Josephine comes across as an extremely enthusiastic woman, with a strong belief in doing good for the community and giving back to society. A warmhearted individual, believes work should be about a mutual cooperation with colleagues and customers so as to achieve higher standards for the entire business.
Alteration Initiative aims to equip disadvantaged women with garment alteration skills to achieve adequate source of income and better quality of life, thereby integrating them into mainstream society.
Having the opportunity to converse with Josephine was not only insightful but pleasurable. Her drive and commitment in her business and giving back to the society was apparent to me the whole time and I believe that was a huge take away for me.
- What is the nature of your business?
A-changin operates Alteration Initiative at Chevron House and Haute Alteration at Mandarin Gallery providing high quality garment alteration services and make-to-measure services. Our social mission is to provide training and employment opportunities for women in need through teaching them garment alterations and sewing skills.
- When and why did you decide to become an entrepreneur / take over your family business?
This second business was started mainly as a give-back to society. My first business, an integrated marketing agency dealing with Fortune 100 companies, was fortunate enough to be acquired in 2001 by an international marketing group. After serving my management contract for 2 years, I took a 6-year break spending quality time with my family and pursuing my interest. I was very blessed and felt that I should give back to society. In giving back, you can donate money, volunteer your time or volunteer your expertise. I felt that I have the ability to do all three and I set up this social enterprise.
- What are your reasons for choosing to do business in this particular industry?
When we start a business, we usually identify the gaps in the industry. When I was working in the corporate world, I always had difficulty finding good alteration services. The fear of sending it to any alteration place prompted us to believe that high quality alterations are something that most people would value and would be willing to pay for.
As for the beneficiary target, my husband and I were inspired by the speakers when we attended the launch of NUS Centre of Social Entrepreneur and Philanthropy Centre in 2009. We got to know that single mothers have difficulties holding on to a job and at the same time look after their family. By teaching them sewing skills, we know they will make a better livelihood as sewing is a fast vanishing skill in the world. So we believed that that is a worthwhile skill to teach and that was how Alteration Initiative was born.
- How did you put together all the resources needed to start your business? For example: getting the start-up capital, hiring staff, doing sales and marketing, advertising, etc.
The seed money was 100% funded by my husband and myself. In terms of resources we had to make cold-calls to mall operators for location opportunities and voluntary welfare organizations for beneficiaries to be trained. I got a consultant who used to run her own garment factory and she came in to help me with some of the basic training for the beneficiaries. I worked with various government agencies and voluntary welfare organizations like HELP (Help for Every Lone Parent), PPIS As-Salam, NTUC WDS, CDC, CDAC and Society for the Physically Disabled to bring in a group of people to be trained on basic sewing skills. Of course, we need people who can sew too because we are providing high quality alteration services. We put up extensive recruitment ads and the response was very good once they know about our social cause.
- What is your company vision and mission? How do you convey these to your company staff and team members? What are the strategies you take to turn the vision & mission into reality?
Our company philosophy is about "Doing Good. Together.". It is about working with the public, private and people sector to do good together. Internally, this philosophy is about improving skills, doing better and teamwork to achieve higher standards for the staff, customers and the social enterprise. We constantly communicate the importance of upskilling to our staff so that they can increase their productivity and in time to come, increase their salary. By improving constantly, our customers appreciate us as well because we can deliver that high quality standard all the time. This is our commitment to our staff and customers. As such, we have processes built in to ensure the quality, the standards and the peace of mind for the customers.
- Is there any limit you have to your future plan?
As a social enterprise, we can help more people with every additional outlet we open, so there is no limit to it. However, there are some constraints - (a) location opportunities as some malls are not receptive to having social enterprises in their tenant mix, (b) financial resources. Currently the seed money is only from the both of us, so there is a limit to how much we can expand. Hopefully, in time to come we can partner with other private investors or franchisees to grow the business.
- What are some interesting stories you have about your first few customers/first few years in business?
The very first customer we had was fun. The first day of business, we did not expect any customers to walk in. But there was a lady who was very gorgeous, looking ready to attend an event. She came in and told us that her strap broke and asked if we could help her. And we said of course! We sat her down in the fitting room, drew the curtain and fix it on the spot for her. She was very happy because she did not have to rush home to change her clothes. There was a customer who brought in a suitcase. At first I thought she was a tourist. She opened up the suitcase and told me she needed all the clothes inside altered. There were 18 pieces! There were also many times when some customers flew in their gowns overnight from Milan or Paris for alterations before gala events.
- What are some of the challenges you faced when you first went into business?
One of our greatest challenges was location opportunities. When we first started, we called a lot of malls up. Once you are not an established brand, they are not willing to take you. It is also more challenging as a social enterprise as the mall operators might worry about sustainability of a social enterprise. Some even demanded that we pay double the security deposit, making it more difficult for a social enterprise to start a retail store. Also, some will question about the beneficiaries we are helping because they are afraid that it may tarnish the mall's image. These are the challenges we face as a social enterprise.
- How did you overcome these challenges?
We called a lot of malls and presented full proposals to those who were more receptive. First, we had to convince them that we are a very modern alteration service provider. A stereotypical image would be a messy place with a hole in the wall and this might affect the image of the mall. Therefore they would not be willing to accept us. So, the concept of a modern up-market alteration service provider has to be shown to them first and with that, they were a little more receptive. Subsequently, after our Dhoby Xchange outlet, it was slightly easier because there was a store to show. However, until today, we are still constantly facing the same challenges.
- Can you remember your worst day in business or a time when you felt like giving up? What happened that made you feel that way and how did you triumph over it?
I think everybody would but there are 2 fronts which keeps me going:
1) Socially, I had seen how our staff improved and you will feel very happy that they can integrate back to society again because they had picked up a skill and are doing well in the company. Those results are very rewarding which money can't buy.
2) Business and customers. Having modern alteration boutiques like ours gives customers peace of mind that we can alter their garments very well. Furthermore, a lot have developed into friendship with me as well.
- What are some of the proudest business achievements to date? Why are they so important and meaningful to you?
I would state two of my proudest moments. One was when we first started; CNN came and ask us whether we would like to be featured. Being recognized by an international media company was fantastic and we were only half a year into the business. They thought that our business model was an interesting and fabulous idea; a high quality alteration place that is a social enterprise where we empower disadvantaged women.
The second proudest moment was being mentioned by the Prime Minister during the National Day Rally Speech 2012. We felt very honoured that our social enterprise is being recognized in an important event like the National Day Rally. We really hope that this can raise awareness for social enterprise and that entrepreneurs will really think that social enterprise would be a good way for the more fortunate to help and create opportunities for the less fortunate.
- Can you describe the company culture that you have? How does it contribute to the performance of your company growth?
Keep learning. That is the culture I try to encourage to my staff. We have a very open culture where any staff can correct the mistakes of another staff, whether it is the manager or me who did something wrong, you're supposed to tell each other. It is not a personal attack; it is for the good of the company and yourself so that you can keep growing. I can always turn a blind eye to your mistakes (it is actually a lot easier to turn a blind eye) but by telling you and hoping that you will change, all of us will benefit from there. So that is the company culture, keep learning and grow together.
- How do you promote learning within your Company? What are the training opportunities that you provide your staff?
We train our staff in the art of fine sewing of many different types of apparel so we are able to take in complex alterations which mainstream alteration centres do not accept. The senior seamstresses will teach and guide the trainees on simple sewing and alterations skills, emphasising on quality. As skills improve, they will learn to handle the more complicated alterations. We also train our staff in operations, management and customer's service. We do job redesigning depending on the strength of the person.
- How will you describe your working relationship with your customers, suppliers and service providers?
Great relationship. The reason why we work very well with customers and suppliers is our commitment in quality. We collaborate with our suppliers as partners and we take extreme caution when we handle customer alteration requests. With this philosophy that we have, customers and suppliers love to work with us because we make sure that we can do it well together.
I understand that Resize, Repair, Restyle & Replicate is one of the business idea that Alteration Initiative uptake. Can you tell me more about it?
Our philosophy is all about not throwing away your current wardrobe, its about recycling. We want people to know that we should not waste a good piece of clothing. Resizing is about altering clothes to fit our body. Garments will wear and tear, therefore requiring repair. Restyle means that when you find that your garment is a little outdated, you might want to change it a little. We have customers who resized and restyled their mothers wedding gown so that they could wear it for their own weddings. Resize, Repair, Restyle definitely helped the business and the business philosophy of not throwing. On the other hand, replicate is about making new. It is telling people that if you have a vintage piece you like very much but cannot find it or it cannot be altered to fit you, we can replicate it for you so you can own a piece that you love but cannot get it in the market any more.
- Do you think this business strategy differentiate your business from your competitors?
Its all in our management of the business. We differentiate our alteration business from our competitors by providing quality workmanship, computerised processes, modern settings, and friendly service. We believe in providing quality services and have processes developed in-house to ensure that we achieve that. In our computerised system, we capture details such as served by, altered by, and checked by where literally a checker will check to ensure the accuracy. We also invest in our equipment. We buy top-end ironing system which cost more than $4000 and we use non-oiled sewing machines. We work with vendors to constantly upgrade our systems and invest in infrastructure and technology to make sure that we do better.
- As a social enterprise, I believe Alteration Initiative had made a positive impact to the community you serve. Can you tell me more about it?
I think one of the greatest impacts is seeing out-of-work women for many years being able to integrate back to society. It might be too fast-paced for them to go to any companies that do not offer a supportive environment. As a social enterprise, we are more understanding when it comes to challenges faced by women-in-need. Our employment practice is inclusive. We hire matured women. 50% of our staff is 50 year-old. Besides matured women, we also have the physically disabled, single mother, and out-of-work women. We also believe in a flexi-work arrangement where they can choose their start-stop time, the number of days they work, or the number of hours they work so they can have work-life balance.
- Is there any criteria adopted by Alteration Initiative for staff promotion?
Once we see improvements, increased productivity and that they are contributing positively to the company, we will increase their salary. We increase their salary on a regular basis, not just once a year. Usually after probation, we will increase their salary. Subsequently, we will monitor their improvement every half a year and see how they are performing. Take for example, one of my earliest staff joined us as a part-time seamstress. Through upskilling and job redesign, she is now our branch manager in Chevron House.
- What does entrepreneurship mean to you?
I think being a social entrepreneur means fulfilling my business and my social aspirations. Business wise, I can grow the company to its full potential. Socially, I can provide more opportunities for the less fortunate to do well for themselves and for their families.
- What are some entrepreneurship qualities that you have which have helped you come this far?
1) Perseverance & passion. Having the perseverance to excel in what I do even when things are not smooth sailing and the passion in wanting to do well and do good in my business.
2) Pure intention. Sometimes along the way of doing good, our intentions got waved, leading to the numerous scandals that may happen. For us, our business model and intention will not go wrong as we are very committed in growing our people.
3) Be a problem solver. When faced with a problem, think of how best to do it. It is not just about fire-fighting that particular issue/problem, but about implementing processes to make sure that it will never ever happen again.
- In your opinion, what other qualities does a person need in order to be successful in business? And why?
Hard work. Until now, I still work 7 days a week and the only day I do not work 8am - 8pm is Sunday because the outlet at Chevron House is not open. Slogging it out is difficult but hard work basically pays off because you will see the company grow.
- In your opinion, what does it mean to have the "spirit of enterprise"?
In my opinion, in order to have the spirit of enterprise, all stakeholders including staff, partners, suppliers and customers should feel proud to be involved and invested with the enterprise. And the enterprise should continue to do its best, improve and stay relevant to serve the best interest of all the stakeholders.
- With the changes in the market today, do you think it has become harder or easier to succeed in business?
I think market condition will always be challenging. Ultimately, it depends on the person. It is how the person adapts to the market conditions, see what the challenges are and how they overcome these challenges to do better. As market changes, we have to be agile, we have to adapt and change to stay relevant.
- What advice would you give to the young people who want to start their own business?
Love what you do, and do what you love. Give back to society if you can.