WHEN three long-serving employees of department store chain Tangs retired after a combined 150 years of service, it was agreed that tea was in order.

And it was no ordinary cuppa for Madam Lucy Lee, Madam Dinah Tan and Mr Charlie Ong yesterday, when they were hosted to canapes and drinks at the Bukit Timah home of Tangs chairman Tang Wee Sung.

Before sitting down to refreshments with Mr Tang and several of Tangs' senior management, they were each presented with a pewter plaque and a lifetime Tangs discount card.

It was the first time that such a celebration had been organised at Mr Tang's own home.

He knew he wanted to do something special for the retirees, who had each been with the company for between 43 and 55 years.

"Lucy and Ong have seen me since I was a kid, running around the store playing," Mr Tang said.

"We have to honour our retirees who've been with us for so long. They've spent practically all their working lives with us. They have to exit not just with grace but with fanfare."

These retirees are proof that the retail sector does offer long- term careers, Mr Tang noted.

Mr Ong, 70, was hired in 1963 by company founder C. K. Tang as the family bodyguard. His job included escorting the Tang children to school and back.

In 1967, Mr Ong was offered a job as Tangs' first-ever security officer. He worked his way up to become the head of security.

Mr Tang has vivid memories of how protective Mr Ong was.

"When there were fishing ponds, he used to take me fishing. He was always there, making sure we were all right," he said.

Mr Tang also has fond memories of Madam Lee, 75, who started out as a salesgirl in 1958, and went on to become a merchandising executive and, most recently, personal shopper. Her loyal clients include the Johor royal family, who still ask for her advice when they shop at Tangs.

Being as passionate as she is about the store, Madam Lee said, she is still happy to oblige.

"I've had other companies approach me and ask me to work for them over the years, but I always rejected them because I am happy at Tangs," she said, crediting the company's close-knit nature for the loyalty of its staff.

Madam Tan, 62, who worked as a retail manager, agreed, saying: "The bosses were always understanding and flexible. There was never any unnecessary pressure so long as we did our part."