Jathniel Thai, Justine Thai, and Yuki Sy: On How The Primer Group of Companies is ISTEP-ed Up Through Their Core Values

They say three is a crowd, but that’s not true for the Primer Group of Companies founders: Jimmy Thai, Johnny Thai, Willie Sy, Jerry Sy, and Thomas Lim. They started out as childhood friends and once they graduated college, they went on to start a company that embodies their friendship. Like any fledgling startup, they had to be hands-on with the operations of the company, all while juggling full-time jobs as well. It was a struggle, but the Primer Group got their big break when Johnny Thai befriended the principal owner of Samsonite, who happened to visit the shop he was managing in Harrison Plaza. This gave Primer the opportunity to become the distributor of Samsonite in the Philippines. 

Needless to say, the Primer Group has grown in scale since then, from being distributors to retailers, eventually aiming to becoming brand owners. It carries brands such as Jansport, The North Face, DC, Delsey, Outdoor Gear, and many more, and has its own retail stores such as The Travel Club and Res/Toe/Run. It has also established regional offices in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

Currently, the second generation owners Jathniel Thai, regional analyst, Justine Thai, the regional brand manager, and Yuki Sy, the business unit head of Aeroworx, are gradually taking over the operations of Primer Group. Like typical Chinoys who have experienced ko tiam during school breaks, they have been involved in the business since they were growing up. Today, they sat down with CHiNOYTV to discuss, among other things, the core values that ensured the success of the Primer Group and allowed them to stay afloat even during the pandemic.

Jathniel Thai, regional analyst of the Primer Group

The core values of the Primer Group are abbreviated into ISTEP, which stands for Integrity, Self-discipline, Teamwork, Entrepreneurial spirit, and Passion for excellence. 

In terms of integrity, Yuki stresses the importance of prioritizing ethical practice over shortcuts, even if the latter would make their lives easier. “There’s no shortcut to success, so you have to work hard and make sure that you never hurt anyone [in the process.]” 

Justine points out that it’s also about making sure that all their employees and colleagues will be taken care of, which was especially important during the pandemic. It’s the reason why many of their employees have stayed for so long, with some even coming back a few years after they left the company. 

As for self-discipline, Justine sees it as a reason to work twice as hard despite the fact that they are working with family. “[It’s about] doing what we need to do. Of course, even though we’re working with family, [it doesn’t] mean that we can be lax. Actually, we have to work twice as hard or even more to really be able to exemplify [our core values] to our colleagues.”

Justine Thai, regional brand manager of the Primer Group

But self-discipline isn’t the only thing that’s important when it comes to working with family because teamwork is even more vital. “We have five founders, so their relationship is already hard. What if you have five personalities? And that’s one thing we’re proud of [because] the company has been there for more than three decades, and it’s because of the spirit of teamwork. And it’s still very much relevant [today] because we have multiple teams that also need to work together, be it locally [or] regionally,” says Justine.

At the end of the day though, they are still handling a business, and now that the Primer Group is slowly transitioning to the leadership of the second generation owners, it also requires a different type of entrepreneurial mindset, according to Jathniel. “I think it’s more on putting structures. I think the first gen is more purely on gut feel, right? It’s always move forward, move forward, move forward. And second gen, since we came from different backgrounds, different work experience prior to coming in,  we’re trying to add value into the company. So with that respect, one of the challenges probably is putting corporate structure.”

Yuki Sy, , the business unit head of Aeroworx (the digital arm of the Primer Group)

But of course, all the other core values would mean nothing without the passion for excellence because it’s what keeps them going every day. “Passion for me is all about taking the next step, your sacrifice to make sure that you achieve a certain goal for the business, and at the same time, for yourself as well. [And] it’s not just to ourselves, but also to our team within the organization. We really wanted to make sure that this core value gets imprinted to the mindset of each and every one, so that we can ensure that it follows through, not just from the early days, but also today and even to the future,” says Yuki.


Catch the full feature on the Primer Group of Companies in the latest episode of Chinese By Blood, Filipino By Heart, coming out this Sunday, July 30, 2023, 8PM on CNN. You can also catch the replays of the last episodes eerie Saturday, 6:30PM.

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