Perspectives from ISB

Teddy Fong runs Million Dollar Baby, a $70 million children’s furniture wholesaler his parents, Daniel and Maryann Fong, started in 1990. Almost three decades ago, Daniel Fong was a venture capitalist with an urge to start a company. He did some research and bought and then merged two baby-furniture wholesalers, which had low overhead and were profitable.

Teddy and his sister, Tracy, grew up roller-skating around MDB’s warehouse, sometimes helping package nuts and bolts, but Daniel didn’t expect them to join the business. He had worked reluctantly in his own father’s textile company for four years, and didn’t want to apply that pressure to his kids. Both went to Harvard, but in 2004, after Maryann developed colon cancer, Tracy put off an art curating job at Sotheby’s in New York City to come home–and never left. Teddy graduated in 2006, interned at ESPN, worked briefly as a movie producer’s assistant, and then followed Tracy’s lead.

Daniel had them start in junior roles. Over the years, MDB had become an extended family affair. Daniel’s younger sister, Julia Fong Yip, joined in the early 1990s and eventually became the company’s VP of talent management, and his older sister’s husband, John Kwok, became MDB’s CFO. Other spouses entered the fold too–Tracy’s husband, Eric Lin, a trained architect, was hired in 2011 as MDB’s head of product development, while Teddy’s wife, Tiffany, who once worked as Steve Jobs’s assistant, became MDB’s creative director in 2015.

By 2014, Daniel was preparing to pass the CEO torch. Tracy wasn’t ready to take the helm, so her brother and father decided to share the role for a year, until 2015, when Teddy became the sole CEO. The elder Fong–who gave himself the title of teacher–gestured toward his son’s autonomy, announcing to employees that a new direction was healthy in a family business. But in strategy sessions and management meetings, Daniel’s voice retained its outsize influence, and employees often became confused about whose lead to follow.

To bring clarity to everyone’s roles, the family hired a leadership training expert who set up quarterly meetings. At one, the expert addressed what he diagnosed as Daniel’s “seagull” problem: Despite the fact that he’d handed over the CEO role to Teddy, Daniel had a tendency to swoop in, crap all over the place, and fly away. “That was an interesting, tough conversation,” says Teddy. It’s still a process, but now Daniel strives to use suggestive language instead of directives. “Comments like that I love,” says Daniel. “Without that, I can’t improve.”

Source: Blakely, Lindsay., July/August 2017, Inc. Magazine,