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Why Kelly Jie Seafood sisters dropped corporate careers to keep mum's restaurant alive

Sisters Rachel and Zara Lim of Kelly Jie Seafood discuss the ups and downs of being second-generation family business owners.

Zara Lim and Rachel Lim posing for a photo in front of their restaurant, Kelly Jie Seafood.
(From left) Sisters Zara Lim and Rachel Lim, second-generation owners of Kelly Jie Seafood. (PHOTO: Yahoo Finance Singapore) (Yahoo Finance Singapore)

SINGAPORE — Deciding whether to continue an established family business or venture into the corporate world can be a tough choice.

This was the dilemma that Rachel Lim, 32, faced in early 2023 when her mother, Kelly Soon, expressed her wish to retire and "give away" the restaurant she founded back in 2006.

The restaurant, Kelly Jie Seafood, formerly known as Toa Payoh Mellben Seafood, is a well-known eatery with a loyal customer base. Soon, a single mother who raised three children, ran the restaurant almost every day for 17 years. She was approaching her 60s when she decided it was time to call it quits.

This prompted Rachel and her sister, Zara Lim, 27, to consider taking over the restaurant that their mother started. At the time, Rachel had a successful career as a bank relationship manager while Zara was freelancing in the real estate sector.

In an interview with Yahoo Finance Singapore, the sisters shared what it was like to transition from corporate careers to second-generation family business owners.

Zara, who is now in charge of the restaurant's marketing efforts, said that the transition wasn't too hard for her. As a freelance realtor who still holds a valid license, she could still practice while handling marketing for the restaurant. Hence, when older sister Rachel nudged her about the idea of taking over their mother's business, Zara was quick to agree.

However, Rachel found the decision to quit her banking job "very difficult" as she was "doing very well" there. She shared that she was earning a six-figure annual sum around the time she quit and still had some commissions that were "locked up" as part of the bank's practice of paying out commissions progressively for top earners who hit a certain amount.

Despite earning well as a bank relationship manager, Rachel admitted that she didn't enjoy sales. While she knew how to do her job well, she said that it was very stressful and tiring.

Hence, when her mother mentioned giving away the restaurant to another relative who was in the industry, Rachel started to rethink the idea of taking over.

Aside from being uncertain about whether she would be able to match her previous income, Rachel shared she was quite afraid of the potential conflicts that would arise as a result of taking over from her mother. The fear was based on her past experience of working full-time for a year at the restaurant prior to enrolling in university.

"We quarrelled and everything. She was still not ready to let go," Rachel recalled. "Later, when she told me that she just wanted to give up, I started to rethink it. Being a relationship manager also trained me to be patient. It really honed my skills. I became more mature to handle things."

We hope that our story can help those who are facing the same situation to be willing to take over from their first generation founders. It's really a pity for your parents to build something over the years, especially if everybody loves the brand, and you just close down because nobody wants to take over.Zara Lim, Kelly Jie Seafood

Her people skills also came in handy when it came to managing and earning the respect of the restaurant's staff, many of whom were seniors who had been working there from the start. Admittedly, the sisters said that there was a lot of "assessing each other out", and there were instances where changes they've made, such as changing up the restaurant's menu, were met with resistance.

"Every decision that I make, I have to be very careful and conscious of whatever I say. But thankfully, so far, so good," said Rachel.

It has been slightly over a year since the sisters took over Kelly Jie Seafood, and they have learned invaluable lessons from running the restaurant.

"Life is like a rollercoaster; it's not always smooth. And it's always good to have some setbacks – just handle the situation and move on," Rachel said. "You really have to put your ego down... if you're wrong, just apologise."

Younger sister Zara was much more encouraging about the prospect of second-generation takeovers. Reflecting on how many second-generation families refuse to take over from their parents in Singapore, Zara felt that it was a "pitiful" thing.

"We hope that our story can help those who are facing the same situation to be willing to take over from their first generation founders. It's really a pity for your parents to build something over the years, especially if everybody loves the brand, and you just close down because nobody wants to take over," said Zara.

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