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A legacy of their own

Pauline Wong
Pauline Wong • 8 min read
A legacy of their own
Tea and gold are age-old industries, but the De Silva siblings are redefining new ways to run these businesses
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Tea and gold are age-old industries, but the De Silva siblings are redefining new ways to run these businesses

SINGAPORE (Aug 19): When he was a child, a broken egg taught Navin Amarasuriya, managing director of BP de Silva Group, an important lesson about being considerate. He was at the grocery store with his father, Sunil, when he noticed a cracked egg in the carton they had chosen. He was about to replace it with another carton, but his father stopped him. “He said there was a small chance it could’ve been broken by us. We should pay for it,” Navin, 35, tells The Edge Singapore. “Our father was always concerned about being considerate to others and how our actions affect others.”

Even today, Navin and his siblings — Rehan, 33, and Shanya, 28 — are conscious of the effect of their decisions on people around them. Indeed, as the fifth generation of the family-owned BP de Silva Holdings, the three have more reason to be conscious of their actions than most others. After all, theirs is a tremendous legacy to live up to — 147 years, to be exact.

The company’s roots stretch back to 1872, when Balage Porolis de Silva disembarked from a clipper from Sri Lanka upon landing at another British colonial outpost, Singapore. From a small shop along the Singapore River, he began selling gemstones from his homeland, renowned for its blue sapphires. Over the next century, BP de Silva carved a reputation for craftsmanship and exclusivity.

Yet, it was not all smooth sailing for the company. By the 1960s, it had expanded into divergent trading businesses, and friction had arisen among its many shareholders. So, when Sunil, the fourth generation to manage the business, took over as managing director in 1980, he was thrust into the rough and tumble of rebuilding the sprawl of businesses he had inherited.

Sunil took the painful route of cleaving off those that were not performing; he laid off people. He also took on a large loan to gain a controlling stake of the company. This came at a time of personal crisis, as his own father had become paralysed from a severe stroke. Sunil managed to turn the company around and, today, his three children manage different aspects of the business between them.

In a recent phone interview with The Edge Singapore, Navin, Rehan and Shanya joke about the rarity of all three being together, in a way, in a weekend. The siblings often travel extensively. Immediately, Navin takes charge, suggesting that Rehan and Shanya relate how they are changing things in their respective areas of the family business, and he will do a wrap-up at the end.

Minimising impact of gold

Shanya begins by explaining how she learnt about the environmental impact of gold. “For the last few years, while I was in New York studying jewellery design and gemolo­gy, I asked myself: Why does Singapore need another jeweller and what could I do differently? If I hadn’t been able to answer that, I wouldn’t be able to feel fulfilled,” she says. “Even though we’re a small family business, we’ve been through so much as a company, even war, and I wanted to stand for something more than just a jewellery business.”

As such, she decided to look more closely at the environmental impact of the gold industry. “One of my professors was big on looking at the impact of the jewel industry, and the mining of gold came up as the most environmentally degrading part of the ecosystem. Cyanide is used to extract the gold; mercury is then used to dissolve the other minerals surrounding it, and it has been known to leech into the environment,” she explains.

Shanya has since initiated the process of getting the jewellery arm of the company certified as a B Corporation — an international certification that legally requires companies to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community and the environment, and work towards using business as a force for good. The B Corp certification is issued by B Lab, a non-profit organisation funded by, among others, The Rockefeller Foundation, Deloitte LLP and the Prudential Foundation.

Shanya says the gold currently used by the company is from PX Precinox, a Swiss gold bar manufacturer. Precinox produces what it has trademarked as “PX Impact” gold — that is, gold that is mined responsibly and eschews the use of dangerous chemicals and poisons in its extractions. Currently, all the gold that BP de Silva Jewellers uses is PX Impact gold. “Yes, it is 2% to 3% more expensive than [normal] gold, [but] we have both the privilege and the responsibility to ask what we want to be, for our generation [of the business].

“I will totally own the stereotype that, as a millennial, we care about the environment and do not want to contribute to its degradation, and want to be the voice that says ‘no’,” Shanya laughs. “We believe it is possible to be profitable and responsible at the same time.”

Future-proofing with tech

As for Rehan, who oversees the company’s tea brand, The 1872 Clipper Tea Co, innovation is the key to transforming the traditional, almost unchanging, tea industry. “It really has not innovated much — in Sri Lanka, it has a history of maybe 150 years, but it has been stuck in history. For me, when it comes to future-proofing [this part of the company], any business that does not engage technology today loses out.”

Rehan launched Teapasar, a global online tea marketplace that he is clearly proud of. The platform allows both local and international tea brands, farmers and producers to showcase and sell their products directly to consumers.

“If you look at tea brands today, it’s the conglomerates that control the supermarket shelves. There is no space for the small players,” he says. “So, we wanted to create a platform for the tea community to come together and grow the community together. Today, we have more than 50 brands on our platform, and we also organise the annual Singapore Tea Festival.”

But more than just giving small tea manufacturers the independence and access to consumers directly, Rehan has also developed, in collaboration with the Agency for Science Technology and Research (A*STAR) and the National University of Singapore, a tool called ProfilePrint, which traces exactly where the tea has come from and distinguishes its flavour profiles. “We do this to bypass the hands that impede the business, to connect the farm directly to the consumer,” he says.

Rehan believes a real problem in the tea industry today lies in the numerous layers in the supply chain, which often does little to benefit the farmers. “There can be five to 10 layers between the tea farmer and the consumer. When we connect the farmer to the consumer directly, the turnaround is so much faster, and the farmer would get a better price for his tea. Even the consumer may get it cheaper [than from the shelves]. It benefits both sides. The volume is smaller, but [the farmer] can get a better price per kilogram,” he explains, adding that Clipper Tea is aiming for B Corp certification.

Navin says he and his siblings have had long discussions on what success means to them, as the fifth generation of the company. “We live in a world in which some companies grow for the sake of growth and returns to shareholders, but we know this comes at a cost to the environment and society in general. Yet, there aren’t many ways to measure this impact. This is why we’re pursuing B Corp certification, to measure our impact, beyond financial and the economy, and to look at our larger role in the world.”

Navin credits their father for setting them on this path. “Our family has definitely been our biggest inspiration today. Our father embodied the very idea of altruism, and the importance of understanding our duties and responsibilities to those around us, and we have followed in his footsteps,” he says.

Yet, all three are aware of their privilege. “We all realise, because we are a part of this family, we have the chance to look at what our lives mean. This [chance] is a luxury: the ability to explore other ways of living and working, and other definitions of success,” Navin says. “Because we have what we have, we now have the responsibility to give back, by doing something more.”

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