HELMING a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) business may seem an odd career choice for someone who studied accountancy and organisational management in the United States.

But not for Mr Dylan Hu, who gave up his job as an enterprise risk consultant in a multinational after just a year to join the business his grandfather started more than 50 years ago, Poli Medical.

"I saw the way my dad never worked for anyone a single day of his life... you could say there was a calling to join the family's business," recalls Mr Hu, now 29.

In taking over, one key challenge was modernising the firm. And as the boss's son, the pressure was on him to perform.

"People who used to look at my Dad, now had to look at me."

So when he joined the firm four years ago, Mr Hu ensured that he "got his hands dirty".

His logic was simple: in order to change the company, and to be able to lead it, he had to know it like the back of his hand. After many months, he finally mastered every process and detail.

Gesturing to one of his products, he says with a hint of pride: "I know how to make this from scratch, from the raw ingredients, right down to the packaging."

This first-hand knowledge of the often labour-intensive processes led Mr Hu to champion automation in the firm.

Through grants from Spring Singapore and International Enterprise Singapore, the firm bought equipment that boosted productivity and quality control.

For instance, workers used to have to pour liquids into bottles manually from a flask, a method which had obvious flaws.

"When you rely on this, there will be human error, mistakes, inconsistent filling, the liquids will be at different temperatures, and the speed will slow over time."

But with a new liquid filling machine, such problems were solved.

The machine took one tenth or even less of the time needed by human hands to do the same job, while in-built heat sterilisation ensured the products were just as hygienic - if not more so.

The same automation "magic" followed for several processes. A $30,000 machine that dispenses capsules into bottles, for example, has cut the time needed to fill and seal a batch of bottled supplements from a week to a day.

Most importantly, the process "stayed true" to TCM tenets, such as using heat to bring out the ingredients' effects, says Mr Hu.

These steps keep hiring costs low even amid the labour crunch - headcount has been maintained at about 30 for the past decade even as business has grown.

When asked how he plans to be relevant and compete with industry giants such as Eu Yan Sang, Mr Hu points out that Poli Medical is not a "direct competitor" as it has no retail space.

Its products are sold in about three-quarters of the 500-odd places selling TCM islandwide, and it plans to increase coverage with major pharmacy chains here.

Mr Hu emphasises that Poli Medical is trying to create a market for itself through a new line of products under the TruLife brand.

Aimed at busy consumers, they come in sleek boxes - very different from the paper packages of Chinese herbs a sinseh might dispense - in convenient serving sizes.

Working with the Food Innovation Resource Centre at Singapore Polytechnic, Poli Medical developed a herbal tonic called LingZhi Immunity. Linzhi is a fungus known in TCM for its immunity- boosting qualities. To this, the firm added vitamins and Chinese ingredients such as red dates, longans and wolfberries.

Poli Medical has certainly come a long way from its 1950s beginnings as a small medical hall selling Chinese remedies out of a shophouse kitchen in Geylang. It now has more than 12,000 sq ft of office and factory space, including several units at Yi Xiu Factory Building in Sims Avenue, and a facility in Bedok.

Its products are distributed in several countries, including China, Cambodia, Malaysia and the US. In March, it opened its first overseas marketing office in the Philippines, and is now eyeing Myanmar as a possible market.

Even with its rapid expansion, it has managed to stay debt-free since the 1970s - which Mr Hu attributes to the good work of his father Foo Wen Chuen, now in his 60s, and with an advisory role in the firm.

"Zero debt... he liked to play it very safe, so we don't leverage on what we don't have."

Mr Hu - who also manages his firm's accounts himself - intends for the financials to stay this way for as long as possible, but acknowledges that further expansion may require borrowing.

Throughout this journey, a strong belief in his firm's own products has kept him going.

"I was a weak kid, and I grew strong on these traditional remedies, so I know they work."

But he is a rare soul in a generation less and less willing to take over traditional family trades.

"Many think that being in your own family's business is a relaxing job. It's not... I often joke with my father that he's lucky to have a successor," Mr Hu says. "But as cliched and cheesy as it sounds, I want to make him proud."