Who is the scion of Julie’s Biscuits, who wants to make the company bolder?
How can one make a household name like Julie’s more iconic than it already is? For Sai Tzy Horng, son of Julie’s founder Su Chin Hock, it’s by pushing the company to be braver.
“The peanut butter biscuits are the ones that I remember very dearly,” he recalled. “They came in a very big tin, and I still remember its old school design, with a brownish photo and lots of peanut butter and coffee, or something like that.”
At the time, Sai, the youngest son of Su Chin Hock, founder of Malaysian biscuit manufacturing company Julie's Biscuits, lived in Singapore with his mother and older brother. Meanwhile, his father remained in Malaysia to take care of the business, travelling to Singapore fortnightly to visit the family.
“I remember he would bring back lots of biscuit samples when he was trying out different flavours. He would offer them to us so he could get our feedback. We were the taste testers, and my brother and I really enjoyed biscuits growing up,” Sai reminisced.
Fast forward to today, and Sai now works alongside his parents as the brand director of the company. Though he did have to taste-test one too many biscuits as a boy, eventually joining the family fold was never expected of him. “It wasn’t like every Sunday breakfast, my mum and dad would ask ‘When are you going to take over the business?’ It was nothing like that,” the 39-year-old laughed.
“When I was young, I remember clearly my ambitions were to set out on my own. My parents also made it very clear that they wanted my brother and I to be independent and to make inroads for ourselves,” he said.
“I remember [that my dad] would bring back lots of biscuit samples when he was trying out different flavours. We were the taste testers, and my brother and I really enjoyed biscuits growing up.” – Sai Tzy Horng
AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY
For Sai, finding his own path in life entailed moving to Canada, where he studied to become an educational psychologist. “I was bullied in school, so I wanted to learn how to undo the cycle. But once I grew up, I realised that my perception of being a psychologist and what it’s like in reality is a completely different story,” he admitted.
After completing his studies, Sai decided to stay on in Canada, where he spent a total of 12 years, in order to “experience a life outside of Asia”.
It was eventually a Skype call from his mother in 2012 that pulled him back to the family business.
At that point, Julie’s was in the initial stages of embarking on a rebranding process, and his mum needed help in writing a story about the company. “I know that it was intentional for her to rope me back in. She felt it was time for me to come back to the business,” Sai acknowledged.
Following that call, Sai spent several years as a consultant to the company. But as the years went by, he eventually decided to move back to Asia in 2017 to be “more hands-on with the business”. He’s now based in Singapore.
Though his journey back to the business wasn’t one he expected, in a way, it was one he was unintentionally prepared for.
“Though my father wasn’t around much, one way he used to bond with me was by talking about worldly affairs. He’s not the type to talk about my football match, or how I did for math. He’s the person who talks about business, world economics, and the political scene. From a very young age, he gave my brother and I a bird’s eye view of what it’s like to do business, and how you need to prepare for it by taking a look at the macro environment,” he shared.
While Sai describes his role at Julie’s as a “hodge-podge” of many different things, he mainly oversees brand strategy and marketing. “We can do a lot of interesting things with the Julie’s brand. We can tell stories through our products, and outside of our products, so people can understand who we are and what we stand for,” he explained.
“Though my father wasn’t around much, one way he used to bond with me was by talking about worldly affairs. From a very young age, he gave my brother and I a bird’s eye view of what it’s like to do business." – Sai Tzy Horng
JULIE COMES TO LIFE
Once he returned, one of Sai’s immediate priorities was to drive the company’s rebranding efforts. Although talk of rebranding Julie’s had begun as early as 2012, it was put on hold till 2017.
Since the brand’s founding in 1984, Julie’s products have been instantly recognisable by the young, blonde girl depicted on the logo. Though the logo has become an icon today, many may still wonder, who exactly is Julie?
“I’ve been asked this a thousand times,” Sai laughed. “People have asked, is Julie your mother? Your father’s ex-girlfriend? The real story is that Julie is someone my father made up. She’s not based on a real person, but the idea was to make the brand sound more international as he had set his sights on taking the brand outside of Asia.”
For 35 years, Julie wore a red vest, her hair tied up in pigtails. But last year, the company gave Julie a new look. She now sports a shorter haircut, with a spanking new outfit. She’s noticeably younger, with her face tilted to the side, looking up.
“There are many reasons for this,” Sai explained earnestly. “We wanted the brand to be more hopeful. With her head titled up, she looks a little bit cheeky, as though she’s looking for an adventure. That’s a reminder to us as a company to be more forward-looking and aspirational.”
A key focus of the rebranding, Sai shared, was to bring Julie to life. “I didn’t want her to be a stamp or a passport photo, where she’s just stuck onto our products,” he mused.
“Before the rebranding, Julie’s was already universally loved. We had a place in people’s households and their hearts. When I came back, one of the things I wanted to do was to amplify that, to tell wonderful stories. I felt that the brand really needed to speak up. The fact that Julie’s is a girl, a human character, that gives her infinite potential to be more iconic, which is something I’ve set my sights on.”
“People have asked, is Julie your mother? Your father’s ex-girlfriend? The real story is that Julie is someone my father made up. She’s not based on a real person." – Sai Tzy Horng
THE NEXT CHAPTER
Throughout its history, Julie’s has always been a “humble” and “conservative” brand, Sai said. Though this has helped the company in many ways, it was also a problem.
“There are two types of humble. The first type is being so reserved, people can never get to know you. But there’s another type of humility where people can get to know you. Where they see the values you stand for, that you are putting people first,” he said.
Back when Sai was still a consultant for the company, he started Julie’s social movement, titled The Best Of You, in 2014. The movement encouraged the public to submit their personal stories of people, things, or experiences that have brought out the best in them.
“It was a CSR project that allowed us to give back to society. I brought a lot of my Canadian influences and my work as a psychologist into the movement. A lot of it was really about appreciative storytelling, asking people to talk about their lives and their struggles, and giving them a space to cherish their accomplishments,” Sai explained.
Beyond giving the brand a platform to speak about causes it believes in, Sai also hopes to push the company to be bolder when it comes to product development.
“A lot of our R&D has been focused on improving our existing products, like our peanut butter biscuits. These things take time to nurture over the years. The more consistent we make the peanut butter biscuits, the more it becomes a staple in your pantry,” he said.
But this meant that the company wasn’t innovating when it came to new products. “What we’d like to do now is to play around as a brand by trying new flavours. If they don’t work, that’s ok,” Sai said.
Though they might not eventually be launched, Sai revealed that Julie’s is currently exploring exotic flavours such as mala and matcha. “Salt and pepper is also a flavour we’re considering, as well as health-conscious products such as vegetable biscuits.”
To do so, the company wants to take a leaf out of McDonalds’ book by launching limited edition products. “It’s a way for us to introduce new flavours to the market and to test its receptiveness. I think many companies have done this to great success. McDonald's Singapore is one of them,” he said.
“What we’d like to do now is to play around as a brand by trying new flavours. Salt and pepper is a flavour we’re considering, as well as health-conscious products such as vegetable biscuits.” – Sai Tzy Horng
‘I FIND IT HARD TO SEE MYSELF AS A LEADER’
It is interesting to note how some of Julie’s humility has evidently trickled down to Sai. When asked about his thoughts on being a second generation leader and what he brings to the company, he responded by saying, “I find it hard to see myself as a leader, or as ‘second generation’. I just don’t think in those sorts of terms.”
Sai has never been one to celebrate his achievements. “It’s a very Asian tradition that stems from my parents. We celebrated nothing. There were no birthday parties, no reward for good grades. I’ve also learnt that after you do one thing, you move on to the next. I never went for any of my graduations. My Master’s degree? Skipped,” he said.
Sai also believes that the term “second generation leader” comes with too much pressure. “It’s like I’m answerable to the whole world, and I’m probably not ready for that kind of title,” he continued.
What Sai believes he’s doing differently from the previous generation, however, is bringing a sense of fun into the business. “You will see this transformation in Julie’s, where we want to take more chances and be more creative. We can let our hair down and not take things too seriously,” he said.
While he sometimes misses his days as an educational psychologist, he now finds joy in the dynamic nature of his work at Julie’s. “Julie’s is experiencing a very interesting time in history right now. The rebrand has been well-received and the energy is there for us to do much bigger things,” he said.
He may not feel like he’s ready for the title as “second generation leader”, but it’s exciting to see where he takes Julie’s to next.
“Julie’s is experiencing a very interesting time in history right now. We want to take more chances and be more creative. We can let our hair down and not take things too seriously." – Sai Tzy Horng