T&T is my wife Olive’s favourite grocery store and she shops there 2-3 times a month. There is no better place to buy quality Asian groceries than T&T. It’s the largest Asian supermarket in Canada, and one of the best Asian supermarkets in the world. It started by Taiwanese-Canadian Cindy Lee in 1993 in Metrotown, and has since then expanded to 10 stores in Greater Vancouver, 5 in Alberta, and 9 in Ontario. T & T was purchased for $225 million by Loblaw Companies in July 2009. T&T stands for Tiffany and Tina, the two daughters of Cindy and her husband. This past year, Cindy transitioned her CEO role to her 35-year old daughter Tina.
At a Small Business BC event last month, Tina Lee shared how she and her mother put together a transition plan passing on the CEO role from mother to daughter. Here are 4 business lessons I picked up from her talk:
How to Give the Past CEO Closure
Cindy and Tina put together a 3-month transition plan. Part of the plan was for Cindy to put together 5 points to pass on to Tina. Both of them realized the importance of allowing Cindy to say everything she wanted to say before retirement, but at the same time keeping what she wanted to pass on focused. Doing this allowed was an important part of bringing closure for Cindy’s 23-years as CEO.
During the transition, Cindy was very disciplined to direct any questions related to the future to Tina. For example, when she received a question related to a new store opening in Alberta, she would direct it to Tina.
During the Q&A, someone asked Cindy how retirement was. Cindy replied that she just came back from a trip to Taiwan where she took 3 cooking classes. She noted that she was enjoying her life, but also that she was intentionally going out of town often so that she cannot be reached by the old executives of the business. Everyone needed to know that Cindy was retired and that Tina was in charge now.
Building a New Team and Changing Culture as the New CEO
When Tina started as CEO, she decided structure her executive team as 70% internal and 30% external. She shared the importance of what she called “I Choose You” conversations with each executive. These conversations focused on communicating to each executive that Tina had chosen them, and she needed them, and that she trusted them.
Part of the transition was an off-site meeting. Each executive received an invitation from Tina with a time to meet her at the airport and a list of things to bring. They flew to Phoenix, Arizona for some time together, where the executives got a chance to get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Tina spent time sharing her vision for T&T, stressing that it was the same vision as before. She shared her renewed 3-year growth strategy along with the corporate culture required. Tina defined corporate culture as “how we need to behave to move things forward.”
One of the changes Tina envisioned was a new leadership style. The old leadership style was more of a top-down approach, and the one she wanted to implement was more of an empowering culture where everyone is allowed to take on more decision making (and consequently take responsibility for their decisions), rather than following the instructions of their boss. To me, this reflected the difference in leadership styles between an older generation and a younger generation.
“The Customer Need is Our Business Opportunity”
That’s what Cindy shared during the Q&A session. This was also a focus that Tina had learned and was continuing to keep at the forefront of T&T. There’s 4 main targets for T&T. The 1st is first generation East Asians, people who have immigrated to Canada themselves. The 2nd is second generation East Asians, the children of those that have immigrated to Canada. The 3rd is South-East Asians. Tina noted that Filipinos were the third largest immigrant group in Canada. And the 4th target market was Asian cuisine enthusiasts.
By identifying their target market, it allowed them to stay focused on their customer’s needs. One of Tina’s goals was to improve T&T’s English, realizing that many of their customers’ main language is English. This meant improved English from T&T staff and a better presence on their website and social media.
Tina shared about how Italian cuisine used to be considered ethnic food 20 years ago, and today, it is one everyone’s table. In 20 years, she sees Chinese food as being on everyone’s table, and T&T needs to be involved in this transition.
The Importance of Admitting You Are Wrong
During the Q&A Tina was asked, “What’s one lesson you learned during the transition period to becoming CEO that would apply to everyone in a business?” Tina took a few moments to think about the answer before replying, “A lot of people have difficulty swallowing their pride and admitting when they are wrong – especially men.” This is an important thing to learn for everyone in the organization. By admitting that you are wrong, you give your boss confidence that you are learning. Nobody is perfect. Your boss became your boss by making mistakes and learning from them. They understand that making mistakes is a necessary part of growth, and that is one thing they are looking for as evidence that you are growing. If you do not admit to your mistakes, you are communicating to your boss that you are not learning.
I think it will be interesting to follow Tina’s journey as CEO, and how her leadership changes impact how T&T is run. As loyal customers of T&T, my wife and I will especially pay close attention to the changes in their products, their stores, and with their marketing.