plants. So we had to restart, evolve and do other things. We opened a museum, restaurant and built villas for farmstays after that. Some people might think it’s strange, but to us, if we change, we might die; if we don’t change, we’ll definitely die. Even though we’ve diversified, we’ve stuck to our vision to bridge the gap between nature and people.

Are plants and nature a hard sell in our increasingly digitised world?

Shannon That’s why we came up with Mosscape. We wanted to introduce to younger and digital-savvy Singaporeans the idea that nature can be brought indoors, and there’s minimal maintenance required.

Kenny Embracing technology in business can be very subjective. We need to ask ourselves if we’re implementing technology for the sake of doing so, or if it’s doing something good. We have social media, but only to direct customers to our hands-on experiences. Nature is nature, after all. You don’t change a tree into something else.

With the business having been in the family for four generations, would you consider passing it on to your children?

Shannon I hope not! When we were young, my mum always said: “Don’t join the company”. She saw our dad working so hard, and she didn’t want us to live like that too.

Andy It was a coincidence everyone returned. We grew up with the plants, with the company, so it was a natural progression.

Kenny We need to corporatise the business and find the best talent. If my kids want to join, they have to be good enough, not just because they are family.

This story first appeared in the December 2019 issue of A.

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