SHE thought she had found a skilled business partner with experience in the industry, but he turned out to be her worst bet.
This was about six years ago, when Ong Shu Huai saw the opportunity to bring Glass Curtains, a Spanish brand of sliding glass panels, into Singapore. At that time, she observed that living and dining spaces in homes were being made smaller, while balcony spaces became larger. Glass panels or partitions could thus help homeowners make the best use of their spaces.
Ms Ong later roped in a supplier she knew as her business partner, seeing that he was "skilled in this industry".
However, the partner soon saw the success of the business and made plans to take it further without her. When Ms Ong refused to leave the company, he resorted to strong-handed tactics to force her out of the picture.
"He got a bunch of nine men, all from the industry, to come to the workshop to extort items from me. Nine men against one woman. They even made death threats," she shares, adding that the episode lasted for a few months.
On a lawyer's advice, Ms Ong eventually sued to end the partnership, setting her back some S$100,000. She then started another company, The Glass Scape Group of Companies, to continue the business distributing Glass Curtains.
Ms Ong says the experience did not leave her "particularly jaded", but more resilient and careful.
"Generally, I believe that people are not bad, and I don't think anyone can take that positivity from me," she adds.
Around 2017, Ms Ong set up another company, Durablinds Trading, and became the sole distributor of Ziptrak, an Australian brand of outdoor blinds, in Singapore and Malaysia.
Set up with S$200,000, the company now turns over S$6 million every year.
Ms Ong, the managing director of The Glass Scape and Durablinds, tells her experience as an entrepreneur.
Would you be able to share about your background, and why you started your companies?
I studied in a university in Toronto and later worked in Canada for six years, coming back to Singapore only in 1997.
Later, I spent two to three years working in the service industry where, in the midst of pulling 70-hour weeks and slowly burning out, it hit me that I won’t be able to experience the fruits of my labour.
Around 2001, I got interested in interior design. I shadowed a friend and, within a month, learned the ropes of what it takes to be a good interior designer. Within six months of trying it out, I felt confident and ready to deliver.
I had also been observing the industry for a while, and was disturbed by the unfair practices. Suppliers and contractors aren’t paid well as everyone is trying to cut cost. The quality of work also suffers, and it's unfair to homebuyers.
That’s when I decided to do something about this by starting my own company, Blueprint ID Studio. By then, I was already pulling in five to nine projects each month. It was affirming to know that there was no need to market my services - my clients came through referrals.
In 2013, I saw a need. Living and dining spaces within homes were getting smaller, while balcony spaces got larger, meaning that enclosed areas for families to utilise were increasingly insufficient. I wanted to find a way to help homeowners reclaim spaces. That's when I found Glass Curtains and introduced it to the market.
Subsequently, another need arose. Some homeowners were keen to reclaim spaces, but Glass Curtains were not within their budgets. I hunted for a suitable alternative, found Ziptrak, and decided to introduce that to the market as well.
What were the biggest challenges in starting your own firm, and how did you overcome them?
The biggest challenge for me was balancing the multiple roles that I was playing: boss to my employees, mother to my son, wife to my husband, daughter to my parents, and friend to my family.
In the beginning, I was so immersed in building the brand and navigating the journey of running a company that I found myself neglecting personal relationships, especially the relationship I had with myself.
It takes a conscious effort, and making it a routine, to remind myself to refill my cup before giving to the people around me.
What are some of the skills that you have had to develop, and that you think are most crucial?
It would have to be people management. In 2017, the team grew from seven people to 28. I had little knowledge about running a company then, so this was definitely a steep learning curve.
As a leader, you have to ensure that employees know and align themselves with the company's direction, for instance. You also have to equip them with the necessary skills to be competent at their jobs.
There were also difficult questions like, how do I hire and retain the best people? How do I give employees autonomy, while setting clear directions for them? How can I trust employees with the work, so that my time can be used to make strategic decisions?
Thankfully, I engaged a business adviser who coached me through this journey and really helped me to grow.
How would you describe your management style?
I am firm when it comes to making sure that the company's standards are not compromised.
However, I also try to understand when employees aren't able to deliver. For example, do they need more training or a mentor? Are there issues outside of work? We are all human and we need support. It's my job as their leader to provide them with that support.
What would you say was your best bet for the company?
It was when I bet on myself and decided to not give in to the bullies. I thought about the five employees I had then, the hundred-odd customers who had already installed the product and those that were going to. How would I answer to them if I dropped them and left?
So I found a good lawyer, fought for myself, and won. What started out as anyone’s worst nightmare became a triumph.
The next best bet was discovering Ziptrak. There was a gap in the industry to fill and I saw it, but I was also apprehensive about diving headlong into it without any knowledge of blinds. It was Kelvin, my current partner in life and in business, who encouraged me to try.
When you are not working hard in the office, where are you to be found?
I love spending time with my five-year-old son Marcus. He is such a bundle of joy and curiosity, and it is so fulfilling watching him grow.
You will also find me cooking for my friends and family. It's such a pleasure watching them enjoying my food.
I also enjoy social dancing, which is how Kelvin and I met. With all the stress of work, it's good to reconnect with each other by doing something we both love.