NASEEM MIMI SOMJEE
Mimi Somjee brings a feminine touch to a rather masculine industry. Always ‘with her antennas up’, she understands what her clients want and constantly delivers beyond expectations. Leading an SME in these challenging times, Mimi is constantly looking into the future and understanding the ever changing preferences of her customers. With a dedicated workforce behind her, Mimi is guiding WTP to greater heights and expects to venture into the overseas market soon.
WTP aims to be the best furniture and furniture-leasing company by bringing in a breath of heritage into every home and workplace. With over 20 years of experience in this industry, WTP is favored among many when it comes to high quality and artistic furniture. Truly a window to the past, WTP’s furniture are designed to incorporate a sense of Singaporean heritage and serve as beacons for people alike to remember about the rich history we all share. With guidance from above, WTP submits herself to the highest standards and ethics in everything she does.
Ms. Mimi’s vibrant personality helped put my nervousness at ease despite this being my first interview. She is definitely an excellent role model for every aspiring entrepreneur. I am sincerely impressed by her passion with her work and the high standards she has placed on herself, which she managed to rub off onto her employees and helped transform the company into what it is today. Her vigor in capitalizing opportunities allows her to maintain flexibility in difficult times and remain relevant in the industry. Quoting from Ms. Mimi, the Nike attitude should be imprinted in every person that strives to be a successful entrepreneur. Whenever an opportunity arises, we should ‘Just-Do-It’. Sometimes the secret to success can be as simple as making sure that we are doing something that we are passionate in and not letting anyone or any obstacles tell us otherwise.
- What’s the nature of your business?
We are a furniture and furniture-leasing company. We do everything in homes, as well as in hotels. So basically, (we would cater to) anybody who has a bedroom, living room, dining room and a study. We design the interior by providing furniture and artifacts. You can come to us for one item, or you can come to us for a whole house, or an office. You can buy one piece or the whole from us. If you do not want to pay cash for it and you want to lease it over 2 years, we do that as well. In that sense we are very versatile and the difference is that we are a custom-designed house so we don’t have just mass-produced items. Everything down from color to the sizes is customizable. We are a specialist boutique firm and we like to think of ourselves as a hidden treasure.
There are a lot of expatriates in Singapore and the majority is only here for 2 years. It is not worth shipping out their furniture and hence, many corporations would lease furniture from us instead. Nowadays, we are seeing younger expatriates so they might not even have furniture to ship out. Factoring the cost to ship out furniture and on all the expenses to move an expatriate, it is much cheaper for the company to get the expatriate here and lease furniture. For the corporate why do they it? Instead of buying furniture for say 100 employees, at $10000 each which amounts to a million dollars, by leasing, they just pay us a thousand dollar a month or 500 dollars a month.
This is a very interesting concept. For the companies, it is a great thing because they can write if off tax. It is advantages for them to lease. Furthermore, particularly in this very bad market, a lot of people want to rent fully furnished. For a developer or a landlord, he owns the property forever, but every 2 year, the occupant changes and their tastes will be different. What is the developer going to do if he buys the furniture? The next guy may not want or like the same look. Hence, leasing is a great option.
- Is there anybody that inspired you to be an entrepreneur?
Well you know I come from an entrepreneurial family. So did I think about becoming an entrepreneur? No. *laughs*
I come from an entrepreneurial family and hard work is not something I am not used to. I didn’t intend to become an entrepreneur and didn’t intend to run a business. I started this for fun and mainly because I wanted to teach my kids about the Singaporean heritage. I wrote a paper (about the Singaporean heritage) as I wanted my kids to understand how Singaporeans lived in the old days which I grew up in. With that, I started a small little antique shop. And then, the exhibition I had was so successful that people kept saying I must source artifacts for them. So I said ‘Ok, I don’t mind doing it part-time’. I have 3 little children at home at that time so I could only do this part time. But it was really hard. There would be people bringing me out every day and I had to come running from home to open the warehouse. At that time, I didn’t have a shop. I only had a warehouse where I kept the stuff. After a while, I thought this was ridiculous, so one of my brothers asked me to make a decision as to whether I want to do this ‘masa-masa’ or to do this as a business. So in 1994, I decided try this out as a business and then as they said – the rest is history.
- What are you reasons for choosing to do business in this particular industry?
I love it! I have a great passion. I think if you have a passion for what you do, you will be able to do it well. If you enjoy your work, you do it well, no matter what job it is you are doing. I enjoy this and I love it. I love seeing the faces of people when they move into their homes. When they are happy, it makes me happy. And that is good enough.
- How do you put together all the resources needed, such as getting the startup capital or hiring staff, doing sales, marketing and advertising activities, etc?
I have to tell you, when we first started, I didn’t have a business plan *laughs*. So the people who washed the floors for me were my two brothers and their two wives. Helping me in setting up the business was another sister-in-law. My friends helped me to run my first exhibition. With regards to startup capital, the only startup capital I got was from one of my brothers and he said: “whatever you do, I’m sure you will be successful. Here, take my money.” So I asked him why he was so confident about this. He replied: “I’m sure. I’m sure, just take my money.” Additionally, my mother gave me my initial seed money. And my husband gave me some seed money. So with the 2 seed money I’ve got, I put in an equal share from my savings and we started the first exhibition. It was a sell-out. But I wasn’t so confident. I was so worried that I would lose my brother’s money that the moment we made money, I returned him his share. I was so frightened that if I were not to succeed, I would be taking my little brother’s money and that would not be fair. I wanted to make sure that if I don’t make it, I would only lose my own money.
- So roughly how old were you when you first started?
I was exactly 40 when I started this business. I haven’t been working for 10 years then and there were cobwebs in my brain *laughs*. It was a one-man show for me. I had myself and one carpenter who doubled as a burnisher and he was my oldest employee. In fact, he started with me and he died with me. He just died last year. He was with me for 20 years and he was my rock. Anything I wanted to do, he would say ok, including installing doors at like 230am. He was always there for me. He was a funny old man, very chauvinist and he was the man that taught me how to eat fish head curry. We would always have lunch together as there were only the 2 of us. It was mostly a two-man band. I had to do everything. I did the marketing, and my husband helped me with the accounts, tagging, etc. Everything was done ourselves. And we did that for a good 2 or 3 years in the warehouse. I was very fortunate because my younger brother had a warehouse. I used to rent a corner it and every time I had an exhibition, I rented more space. I would count the amount of square feet I needed, and I would pay him the rental. If I did not have enough, I would cut the rental and not pay him *laughs*. This is not possible to do it with other vendors. I could only do this because he was intending to close his warehouse. And that was when he asked me to decide on whether I would like to do this commercially.
So that was when I got into a partnership with 2 other people and it was a disaster, because they didn’t pay up and the lease was in my name so I had to pay up. In the end, I took it over from them and did it myself. If they are not putting one cent in, I might as well run the company myself. That was how it started.
I was only selling antiques at that time, and occasionally I would do sofas for friends or for myself but I didn’t do it as a business. One day, a man walked in and said:”I love your stuff. I love your taste. Would you do my house on a lease? Your next door neighbor is a furniture leasing company but they do not allow me take furniture from them unless I buy it. But I do not want to buy it from them; I want to buy it from you.” I thought about it and the next day, I was out playing tennis and I was really worried because I had to give him an answer soon. I said to the lady I was playing tennis with about the leasing situation because I had no idea how to lease furniture. She looked to me and she said: “What are you so worried about? My husband is the top equipment lessor in Singapore.” She talked to her husband about my situation and he was willing to help me. He was a banker and he loved my business model and the leasing idea. Not only did he help me with the leasing, he helped to finance my first deal. He said to me: “If you want to grow, you need to learn how to finance yourself. I will help you finance the deal so you know how to do it. And when you grow and you need finance, you will know how to do it.” And that’s how I started furniture leasing. It was just a series of fortunate events. When I first started leasing, I was so worried because furniture leasing is for two years. In other words, anything could go wrong within the two years. This was why I started off slowly. I did not do much advertising besides word-of-mouth recommendations. A guy had a friend and he sent me the friend. The next guy had a friend, and he sent me his friend. No advertising was done for the first 2 years. It was until 2000, that I had advertisements for my exhibitions twice a year. I sent out leaflets and that’s it. I didn’t advertise in any media until 2000. It was always just a warehouse building and there was nothing grand about it. We had a shop front on the 4th floor that was only accessible by a cargo lift. It wasn’t glamorous in any way. But we managed to make it nicer and nicer.
One day, a client came in and she said: “I am interested in interviewing you. I have called up all the furniture leasing companies and would be interviewing everyone. I am an interior designer myself and I want a leasing company but I do not want anyone.” I agreed and I went for the interview with her and long story short, she became my client. After 2 months, she came visiting me when I had just received a shipment from Vietnam. We were counting and categorizing and there was not enough hands. She suggested that I needed a bit of help. She offered me her help without any costs. She said if I was ok, she is ok. She started my fabric division and it is now running for 21 years. All the designing was done by her and the sourcing of furniture was my job. She was a terrible administrator so we were a perfect combination. I was very good at organization and getting everything ready and she was very good at designing and selling. We were a very nice pair of complements. By that time, we hired a few people to help us but we were always a small shop. We always managed in a very lean manner. We did things this way for thirteen years, and we did really well. When she left, I thought to myself: “oh god, how I am going to do this without her.” What I didn’t realize then was that by that time, I had the skills. I developed an eye for designing and color coordination. So it was fine. I hired interior designers and the business carried on.
I had a terrific landlord then, but then he told me that they were selling the building. There was news about them selling the building for years and it just kept going on and on that I didn’t believe it. But he was serious this time and I had to look for somewhere else. So we started looking.
In fact, the building I wanted was a building around the corner, on Leng Kee road. I asked the landlord if he was willing to rent me half the building but he said no. I could only take the whole building or nothing at all. I’ve had a bad experience where my first partners did not pay the rent and I ended up paying for it so it was a definite ‘no’ for me. I was wondering around the area and I saw this current building we are in. At that time it was rice warehouse and this floor did not exist. I looked at the building and saw the potential in it. I contacted my real estate agent that I wanted this building but found out that it was no available for leasing. The only way I could get this building is to buy it over. He told me to give it some thought and that was when I went over to consult my other brother who is into the property industry. He advised me to buy the building and stop thinking about it. Would I rather pay rent to a person or pay mortgage to a bank. Obviously, paying mortgage is better because by the end of the mortgage, I would own the building and mortgage payments are fixed as compared to rent payments to the landlord.
So I bought the building and at that time there was only one cargo lift that we used to transport furniture and customers up and down. My little brother came to me and told me that if he were a customer buying furniture from me, he would not want to walk up and down the staircase ten times. He advised me to install a lift but that would cost me another quarter of a million. It was a lot of money. But long story short, he persuaded me and I did it. Once we moved in here, it was really nice because everything belongs to me. We could whatever we wanted.
- What would you be doing right now if you were not here?
If am I not here, I would be writing a business plan for my expansion and I have to submit this by Thursday *laughs*. I am so busy thinking about it that it is constantly in my mind. I am planning to improve my processes because I do believe in productivity. We are kind of down on the number of people we can hire. So everybody has to be more productive and I am looking at ways for us to improve our productivity. As an SME, that is something I have to do for my survival in the next ten years. I am charting my next ten year plan. As an entrepreneur, you need good foresight and you have to be very nimble. I have already launched a new range this year. We are known for being a slightly ‘attas’ store. Everything is very beautiful but not cheap. Today, we have come up with a budget range so you can still come to us for the quality service but spend a smaller amount. There are no more exhibitions, just a showroom, but we have new stock coming in constantly. We are always coming up with new collections, new colors and the latest season stuff.
- What is the company vision and mission and how do you convey to the people around here?
Our vision is a shared vision with the whole company. We actually sat down and had a discussion with everyone. Where do they see themselves, where do they see us going forward and how we are going to go forward? Currently, we have a key management team that is addressing that. We have to improve our productivity and processes so that we can cope with a larger volume and eventually expand overseas.
- So is there any mission or vision statement?
Oh we do have it and it is actually on our website. We want to be the top furniture leasing company in this area. We provide furniture with personality. Not ours, but your personality. We help to show your personality. We like to see ourselves as a facilitator to help showcase your personality.
- Regarding your staffs, do you hire the people who share the same kind of vision as yours?
Yes, we do. And we are trying very hard to weed out the people who do not share the vision and at the same time, getting the people who share the same vision to understand where we are going.
- Has this vision change since the business first started? Is there any definite shift in priorities?
Oh yes, definitely. We started with antiques, and we now no longer an antique house. We do all types of furniture. We still do antiques but we modernized them. For example, we had an antique doorway that we added a mirror and it has just recently being sold to a client. And the door itself, we dismantled it and made it into a dining table for another client. We put it on steel legs and designed it to get the best from both worlds. We have creative people to come up with ideas and now I leave it mostly to them.
- What are the some of the challenges you came across when you first got into this business?
In Singapore, I feel that one of the biggest challenges is money. The next challenge is staffing. I believe that the attitude of young Singaporeans can be improved. They are often swayed to jump ships with just a $50 pay increment. Young Singaporeans need to understand the importance of loyalty and that is a big challenge for me. I am lucky that I have some employees that stayed with me for twenty years but we definitely need more young talent to grow with us.
Also, this business is highly cyclical and there are just some things that are beyond our control. For example, the Lehman Brothers and the SARS crisis were circumstances we couldn’t have controlled. We were affected badly by it. During the SARS crisis, nobody was on the streets. Nobody went out, so nobody bought or lease furniture and nobody came to Singapore. So you do face situations where you have no control over. The Singapore Budget 2013 is also a challenge that has been thrown to SMEs, as we do not have limitless budgets as compared to the MNCs. We can’t ride out the hard times and we need to generate cash every month to pay our bills. We do not have money in other countries where could just transfer over to keep the business going.
- Does your leasing help you in this aspect as you are guaranteed a fixed income every month?
It does and it doesn’t. With this new budget, the number of expatriates coming into Singapore is going to be cut down. So that is a new challenge. Leasing used to be a stable income but times are always changing.
- Can you recall the worst day in business where you really felt like giving up?
I do actually and it was a long time ago. It happened when my one and only worker fell ill. Whenever we needed extra workers, he would get them for us. But he fell ill and we had to do delivery. We had timelines to meet and I had no idea how to do this all alone. But that’s when you find inner strength and that’s what makes an entrepreneur. You find a solution.
I had to do it. I had to deliver the goods. I even drove the truck *laughs*. When I went to the client’s place, it was hilarious. He asked why I was driving the truck and I told him that this was a training exercise. I managed to hire some part timers to help move the furniture and in those days, we had a lot of legal part timers. We have never used illegal workers as it is too scary. We once had a part timer whom we hired from an agency and he did something naughty, which got us into a bit of trouble. The agency did not check his work permit properly and it was found out that he actually forged the permit and overstayed in Singapore.
- In contrast to all that, when was the time when you realized that this business will work out for you?
Erm. I don’t know *laughs*. I don’t think there was that one moment for me but I suppose every time I had to move from a location, I needed to think about the future. In 2005, I had to think hard what I wanted to do. The thought never occurred to me to close down. It is a leap of faith and I feed 25 families. It’s not me or my kids that I feed alone. But my staff depended on me too. I have to do it. It’s not a question of whether I will succeed or not. It’s about how will I succeed. That’s the difference when you are an entrepreneur. The thought of giving up has never occurred to me.
- What are some of your proudest business achievements?
This is really funny but a lot of people tell me that I must be very happy because I have succeeded and own a building. As far as I am concerned, I never think about it. I keep thinking about all the things I should be doing. Fixing this and fixing that and always thinking forward. How do I improve? How do I stay relevant? How do I get my people better paid? How do I get them growing personally? Which courses do I send them to?
- People often say that being an entrepreneur will give you more work life balance but it doesn’t seem to be in your case. So is it really true that an entrepreneur have more work life balance?
No such thing. An entrepreneur will have no free time and no weekends. In the first five years, it is the hardest. Luckily, I spoke to a friend and he said: “Mimi, if you can last for five years you will be fine.” So in the first five years it was tough. Really tough. At times I would think to myself how am I going to do this? And there were times when cashflows were really down to nothing and I had to dig into my housekeeping money. I’m lucky to have a really nice husband. I have decided that I would not put much of the savings into the business as I had to keep a certain amount for the children’s education and all that kind of things. I have 3 kids then. 2 of them are working now and one is still in university. One has to keep going and I can keep going because I have everybody here with me.
- What was the strangest thing that you ever did?
I do lots of strange and wonderful things *laughs*. I’ve never really thought about the strange things I’ve done. Oh! One thing was very funny and I thought was very strange. We rented some stuff to a managing director from a huge corporation. He lived in a beautiful penthouse and we did the whole thing up for him on a lease. It just so happens that I have another client in the same building and I was going for a consultation to the house of the client. By that time, I was friendly with the guards of the building so they would always say hi to me. You get to know these people and they become your pals. So the security guard say to me: “oh Mrs Somjee. So lucky of you. You managed to sell everything in the penthouse. And now you are doing another house. You see that container there? All the stuff have been packed.” I went back to my office and checked whether anyone had ringed up to break lease and find out how many months have they paid up. However, all the leases are still ongoing and nobody has talked anything about it. What I did after that was really strange. I didn’t know how to do this but I had to make sure that the goods did not leave Singapore. I rang up my lawyer and told him that this guy is stealing our stuff. What should we do? So he said to me that he will come with me to the police station to make a report. My lawyer is my very good friend. He said that we are going to get the police to stop the container. It was already 5pm then and the tenant was leaving the place the next day. In the meanwhile, I rang up the company and they didn’t know that he was leaving. Apparently, he has been sacked by the top management and he was trying to serve them right by taking all the furniture with him. But luckily the company had integrity and they paid us whatever was due and we didn’t have to impound the goods. In the end, the tenant took everything but the company took full responsibility for it.
There was another case and that was probably the strangest one. I have come across many strange cases but this is the strangest one. You come across clients where something goes wrong with the lease and we have the responsibility to set things right. So when I went to this guy’s house and the lamps in the master bedroom were smashed. He claimed that the lamps were lousy and it was already cracked. And I thought to myself: “It’s been six months since the lease started and now you are saying it’s lousy?” I look at the maid and she just looked at me and gave me this look *discretely shaking her head*. The maid knew how sincere I was because I have been to the house a couple of times to do furnishing. She had checked on the lamps and signed on it, stating that the lamps were perfect. But six months later, they are not perfect. And then, I said to the man that these lamps looked as if somebody had picked it up and thrown it. I looked at the man’s face and you could see his eyes shifting and the maid’s eye went like this *giving the yes look*. The man admitted that in a heated argument with his wife, he picked up the lamp and threw it at her and it smashed on the floor.
So I guess we always get these strange things that happen but the stealing is probably something that we have to always worry about.
- Can you describe the company culture over here and how does it contribute to the company?
I don’t know if you know, but I had cancer 2 years ago. The person who was managing then did not do a very good job. So I brought in new top management when I realized things were going haywire. We had a real cleanup and I brought in two very abled people. One leads my sale and one leads my backroom. So they changed the whole culture and they made it a much nicer place to work. It’s more fun now.
- So it is like a family culture over here?
Yes, it’s much more family cultured and people don’t pull their weight. People are feeling better and it helps the company to grow. I think my HR has brought in a lovely breath of fresh air. She’s worked very hard for this and I truly appreciate it. My sales team is also very fresh, fun and bubbly and they organize themselves. You can see everyone running around, not just one or 2 people. They work as a team.
- Do you have any training provided for your staff?
Yes, we do. On a regular basis, we send them to courses that I think will benefit them. If he is a marketing person, he will go for a marketing course. Last week, Brian, my marketing manager, just went for a course on guerilla marketing and also a course on marketing using the social media platforms. My IT guy also went along in case there is something about the social media that he didn’t know about. So we do send everyone, including our drivers and our warehouse staff on courses. Our warehouse staff would go on courses to learn about safety in the workplace because we want them to be able-bodied and be able to protect themselves. We do not want anything to happen to anybody.
- Regarding this, do you know roughly how much expenses you have incurred from all these courses?
I don’t know for exact because it is continuous and we haven’t formalized it now. But when you talk about what’s our next vision, we are actually going to train everybody in IT. We are upgrading the whole system, and everybody, including the warehouse staff, will be going on courses to upgrade their IT skills.
- How would like people to remember this company and how would you like them to remember you?
I’m not worried about personal publicity. It doesn’t worry me. But I want people to remember the company. We provide a service. We work efficiently. We help them to realize their dreams. If our clients are happy when they step into their houses, that’s enough for us. We want to be remembered as a service provider of good service with integrity.
- Do you have any future plans to achieve this image?
Oh, yes we have! We are always doing market surveys on how our efficiency is viewed outside. We are upgrading and also continuously finding out other aspects in which we can improve. We get customers to give us their feedback and we send people out into the field. We bring mystery shoppers into the shop so I can get feedback on all my staffs. And that is important because service standards are important to us. We are not your mass production shop.
- Are the mystery shoppers your friends?
Oh they can be my friends or they can be competitors – people in this field. Not direct competitors but people who specialize in the furniture industry. I have a friend who used to run a large furniture store. So from time to time he would walk in and give me very useful feedback.
- In your opinion, what is a good and ethical business? How do you think this will help the company?
We have always been ethical. We have never lied to our customers knowingly. We try to be as honest and as transparent as possible. That is the company motto. A lot of our clients, even those that worked with us twenty years ago, they still come back to us. Our clients will set up houses overseas, and they will ask us to do their houses for them and to ship the furniture over. Some of them do not even know us and they work with us over email to get their houses in Singapore ready. Our reputation is as such and I am very proud of this reputation. I’ve worked very hard for this.
- How would you describe your working relationships with both your customers and suppliers?
It’s a very open relationship. I’m a perfectionist so I can be a very tough boss. I push myself very hard and I just assume that everybody else is as clever or not as clever I am. I do not think I am particularly exceptional in anyway. Everybody has different strengths and I am learning to let go of it.
- How do you differentiate your business from your competitors?
I do have direct competitors but in terms of service standards, nobody can match us. In terms of quality, nobody can match us. And that is hard to imitate. In terms of product knowledge, we are working very hard on that.
- You have a lot of wonderful business ideas, such as the furniture leasing. Which of these would you think is the most important one that critically shaped your success today?
God. He has helped me in many ways *laughs*.
At different times, there were different contributors. There was a time when leasing contributed the most. And then there was a time when retail contributed the most. Today, it is a mixture of both. It is very difficult to quantify. It really depends and our business is cyclical. During Chinese New year, you would think that it is the best time but it actually is the worst time for the furniture business. Two reasons – A: it is a very short month and B: it is the one month where all my workers go on leave *laughs*. The peak periods are changing. In the old days, it used to be June and January. Now, we can’t tell but last year it was October. It is totally random and cyclical.
- How do you cope with this cyclicity?
You just do. You have good months and bad months. You need to have depth in order to cope with the hard times. And it is tough.
I am very financially prudent. I do spend a lot on the business but I am very careful in my home spending. I always save for a rainy day and that’s just my nature. So even for the business, I save for rainy days.
- That’s quite different from what I imagine a successful entrepreneur to be. I often see them spending a lot and trying hard to show off their wealth. What do you think?
Let me tell you a story. I used to drive a Honda – a hatched-back Honda. I have three kids and it was really quite useful. I could deliver small things using my car. When I moved into my current building, I used to stand at the corner with my manager and we would look at all the beautiful cars opposite. But we never knew any name of those cars. My son said me: “Mom, that’s an Aston Martin.” Anyway, this carried on and one day my manager suggested that it was time for me to change my car. She suggested for me to get a BMW. She said that as a boss of a successful furniture company, I had to look successful. I cannot continue to dress simply because nobody will know. So long story short, I went to BMW and bought myself a BMW. And I could tell you, she was right and I was wrong. The status I get because of my car is amazing! When I go to hotel, the valet would park my car in front. So I can understand when people want to show their wealth. I understand what entrepreneurs need to do. A lot of times in business, you have to show more than you have, to give people the confidence that you have what it takes.
But there is this one thing that I have always been particular about and that is to pay my bills on time. Even if it meant me not taking any salary, so be it but my bills must all get paid on time. So much so that some of my suppliers have this joke in their company. “Oh WTP. Don’t need to worry. Don’t need to wait until month end the cheque will come.” One day, I asked them for a ten thousand dollar mattress and they immediately agreed to send it over tomorrow. It wasn’t always like this at the start, but now I have people shipping containers without asking for payment because they know I will pay. And this is the thing that I learned from my family. We have to be on time and I am very particular on timeliness. Sometimes, I get really angry over my personal payments because my staffs did not do my cheques properly or they are late in producing it. I would make them go to the credit card company to drop the cheque personally because I refuse to have my bills paid late. Only then will I be able to keep track on my own cashflows as well as the company’s. I would be able to pick up signs if anybody is trying to cheat me.
- What impact do you think your company has on the community at large?
I made it beautiful! In terms of positive impact, I provided employment for sure. I have talked about the Singaporean heritage and I am a student of the Singaporean heritage so I am somebody you can come to for resource. I am providing quality furniture. The only thing I am not doing very well is talking or publicizing about myself. I need to work a little harder on that. All these years, I’ve spent my time bringing up three kids so I didn’t have the time to attend those networking sessions because I had homework to do at home. I wasn’t free to go for those networking sessions but now I am. I have to get out more and teach myself to do these things.
- There’s been a lot of hype on community service. For instance, companies would send employees to old folks home to do community service. Do you have any future plans for your company in this area?
I have always done community service in my own small way. I haven’t thought so much on that maybe because as an entrepreneur, I have too much things to worry about and you do not have much time. I am a firm believer in orphanages and old folks home. For my part, I do provide furniture for some. But I don’t talk about it. It’s not something I talk about. I’m not doing it to get publicity but I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do. I have a project overseas and I went over, I visited an orphanage there. I found out that it takes almost next to nothing to support ten children a year. Since then, I would give donations and I am now actively supporting ten children for school and food and everything.
I do not really talk about such stuff but I do know that there are people out there that would do such things to generate publicity. But I continue to help the community in my own small ways. However, I do feel that I should give more to my employees because they work hard and not everybody is on the same managerial levels. So I do feel that I need to look after them a bit more. And I would tell you that this really came back to me on one day. When I had cancer, I would continue to come back to office from time to time as I had nobody at that time but now I have a wonderful management structure. One day, my old carpenter he came to my room and showed me some photographs. I was looking at them and they were beautiful. He said that this is the house that he has built using the money I have paid him for twenty years. It was a house in Thailand and is in the middle of a farm. He said that the farm is organic and since I am not well, he offered the place for me to stay for a month. It was far away from the pollution in the city and he would even build a western bathroom for me and cater a Muslim cook who would cook my meals. In the end, I did not stay there but that was the sweetest thought a person could have for me. I cried after he left. All these years, he appreciated me without saying a thing.
- This last part entails more about yourself and your philosophy. What does entrepreneurship mean to you?
I guess I am quite a modest person and it had never occurred to me that I was an entrepreneur. I need the money to bring up my kids so I work.
- What made you shift from taking a normal job to having this business?
I just enjoyed this! I love my work. And I love everything that is with it. It’s both a great challenge and great fun at the same time. If you do not enjoy it, you won’t do it well. My business is interesting. And my work is interesting. I meet very interesting people along the way and if I can make a difference in their lives, this work will be important to me.
- Do you think it is simple being and entrepreneur in Singapore?
I don’t think it is simple being an entrepreneur anywhere. You need to have the lucky breaks and you need to have the help and the right environment. I don’t think it is easy to be an entrepreneur because money is always limited. You need to be ready for the next act. It’s different from a normal job where you go out and do your job then return home. You have to constantly think of the next step. I think that’s the world today. It has changed and it is much tougher now. Competition is much more intense and everything is online now. With email, there’s no such thing as replying tomorrow. You will have to reply today. Even on the plane, once I’ve touched down, I would check my emails to see if there’s any reply I need to give.
- You have mentioned a few of your personal qualities. However, in your opinion, what are some of the qualities a person needs to have in order to be successful?
And to know the right time to leap and not to leap. You must be able to read the market.
- But doesn’t that come with experience?
Not necessary. I think it comes with business intelligence. You need to have your antenna up. You need to be reading, learning, looking and seeing. When I was a student, I used to think that I do not want to go through any more exams once I’m done with my current exam. But there is no such thing. As an entrepreneur, you are sitting through exams all your life. You just have to pick up and go.
The first ten years were very tough. I had almost no family life and I was always running around. Last year, we had our 20th anniversary and my children told me a story. We had a huge party then. My son is working in New York and I told him that WTP is turning 20 this year and we are having a party. He said to me: “My baby sister is going to be twenty years old? When we were growing up, we always thought you have 4 children. And the 4th child is more important than the first three. Whenever there was business to be done, you would forget us at school or forget that we had an activity. We were really jealous of WTP when we were growing up. We felt that you loved her more than you loved us.”
- They always say that entrepreneurs had more work life balance, but from your case, I would say that the saying is not always true right?
I don’t think so. Whatever job you do, if you want to do it well, some things just have to go. This is especially so for an entrepreneur in a small company. You do not have enough help or money to pay a full time accountant so I used to do all my accounts at night and even on weekends. You are kind of working round the clock, and family holidays didn’t happen. The only family holidays my family remembers were centered around business trips. I would take one or two days off the business trips to spend time with my family.
- This award is called the spirit of enterprise. In your opinion, what exactly is the spirit of enterprise?
I think the spirit of enterprise is to be passionate about what you do and to be able to do something that you built from scratch. It’s not just something you plucked out or a franchise or whatever. It is for somebody that has plucked his guts out and found his way to get out there and build something against all odds. To build something and not be coward by obstacles in his way – that is the spirit of an entrepreneur.
- If I am to become an entrepreneur, what is the one single advice that you would give me?
When I was an investment banker, entrepreneurs would pay me to come up with their business plan and their whole future outlook. I would look at these people and think to myself why do these people pay me so much for these things that could be done by them. The real truth is that you do not have time to do it. You are so busy running, that you do not have the time to sit back and do it. Today, it is a luxury to do my business plan because I have these people running around for me. They really helped to lessen my workload. Probably another piece of advice I would give is to buy yourself that little bit of space. Remember that.
- There is a lot of popular entrepreneurial advices available online? Do you agree or disagree with any of them?
What are they tell me?
- For example, they always say success is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration.
In fact, I think I agree with what they say. It is a lot of hard work and you need to have the lucky breaks. Not only do you need to get them, but you need to be able to see them. Many times they pass you by because you don’t see them. You have to be able to think and convert it into an opportunity. Once again, your antennas have to constantly be up and looking for opportunities.
- A lot of us actually see such opportunity but we do not really capture it. How should we improve?
Yup that’s right. And as an entrepreneur, that is precisely what you need to do. What you see as an opportunity and what you chase defines you. Sometimes you have to make your opportunities. You have to be able to sell the idea across to somebody. You must always think about your client. What is good for him? If you are able to do so, you will succeed. If you can produce something that is good for him, he will employ you. It is all about what benefits you can offer to your client.
- So the customer always comes first?
Yes that is true but that doesn’t mean that the customer is always right. Sometimes people don’t understand what they themselves need.
- You worked as an investment banker prior to this business. In what way has that job experience helped you in developing your business today?
When I was working in investment banking, I also had to anticipate people’s needs. And I had to dream up solutions to their needs. So one must be creative and I think creativity is very important. You must think out of the box all the time.
- Do you think creativity is scarce in Singapore right now?
No. Definitely no. I think it is there and all we need to do is to nurture it. I never realized I was creative. I nurtured it and brought it to fruition.