Jane Ang is a friendly inspiration with whom one is able to strike an insightful conversation with. Since an early age, Jane has always made a conscious effort to do her best in all her endeavors, be it at her father’s hardware shop or working through the wee hours of the morning in MRT tunnels and more recently, managing her thriving business. She is always going the extra mile for her suppliers, employees and customers. In 2013, Jane was awarded with the Singapore’s Outstanding Enterprise Award. Recently, the company was awarded with the Singapore Heartland Enterprise Award under the promising best customer service category.
With the strong slogan, “inspiration for every space”, Scarlet Ace is the ideal place to look for light fittings and bathroom fittings for a home or business environment. The company aims to provide customers with a wide variety of stylish and practical light and bathroom fittings at amazing value. Founded by Jane Ang in 2008, Scarlet Ace has built strong relationships with its customers by delivering top notch customer service within a short span of 6 years. This is clearly evident by their regular clientele that includes three generations of families and the successful expansion to two outlets.
The interview was smooth and comfortable and all credits would go to Jane. The moment I stepped into her retail store, I was greeted by a vibrant lady who was proudly donning the company t-shirt. The lady was none other than Jane herself. She allowed me to explore her showroom that was filled with brilliant lights as she prepared the venue for our interview. Jane came across as a determined entrepreneur who is willing to put hours in her business. Yet, this determination came with a very warm and down to earth personality. She cares a lot about her staff and conversed with them as a fellow friend rather than a demanding boss. She is extremely forth coming to groom students and provide a meaningful internship to those that wish to learn about the lighting industry or are keen in entrepreneurship. Hence, receiving the opportunity to interview someone who is willing to guide and share her experiences with the youth, I learnt a lot and am thankful for this experience.
- What is the nature of your business?
My business involves lighting and bathroom fixtures. The aim of the business is to enhance the aesthetic beauty of each of our customers’ homes. Currently our business largely follows a Business to Consumer (B2C) model. However, we are exploring and developing a Business to Business (B2B) model.
- Do your parents have their own businesses too? Have they inspired you in one way or another?
Yes, I belong to a family where our four generations had set up their own businesses. Hence, starting a business seemed natural to me. My father began his business at the age of 20. Once, I had completed my university education, I started work almost immediately at my father’s hardware shop. I still vividly remember the date: 1st October. It was children’s day! I began working on that day and I experienced the full range of ups and downs of a business. Times were particularly hard when my father had filed for bankruptcy and we had to start afresh. With that, I worked really hard with him, practically working for 12 hours on a daily basis. It was not a glamorous job but I learnt a lot from the harsh situations and a demanding father.
- When and why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?
After working for my father for a few years, I decided to get a job outside. This process is a rite of passage. I paved my career as an engineer, working in MRT tunnels at odd hours. Despite my qualifications, it was difficult to secure an engineering job since I was helping my father for the past few years and did not gain any experience in the engineering field. Hence, along with the hours of overtime, I had to settle for a lower pay. Thankfully, my hard work and persistence brought me recommendations from clients and I started to receive great job offers.
However by then, I started to witness that there was a glass ceiling for women in the industry that I was in. It was high time that I moved from a job to starting something that I can call my very own and that’s when Scarlet Ace was born.
- What are your reasons for choosing to do business in this particular industry?
As I had shared, I have an engineering background. Along with that, my family business has been in hardware. So, the area of lighting and bathroom fittings fit well in my areas of expertise.
I also observed that usually these two areas were hardly dealt with together. One would either have a single lighting shop or would be dealing with bathroom fittings separately. I wanted to be a one stop shop for customers, making shopping for their homes a lot more convenient.
- How did you put together all the resources needed to start your business? For example: the time and getting the start-up capital to carry out your business.
For time, I believe that all of us have time. What matters is what we want to do with the time that we have. So if you are determined to succeed in your own business, you will be able to take out a lot of time for it.
As for my start-up capital, I had to take a loan from my father. With that said, my father did not give me an extravagant amount but rather one that he deemed sufficient. After the purchase of the initial products, my start-up capital in my bank was a thousand dollars. I had $1000 in my bank which was the minimum mandatory amount that was required in a current account in order to start a business. With that, there is no need for any guesses that I could not pay myself in the initial months.
I was indeed fortunate that I established strong ties with my suppliers and customer. My suppliers believed in me and provided me with credit terms due to which I was able to purchase my products. And as for customers, I strongly believe that providing excellent service before, during and after the sale is going to get you the trust and loyalty of a customer.
- What are some of the challenges you faced when you first went into business?
I started Scarlet Ace on 8 January 2008. As we know, 2008 would not be considered the ideal economic situation with the presence of a recession. Everyone became very conservative in their spending and it had a direct impact on businesses. Nonetheless, I told myself that if I could sail through a challenging phase such this recession, I would definitely be able to weather through future economic climate and external conditions.
- What are some interesting stories you have about your first few customers/first few years in business?
In life and business, we would always encounter the best and the worst. I choose to remember the best and I can share one such example. When I was starting out, I clearly remember this customer who purchased a total of $6000 to $7000 worth of products and paid for it immediately. They did this because they believed in me. I was really fortunate that they wanted to support me and saw me as a young, sincere lady who takes pride in her business. Due to that huge amount that was paid up front, I was able to purchase a greater variety of products.
- At what moment did you realize that the business was going to work and support you?
The first moment would be when I was finally able to pay myself!
After that, it would be when I started seeing a great number of repeat customers. This was a clear sign that my way of running the business was bearing fruit. Often, people would attribute an entrepreneur’s success solely on external factors such as luck or parents’ support. I feel that luck only arrives with hard work and determination. “99% hard work, 1% luck” would be my mantra.
- What are some of your proudest business achievements to date? And why are they so important and meaningful to you?
My proudest business achievement would be the successful expansion of my business that is the opening of my second branch. In this industry and at my age, it is considered an achievement to expand within a short span of 6 years. Also, it has always been a one-man show where I am expected to brainstorm and develop business ideas for Scarlet Ace on my own.
So, the opening of the new branch where all of my supporters came down to join in my celebration was one of my proudest moments.
- Can you describe the company culture that you have? How does it contribute to the performance of your company growth?
I want Scarlet Ace to be a brand that my staff is proud to be associated with. I have always frowned upon the dictatorial management approach that is completely top down and rigid. At Scarlet Ace, I have aimed to build a collaborative environment that promotes communication and learning. For this, I have always encouraged my promising employees to go the extra mile as I am willing to consider profit sharing plans with them if they are able to show utmost dedication towards the company.
- Who or what motivates and inspires you?
In the world of business, there are two leaders that inspire me and they are Sir Richard Branson and Sam Walton. I admire Richard Branson for his innovative mind and the concern that he displays for his employees as this is something that I strive for at Scarlet Ace. Likewise, for Sam Walton, he was thrifty on his own needs but generous to his staff. Both business leaders are fully aware that it is happy employees that lead to happy customers.
- What does entrepreneurship mean to you?
More than just making things and selling them, entrepreneurship is truly the spirit of an entrepreneur which would comprise of innovation, an appetite for risk and a lot of hard work to remain competitive and review to meet the ever-changing demands situations.
- With the changes in the market today, do you think it has become harder or easier to succeed in business? Why do you say so?
In every challenge, there will always be an opportunity. A true business leader will step up to the situation and think differently. For example, a current challenge for Scarlet Ace is the increase of competition as more individuals enter the lighting business due to the increase of Build-to- Oder (BTO) flats in Singapore. However, Scarlet Ace can continue to compete successfully against these smaller shops so long as we provide greater variety products and are able to satisfy with the accompanying need of bathroom fixtures.
Another challenge would be that these BTO flats come with pre-installed bathroom fixtures. However, instead of seeing this challenge, I can assess the other possible needs and wants of a customer. For instance, I could offer a rain shower to new BTO flat owners, something that is desirable and currently unavailable with their current arrangement.
So, one needs to think positively and know that there is always a way out of these challenges.
- What makes Scarlet Ace’s customer service to be of top notch?
We place great emphasis on providing customers a complete and comfortable experience throughout their interaction with us. Right from the beginning, we need to ensure that we give them the best of our knowledge and expertise so as to exceed their needs and expectations. For this, regular trainings are provided to all staff so that they are well versed with the company’s products and are able to communicate our aim to be “inspiration for every space.”
Along with that, Scarlet Ace prides itself of having products that are aligned with the latest trends. It is of utmost importance to have products that is able to add to the aesthetic beauty of a customer’s home while being fully functional.
Finally, to be able to maintain our top notch service, we conduct mystery shopper audits and also have a dedicated administration team that calls and gathers feedback from customers on their experience with Scarlet Ace.
Ultimately, you know that your customer service is of top notch when customers make referrals and recommend your company to their families and friends. At Scarlet Ace, we are glad that we have received many of our customers via referrals.
- What does your average workday consist of?
My workday starts with the opening of the branches. Although I do have employees who are present at 9.30am for the opening, I make it a point to be present with them as often as possible. I usually spend half a day in one branch and the other half of the day in the other.
During the initial years of operation, I use to work 360 days per year where I only took 4 days of leave, during Chinese New Year and Hari Raya. This is why I would emphasize that it is crucial to have passion so as to sustain the hard work that is required to get you through the initial challenging phase.
Now, I am able to work towards having a greater work life balance. Nonetheless, I work 6 days a week. This is especially necessary as many of my old customers still prefer to contact me directly and I ensure that I am available for them. In my 6 working days, I spend 4 days working alongside with my sales team and the remaining 2 days with the administration team where we spend time conceptualizing new business ideas.
- What do you see for your business in the next 5 years, and does it include any plans for expansion?
We are currently in the midst of setting up a new company with a Business to Business (B2B) model. Our targeted customer would be interior designers. We want to convince these designers that we are able to provide lights that would prove to be unique for them and their customers.
- Very often, entrepreneurs are imagined to be working on their business day and night with little rest or time for loved ones. How true is that for you and how do you manage your time?
Initially, I worked much longer as I had no other commitments. However, as time goes by, you would have increased family responsibilities to manage. Thankfully, after 3 years, I was able to see the fruits of my labour. Thus, I began to incorporate a greater balance between my business and my personal commitments and this work life balance is something that I want to see for my employees. It is a known truth that the hours of a sales representative are long and tiring. Hence, I have introduced some steps such as opening the store at a later time and giving an additional day off.
In return, I am glad that I have a competent team that is able to manage both stores without my presence. This is why I cannot emphasize enough on keeping your employees happy and motivated. It is due to their effectiveness that I have been able to take more holidays recently!
- In the past decade, there has been a great buzz on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and is increasingly becoming a must-have for many entrepreneurs. What is your take on this?
To me, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) would be another term for the corporation’s conscience.
Ever since I started my business, I had the mind-set that it is essential for me to give back to the society. Although 2008 was not a profitable year, I decided to provide ceiling fans to 10 households under the care of Beyond Social Services. My biggest motivation for doing so was to provide a more comfortable studying environment for the children in these households. These fans were installed in 1 or 2 room flats where the students would study at the coffee table in the living room. With the hot and humid weather in Singapore, it is not practical to expect a child to study for long hours in such heat. Hence, providing a ceiling fan with lights would allow these students to study in a much more conducive environment. The cost of this act cannot be compared to the amount of happiness that it brought to these children.
- What advice would you give young people (with little resources) who want to start their own business?
You must be passionate in what you pursue. This is crucial so that you are able to work hard at it. My personal experience is that you need to be prepared to work hard for at least 3 years in order to the yield the rewards of your effort and determination.
Also, I would direct youth who are in need of advice to SPRING Singapore. Spring has been taking an active role in helping start-ups and they provide a variety of grants and valuable business advice.
As for Scarlet Ace, we have been establishing contact with the various polytechnics in Singapore and offering internships to students who are interested to learn from my experiences and the industry that we belong to. This is also one of the ways that I can contribute to the community.