Marcus and Charlene are Family First Malaysia’s CEO Couple Club Presidents. They lead a group of like-minded couples in the marketplace who have young families. Marcus and Charlene have three primary aged children. This couple has been in business together for 15 years. Their company, Conspec Builders (M) Sdn Bhd has won multiple awards. I was interested to find out how they juggle work, marriage and family life, along with their extracurricular commitments in their very busy but productive lives.
1. How did you know about Family First Malaysia?
Through our mentors Dr Peter and Dr Abby Ting.
2. How did you get involved with the CEO Couples’ Club?
Dr Peter (also the consultant to Conspec) encouraged us to form the CEO Couples’ Club to gather like-minded couples with young families who have a passion to see families grow stronger and who wish to journey together to keep each other accountable, encourage and push each other to be better spouses, parents and children.
3. Tell me more about your company, how the both of you got involved with it, the nature of your business and your respective roles in it.
Conspec Builders (M) S/B was incorporated in 1983 by Marcus’ father, Paul Tan as a concrete solutions specialist for flooring systems. The business went through many ups and downs including the 1987 and 1997 recessions. The company migrated from the flooring business to the Landscaping business as Mr Paul saw great potential in the landscape industry which was blossoming in the late 90s. The 90s were good times for the business with high profit margins and many good project references as Malaysia was developing quickly. The lowest time of the company was in 2004 to 2005 where loss-making projects caused the business and family (using personal money to plug the losses) to go almost bankrupt.
Marcus joined the company in March 2004 and Charlene joined three months later, when she relocated from Melbourne to Malaysia to join Marcus. Both were exposed to all areas of the business. In 2004, the company was a small firm with 10-12 staff, requiring everyone to take on multiple roles.
Marcus was also out on the field running projects, getting new leads and eventually tendering for projects. Charlene was rotated through running of the office from Contracts to Accounts to Administration and finally Human Resources.
The exposure over the years gave both of us a good overview of operating the company. Marcus took over the daily company management in 2008. With the support of Charlene and Mr Paul, Marcus charted the growth of Conspec Builders; adding to the fold more subsidiary companies. As a team, Marcus transformed a small landscape contractor to become one of the front-runners and an industry-recognized landscape solutions provider in Malaysia.
4. What are the Top 3 benefits of working together as a couple?
We are able to integrate our lives better together. Some people find it difficult to separate work, play, church, parenting and our social life but we believe that everything we do is for the glory of God. We are now trying to adopt a philosophy that everything is related and involve each other in as many aspects of our life as possible.
We involve our kids in making decisions that may affect their future. We seek the childrens’ opinions and ask for their input so they feel involved in the business as well.
We are accountable to each other. Some say it is lonely on top, but we do not feel so. This is because we have a sparring partner and can point out where each person is doing right or wrong; with suggestions on how to improve. Though, it is not always easy to take constructive criticism well! We know our end-goal is to set high standards for each other in all areas – career, parenting, church leadership and marriage.
5. What are the challenges you faced working together, and how have you dealt with them?
Firstly, when company finances were tight, our family income suffered. As our only source of income was/is from the business, in the early years we financed the company through tough times; throwing all our life savings to pull through crucial months at a time. It helps to have a partner to talk to when finances look really bad; reminding each other that this too will pass.
Second, since we are so comfortable with each other, we can say the worst things without filtering our thoughts. Through disagreements and quarrels we have learned to be more tactful. To function properly, we apologise quickly to resolve issues – because harbouring resentment affects every part of our lives.
Third, we forget and use ‘boss’ mode to bark orders at home! This can get annoying when the home requires mutual cooperation. We also point out each others’ errors, sometimes our children have to become the peacemakers and laugh loudly at our ways.
Fourth, we used to take our job home and talk about work even though we were supposed to spend time with the children. Now, we concentrate and listen to children; giving them more attention and teaching them. So when children are asleep, we will talk about issues at work. Also, we use travel time outstation to discuss and brainstorm. Some of our best ideas were birthed on the way to Penang and Johor.
6. How do you make time for your marriage outside work?
We plan dates together and go overseas as a couple at least once a year. We are fortunate that Marcus’ parents babysit the children on Friday nights, so we make that our date night.
If an urgent matter comes up, when children go to bed (around 9pm) , we go out for a drink nearby to spend time together.
7. Is it possible to separate work from home life, and how do you do it?
The truth is, there is no separation of work from home life. Home is team-work as well. It is important to keep the conversation going with your partner and constantly negotiate and work around the busyness of your lives.
8. How many children do you have, and what are their ages? How do you make time for them with both of you working full time?
We have 3 children – Estelle 11, Lukas 9, Jethro 7.
I (Marcus) wake up every morning (unless I have to work late) to send the kids of to school and pray with them before they leave for school. My kids love to hear stories about our lives so I always tell them stories and show them photos of the things we do. They seem to enjoy knowing what their parents do and all the funny incidents that happen.
I try to find out what children’s interest is and focus my time with them on their interest. Estelle loves music, beauty and health so we will always chat about the latest fashion, music and I take interest in her latest accessories and being healthier.
Lukas loves playing board games and being physical so its always wrestling, punching around and games of Risk with him.
Jethro just wants to spend time and talk so it is about hearing him out and taking interest in his latest sketches, stories about other people and taking him for dessert!
I (Charlene) plan a monthly meal 1-to-1 with each child; we call it their ‘date’ which falls on the day of their birthday (ie every 19th of the month). I go to Yamaha piano classes with Jethro weekly. I have half to one hour with Estelle over a drink every Saturday morning and one hour with Lukas every Sunday after church; when the other 2 children have choir practice.
9. What is your advice for other couples wanting to run a business together?
Make sure you spell out your job descriptions clearly and each person must pull their weight! There can only be one leader so the stronger person ought to lead while the other will be their business support. Finally, running a business is not easy at all; expect it to stress you both like mad. So establish the rules before you go into the business together and always play fair – attack the issue and not the person. Business fallouts happen for various reasons but we do not want the business to fail because of division in the leadership.
After this, write job descriptions in the home together. Craft the JD so the children have their own jobs too. Less ambiguity is always better! Most importantly teach everyone at home that the house is ‘ours’ and everyone takes ownership.
10. What are some values you consider important for a healthy marriage?
#1 – Love for God – place Him the centre of our lives knowing that everything we do is to give Him the glory.
#2 – Perseverance – work on the marriage no matter how hard it gets.
#3 – Service – serve the other party first
#4 – Humility – say sorry when you are wrong and be humble when you present your requests to the other party
About the Author: Jess Chan is married and has two school aged daughters. Aside from being full-time “minister of home affairs” and “transport minister” to her little family, she also serves as the Field Administrator for World Outreach International, a Christian mission organisation that has a presence in 70 countries. Jess and her family moved back to Malaysia in 2017, after spending 10 years in New Zealand and 6 years in Thailand.