Why studying family business is crucial for doing business in Asia

Marleen Dieleman is an Associate Professor at NUS Business School at the National University of Singapore. An expert in strategy and governance in Asian family business groups, Marleen teaches a course in the NUS MBA program specifically focused on family business in Asia. She told MBAGRADSCHOOLS about the rise of family firms and why studying family businesses in Asia is relevant for any student preparing to do business in the region.

In short

Family businesses dominate in Asia

Marleen admits, “People might find it strange – why take ‘family business’? – but if you work here in Asia, you will find family businesses all around you.” (00:20)

While most of the family firms in places like the US and the UK are smaller, in Asia, the vast majority of large firms are family firms. In fact, two-thirds of the largest family-owned firms in the world are based in Asia.

As Marleen says, “If it’s not government-owned, it’s probably family[-owned]. So we’re covering that very large chunk of very dynamic companies in the region.” (00:51)

Considering its huge importance, it’s no surprise that the NUS Business School MBA program dedicates an entire course to studying family business in Asia, as a way to build a greater understanding of doing business in Asia.

Identifying patterns in family businesses

Within the realm of family businesses, there is no shortage of topics to explore – from governance to finance to succession.

At NUS Business School, Marleen explains, “What I’m trying to do in this course is give my students an idea of the patterns that happen in family firms and how the context matters in terms of how those [patterns] play out.” (01:27)

Using case studies, Marleen guides her students to examine these patterns. She gives an example: “Small family firms are very simple when you have just a founder and maybe some other family member. But once you go into the third generation, you have so many family members [and] different generations [and] perhaps the business might also be very big by then, it becomes very complex to keep everything together. And that’s where governance of family firms becomes very important, and [where] you also might see some feuds in business families.” (01:46)

Another interesting aspect of Marleen’s course is that students will not only explore family firms from the perspective of the family, but also from the perspective of the investor. “The majority of the stock exchange-listed firms [in Asia] are family firms, so when do you invest in these firms? What makes these families perform better? And under what conditions might they be doing stuff that is not necessarily in the interests of you as a minority shareholder? Students will gradually pick up a lot of relevant patterns that are really, really useful when they do business in Asia,” Marleen says. (02:38)

Lastly, while the course focuses mostly on Asian family businesses, students will also explore different contexts of family firms in places like Europe. “I do borrow a little bit from some of the European family firms when it comes to how does it look when we’re in the fourth or fifth generation and there are maybe hundreds of shareholders?” Marleen tells us. “That kind of situation is still quite uncommon in East Asia.” (03:09)

Governance is a very important issue in family businesses, so Marleen teaches techniques to govern family firms to ensure that they last for generations.

Is studying family businesses relevant for everyone?

Even if you’re not currently working in your family business or you don’t plan on working in a family firm, Marleen says studying family businesses is actually relevant for all students – especially in Asia.

“I have many students who don’t work in family firms…and they come out of my course saying, ‘Wow, I have never seen this and now I realize how relevant it is,” she says. “Let’s say you do procurement at a multinational company, you’ll be buying from family firms. If you’re an entrepreneur, your financing will come from families. Your clients could be families…Almost all kinds of careers, especially in Asia, will bring you in touch with these business families. Knowing how they operate and how to approach them is usually helpful for all types of students.” (05:19)

Why learning is “seriously fun” in the NUS MBA

Marleen’s course on family businesses in Asia is not only popular because it’s an important topic for the region, but also because her teaching style is wonderfully fun!

One innovative element of her course is a street game she invented. Built on elements of storytelling, Marleen describes the game as a series of “TikTok lectures” that can be accessed after students arrive at different buildings in downtown Singapore, uncovering the stories of the families behind those buildings. The game involves riddles, research, and of course, lots of fun.

“When they finish, they’re like, ‘Wow, I will never see Singapore in the same way. Now I realize the real impact of these business families – not just on our skyline, but on our economy as well,’” Marleen tells us. (06:51)

“What I want to do for them is to give them a new set of glasses to look at the region and business in the region,” she adds. “And the second thing is, I always feel that learning should be seriously fun. So they should also have fun learning in this course.” (07:47)

Family businesses in Singapore: Bringing the community into the classroom

“Singapore is a really thriving place for family businesses at the moment,” Marleen says. (08:23Over half of the companies listed on the Singapore Stock Exchange are family firms, and it is a similar story for most of Southeast Asia, India, Korea, and Hong Kong. A large share of the business community consists of large family-owned conglomerates.

“What we do in this class is we bring that community into the classroom,” Marleen explains. “So it’s almost like the boundaries between the class and the community are gone. I have many guest speakers who are owners of family firms or next generations of family firms. Even some of my old students, who are also from business families, might come back later and give a talk in my class.” (08:32)

Bringing family firms into the classroom makes the learning experience more vibrant, more experiential, and more impactful on students preparing to do business in Asia. 

Regardless of whether you plan to work in a family firm, you will inevitably come across family businesses in your career. A course like Marleen’s at NUS MBA can provide indispensable knowledge and expertise for your thriving career in Asia.

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