Based in 1872, Singapore’s B.P. de Silva remains to be evolving 5 generations later

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Part of Lifetime Legacies, a series produced by SilverKris for Opus by Prudential

What does legacy mean? How does it endure? There’s no one better to tackle these questions than the Amarasuriyas, the family behind B.P. de Silva, one of Singapore’s first luxury brands.

Descendants of Ceylonese merchant Balage Porolis de Silva – who sailed to Singapore and established a jewellery store on High Street in 1872 – 73-year-old Sunil and his son Rehan, 36, and daughter Shanya, 31, are the fourth- and fifth-generation custodians of a 150-year-old legacy.

Like many legacies, the family business has evolved over the decades. It includes a portfolio of companies beyond B.P. de Silva, including jewellery brand RISIS, fine tea brand The 1872 Clipper Tea Co. and luxury watches. Also like many legacies, it retains a strong connection to its origins.

Last year, to mark a century and a half since the opening of that first boutique, B.P. de Silva launched a standalone flagship in a handsome heritage house on Dempsey Hill. The brainchild of creative director Shanya, who joined the family business in 2018 after returning from New York, the boutique is symbolic of how younger generations can invigorate the family legacy.

We sat down with Sunil, Rehan and Shanya over a cup of tea, and discussed this and many other questions around what makes an enduring legacy.

Shanya Amarasuriya, Sunil Amarasuriya
Shanya and Sunil in the living room of the B.P. de Silva flagship boutique on Dempsey Hill. Photo credit: Ahmad Iskandar Photography

An evolving legacy, invigorated by travel

The best legacies are globally minded, and B.P. de Silva is no different. During his time at the helm, Sunil travelled often to Switzerland, to visit other family businesses in the luxury watch industry. There he came to understand and appreciate the power of brands.

“I saw what a powerful brand Switzerland itself is,” he recalls. “Everyone wants things that are Swiss-made, be it cosmetics or chocolate. Singapore, too, is such a great brand. I believe it can be a flagship for Asia, bringing in and nurturing brands from around the region. That’s why I bought RISIS – it was really important to me that we had brands based in Singapore.”

Years later, Shanya’s time in New York would also inspire her to dig deep into the history and heritage of B.P. de Silva. At the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she studied gemology and jewellery design, the diverse backgrounds of her classmates excited her and pushed her to examine her own.

Shanya also saw the importance of heritage in her visits to small, owner-run jewellery shops in Brooklyn, where she was struck by their unique identities and human touch. “It was such a different experience from Singapore. If you went to a jewellery store here, you wouldn’t always meet the owner.”

These experiences abroad led Shanya to pitch the idea of a B.P. de Silva flagship store that would be a fitting home for their forebearer’s legacy. Far from the bustle of downtown malls, the soothing, modern space features sepia photographs from decades past, old vault replicas and plenty of natural light in which to examine precious gems while sipping Sri Lankan tea.

Shanya Amarasuriya
Shanya’s experiences in New York inspired her to join the family business and spearhead the flagship store. Photo credit: Ahmad Iskandar Photography

When to take charge, and when to let go

When it comes to legacies, handing over to the next generation can be fraught. The older generation may feel reluctant to relinquish control. It’s easy to imagine that Sunil would feel a strong sense of ownership over the business after four decades at the helm.

After all, the reins of the business were thrust upon him suddenly at the age of 30. With little experience, he steered the company through financial challenges and the outbreak of the Sri Lankan Civil War, while nurturing the cooperation and goodwill of other family shareholders. He slowly turned the business’s fortunes around and grew portfolio to cover nine industries.

But five years ago, when time came to step down from daily operations, Sunil readily took on an advisory role and chose “a retirement office” on a different floor from the company’s new directors, Rehan and Shanya.

The most important legacy is teaching the next generation how to work together well

“It’s thanks to the Singapore system that we’ve come from. The executive powers change, but the advisory role goes on,” he explains, referring to former Prime Ministers of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, who eventually assumed the roles of Minister Mentor and Emeritus Senior Minister respectively, to support the transition of leadership.

For the Amarasuriyas, new leadership has ushered in new energy and a clear-eyed review of the sprawling portfolio. Under Shanya and Rehan’s directorship, the business has narrowed its focus to its jewellery and tea holdings, and introduced new marketing, sustainability reports, worker welfare programmes and other initiatives to help the legacy continue for years to come.

Caring for the environment and for workers

Since B.P. de Silva’s 150th anniversary last year, the family is looking ahead to what the business may look like at 200. Corporate social responsibility is a huge part of that vision. Though he is not directly involved with the business, Sunil’s oldest son, Navin, has had an enormous influence on how the company thinks about environmental impact.

“I’ve always been in business to give employment and develop others,” Sunil says. “But Navin brought environmental responsibility to our attention.” Since 2019, B.P. de Silva has begun publishing an impact report that outlines responsible metal and gem sourcing, as well as labour practices.

Labour welfare has been spearheaded by Rehan, whose work at The 1872 Clipper Tea Co. brought him in close contact with tea plantation workers in Sri Lanka. Today, as the country faces economic collapse, Rehan is working to ensure that the workers have the supplies they need, and receive basic self-sufficiency training, such as growing their own food.

Sunil Amarasuriya
Sunil Amarasuriya has chosen to step back from the reins and take an advisory role in the company. Photo credit: Ahmad Iskandar Photography

A legacy shaped by enduring values

For the Amarasuriyas, respect is as much part of the family legacy as business and wealth. “Money is not the only thing someone is looking for when they work for you,” Sunil says. “They want to be in a place where they feel safe. Coming to work isn’t something that should stress them out.”

Shanya credits her parents for instilling a sense of humility in her and her siblings as well. “We can’t deny that our mother and father have provided a life of privilege for us. But even the materially well-off are not immune to sudden pain in life,” she says, referring to the difficult circumstances her father endured when he took the reins of the business. “And that hardship goes back to the values of humility and being humble. My parents are very down to earth and accepting of other people, and you can sense that when you meet them.”

By a cosmic roll of the dice, we are here, and we won’t always be here. We hold on to something respectfully and then pass it on to the right hands

These values aren’t just limited to company culture – they are the guiding principles of the family’s personal lives. Sunil has often advised his children to seek similar values in life partners. “They must have the same values that we have in the family, and not be people who are arrogant or who don’t treat people the way that we’ve been brought up to treat them.”

Safeguarding a legacy’s future

“The most important legacy is teaching the next generation how to work together well,” Sunil says. The Amarasuriyas are well aware that the soft skills, values and temperament required to continue a legacy aren’t always a given. Legacies must also be safeguarded by wise advisors and sound business oversight.

Itself a privately-held company – with a board of directors and trustees – the family business ensures that transitions are handled rationally, and new ventures such as the brand new flagship store are deliberated professionally. Safeguarding a legacy also means anticipating industry disruptions. Rehan has taken a keen interest in the modernisation of the tea trade. In addition to his duties at B.P. de Silva and The 1872 Clipper Tea Co. he is a co-founder at ProfilePrint, an AI-enabled food fingerprinting platform that aims to remove subjectivity in the tasting and grading of commodities such as tea. The patented technology uses light to collect 6,000 data points and build detailed taste maps around each dry food product.

“This can make commodity trading much more efficient and transparent,” Rehan explains. “We just closed Series A funding, and four or five of the world’s biggest food groups invested.” Rehan hopes that ProfilePrint will be the first of several innovative companies that modernise practices across the supply chain.

Sunil Amarasuriya (third from left) and his children. From left: Navin, Rehan and Shanya. Photo courtesy of the Amarasuriya family

Placing legacies in the right hands

“It would be great if the next generation wants to take over in the future,” Rehan says. “But we should prepare the business to be a capsule of values and ideas that move the industry and humanity forward. And if people beyond the family share these values and ideas, they should join us.”

Though she phrases it in more spiritual terms, for Shanya, too, the idea of legacy also goes beyond family entitlement. “My brothers and I always talk about the idea of custodianship. By a cosmic roll of the dice, we are here, and we won’t always be here,” she says. “We hold on to something respectfully and honestly for as long as we can, and then pass it on to the right hands.”

 

This feature is part of Lifetime Legacies. Produced in partnership with Opus by Prudential, the series explores the longevity and legacy of some of Singapore’s most well-known multi-generational family businesses. The information in this article does not necessarily reflect the views of Prudential. Prudential does not represent that such information is accurate or complete and should not be relied upon as such.

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The information in this article does not necessarily reflect the views of Prudential. Prudential does not represent that such information is accurate or complete and should not be relied upon as such.



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