For Cindy Lee, the idea of writing an autobiography started in 2009. Back then, the founder and then-CEO of T&T Supermarket – Canada’s largest Asian grocery chain – was sitting in a business English class in downtown Vancouver to prepare for an upcoming acquisition negotiation with retail giant Loblaw Companies Ltd.
“Our teacher shared a news article about how new immigrants adapt to Canada and find opportunities in the country. I took a look and saw my name on it,” Lee told BIV in her office – now also used as an employee library – at T&T’s headquarters in Richmond.
“They didn’t know it was me, but I felt very proud. I realized my experience could inspire other new immigrants and show that there are opportunities here for everybody if you work hard and keep a positive attitude.
“Starting a business can be very difficult, but it also has logic people can apply. I have gone through a lot of hard times and I hope I can offer some help by sharing my personal experience.”
Today, T&T Supermarket has more than 6,000 employees and 33 stores across the country. Its newest location opened in Coquitlam on June 1.
Lee’s autobiography, Be Brave and You Can Turn Your Life Around (English translation), was recently published in Chinese, and details her 40-year journey from being a new immigrant from Taiwan, to founding T&T and its acquisition by Loblaw.
The English version of the book is set to be released this summer.
From new immigrant to founding T&T
Lee landed in Vancouver in 1976 and found a job in an accounting firm after offering to work for free to gain work experience. Her husband, Jack Lee, worked for a meat wholesaler, before the couple started their own Asian-food wholesale business near Chinatown.
Lee, who didn’t have any previous business experience, never dreamed that one day she would be at the helm of an Asian grocery empire.
At that time, the majority of Chinese Canadians in Metro Vancouver bought their groceries from Chinatown, but Lee noticed that many complained about the inconvenience of going from store to store and about the crowded environment, especially on rainy days.
“My daughter asked me, ‘Mom, can we go to Safeway when it rains?’ I told her, ‘But Safeway doesn’t have what we are looking for,’” Lee recalled.
“So, I started to dream. If there was a modern one-stop supermarket that’s as clean and tidy as western food supermarkets, and has all the popular food Chinese Canadians like, it would be very popular.”
The dream became true when Uni-President Enterprises Corp., a Taiwan-based international food conglomerate, came to Canada to look for business opportunities. At the time, foreign investors could acquire immigration status by providing low-interest loans to local businesses.
Lee and her husband connected with Uni-President, later formed a joint venture and received investment and support from Tawa, a U.S.-based Asian grocery supermarket.
The first T&T Supermarket opened in Metrotown in 1993, followed by the opening of a second location in Richmond a month later. The chain continues to grow 30 years later.
Lee named T&T after the first-name initials of her two daughters – Tiffany and Tina – and the company’s Chinese name, Da Tong Hua, after Uni-President and Tawa.
Learning everything from scratch
Without any related experience, and no existing business models for similar stores in Canada to learn from, Lee had her biggest crisis after the launch of T&T’s first two locations.
“Our supermarkets were popular but we were not making money, partly due to my lack of management experience. The remaining capital could only sustain us for a few more months – it was a very difficult time,” said Lee. Even now, her voice was choked with emotion.
“But there was no turning back. If I gave up then, my family’s livelihood was at risk. I had no choice but to force myself to keep going.”
She learned rapidly by asking people with more experience and by reading a lot of books.
“Someone told me I didn’t have a great business sense so I read so many books to learn from them. I came to realize that retail is psychology – if you put yourself in your customers’ shoes and help them solve problems, business will come to you,” said Lee.
Once, Lee heard her sister was getting dim sum for her daughter’s birthday party. She thought it would be convenient if people could buy cooked dim sum while shopping for groceries at T&T. Soon, the store’s prepared-foods department was launched.
Lee attributes her success to two key factors: Having a clear goal of what she wanted to achieve – building a one-stop modern Asian supermarket – which served as a compass for her and her business partners, and letting others win first.
“If I let the suppliers, customers and employees win first, they would push me to succeed because they all benefit from it,” she said.
For Lee, Canada is full of opportunities, especially for immigrants who bring a different vision and resources from another country. She says she has learned a lot from the Asian grocery stores in Taiwan.
But starting a business in a new country is also challenging.
“The most important thing to do in business is to satisfy your customers’ needs and help them solve problems. And to do that, you need to be integrated into the community first and get to know the people and their thoughts, learn their language, laws and business knowledge, so you can find their needs and match them with your strengths,” said Lee.
“Once that’s decided upon, don’t rush into starting a business, but work in the industry first and learn about it inside-out, find the unsatisfied needs and learn who your competitors are to see if you have a chance to win.”
A bridge to Asian culture
Since the first store, Lee always insisted on investing in the look of the supermarket to make sure it was bright, tidy and pretty.
“People often had the stereotype that Asian stores were messy and dirty, and I wanted them to know that Asian supermarkets are just as pretty as the western ones,” said Lee.
“It’s for Chinese Canadians’ ‘face’ as well – customers will bring their friends from other cultural backgrounds and we need to put in the effort to truly reflect the standard of shopping malls in Asia.”
For Lee, T&T is not only a supermarket, but a place for Chinese Canadians to connect with their home food and culture, and a chance for others to learn about Chinese culture.
She shared an anecdote from when T&T’s Metrotown location first opened: Firefighters showed up to inspect a potential gas leak after a complaint. It turned out to be the smell of ripe durian.
Lee made sure T&T was decorated during traditional Chinese festivals and asked employees to give a warm welcome to customers to help reflect people’s experience of markets in Asia. When T&T was acquired by Loblaw in 2009, one of Lee’s requests was that the brand keep its Asian characteristics.
Before Lee’s retirement in 2014, she shared with her employees the two principals she says she has always held on to: Being willing to take challenges and being responsible for herself.
Now, as her daughter Tina Lee has taken over the chain’s CEO, Lee is enjoying her retirement life. She likes karaoke and oil painting.
“People say I’m a bad singer so now I have time, I can practice more,” she laughed.
She showed one of her paintings of a mangosteen, a tropical fruit that’s popular in Asia.
“It’s food, of course, it is my background.”