Family Businesses May Thrive, But Can They Survive?

Tom Wing and Sons,which shut its doors in Menlo Park at the end of last month.
Tom Wing and Sons, a family jewelry business dating back to Shanghai in the 1930s, just shut its doors in September 2014. Courtesy The Tom Family

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As a teenager, Tom Wing left his village in China in search of opportunity. He apprenticed himself to a master jeweler in Shanghai and within a few years, he was running his own shop selling his intricate designs in platinum, diamond, and jade, befitting the city’s glitz and glamour during the 1930s.

Tom and the business survived the war against Japan, but as China fell under Communist control, he fled with his family to Hong Kong. He started over again, building his business until he reached for an even bigger opportunity: America.

After landing an artisan’s visa, he arrived in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1961, and his wife and children followed, founding a jewelry business that has sustained his family for more than a half-century.

"Tom Wing": The patriarch and founder of Tom Wing & Sons.Courtesy The Tom Family

“Everyone has a common goal. Working together is good for everybody. Separate, we won’t be successful,” said George Tom, 74, the eldest son and chief executive of Tom Wing and Sons. (Tom Wing followed Chinese naming convention -- surname followed by his given name -- while his children and grandchildren employ Western naming convention -- given name followed by their surname.)

The Tom family’s story reflects that of many immigrants, who are more likely than America's native-born to open their pwn businesses. The number of firms owned by Asians –- the nation’s fastest growing ethnic group -- rose 40 percent over five years, to 1.5 million in 2007.

"Working together is good for everybody. Separate, we won’t be successful"

Immigration from Asia has helped drive that trend, researchers say. Starting a small business is a time-honored tradition for migrants to improve their prospects, particularly if their lack of English fluency hampers their ability to find higher paying jobs, or if their educational and professional credentials aren’t recognized in the U.S.

More recently, immigrants are “drawing on their transnational and globalized backgrounds as immigrants to help them bridge the U.S. and Asia,” said C.N. Le, a visiting assistant sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

The four sons and two daughters of Tom Wing, in their shop at Stanford Shopping Center, in 2003.Courtesy The Tom Family

About 10 percent of immigrants, regardless of ethnicity, start their own businesses, but rarely do they last as long as the Toms. Less than a third of family-owned businesses survive beyond the first generation. Of those, only 12 percent last into the third generation.

“Small business is very labor intensive,” said Kyeyoung Park, a professor of anthropology and Asian American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. “But it doesn’t require much capital, and they can utilize their family labor.”

“You don't get a pat on the back, you just get the satisfaction of knowing you did something helpful that benefits the whole family.”

Tom Wing decreed that his son George would pursue the higher education that he himself never had a chance to pursue, and that his three younger sons would learn the jewelry trade.

George Tom studied plant nutrition in graduate school, but as the U.S. moved towards normalizing relations with mainland China –- marked by President Nixon’s historic visit in February 1972 -– he suspected that as China rose in prominence, so too would American interest in Chinese artisans.

Tommy Tom, who learned jewelry design from his father, Tom Wing, works on a ring in the family store.Courtesy The Tom Family

Together, the Tom siblings expanded the family business, first with a boutique inside Livingston Brothers, an upscale department store in San Francisco's Union Square shopping district. A second downtown storefront a couple blocks away followed, and then a third, in the Stanford Shopping Center.

Often, immigrants rely on family or hire from their ethnic community at their businesses. Each Tom son or daughter took on a different responsibility: management and marketing, stringing pearls, bookkeeping, sourcing jewels, precious metals, and jewelry design.

Mabel Hom, daughter of Tom Wing, strings pearls.Courtesy The Tom Family

“Everyone has their own duties. That’s what makes traffic very smooth, never a cross problem,” George Tom said.

The American-born generation helped create databases, set up the Internet connection, a website, and e-mail access, said his niece, Jennifer Hom. “Growing up in a family business really teaches you to just help out and pitch in,” said Hom, 36, of Los Gatos, Ca. “You don't get a pat on the back, you just get the satisfaction of knowing you did something helpful that benefits the whole family.”

Her cousin, Joyce Tom, remembers fondly that her father once made her a happy face pendant with a wide smile and tiny diamond eyes. He often designed jewelry for his wife, pieces that he’d hide in a bouquet of roses, on her dessert, and even dropped into her champagne glass.

“All our family let the children explore and maximize their potential. We never try to be old-fashioned, like in my father’s time."

While growing up, Joyce used to take inventory in the store along with her cousins. Later, she helped out part-time while attending college, learning how her elders treated their customers graciously, always honestly and straightforwardly, even with the “tire kickers.”

There was no greed or undermining among her aunts and uncles who sometimes bickered but never fought, she said. “Maybe it was just the Cantonese language that made anything sound a little harsh,” said Joyce Tom, 36, of Hollywood, Ca.

In the fourth grade, she wrote an essay predicting in twenty years, she’d work in the family business, designing jewelry like her father. Instead, she became a costume designer. She and her cousins, encouraged by their parents to pursue their own interests, have entered fields such as medicine, law, and activism.

None took over Tom Wing and Sons, which consolidated to a single shop in Menlo Park that shut its doors at the end of last month.

Jewelry equipment at Tom Wing & Sons store.Courtesy The Tom Family

“All our family let the children explore and maximize their potential. We never try to be old-fashioned, like in my father’s time,” George Tom said.

Although the designs of the patriarch –- and what he taught his children –- end with this generation, Tom Wing’s jewelry lives on. Earlier this year, a client brought in a ring for repair. Incredibly, inside the ring was Tom Wing’s chop, his personal seal in Chinese characters, which he marked on all his designs. The client’s father had been a foreign officer in Shanghai decades ago, and the ring seemed proof that the patriarch’s jewelry was durable and well-made.

The ring had become a family heirloom, traveling across oceans and continents to settle in America -– just like the Toms.

If George’s son, David Tom, had to evacuate his house in an emergency, he would grab his children and the jewelry custom-made by his family’s shop: his high school class ring, his wife’s engagement ring, and other gifts that he worked on with aunts and uncles, said the 38-year-old marriage and family therapist. Each piece, he says, are a reminder of his family’s roots, and the values he wants to pass onto his children.

Jimmy Tom, who learned jewelry design from his father, Tom Wing.Courtesy The Tom Family