Japan Home (Retail) Pte Ltd – Mr Steve Chin – Your friendly Wise Neighbouhood Uncle Chin
On the second floor of a warehouse building in the Eastern part of Singapore, sits an unassuming office with mountains of paperwork neatly stacked on a solid wood work desk. Behind the desk hangs a Chinese painting of Mount Tai with the Chinese Calligraphy Inscription “Steady as Mount Tai”.
This is the Office of Mr Steve Chin, the 46 year old founder and owner of ‘Japan Home Retail Pte Ltd’, a lifestyle household retail business, or as Mr Chin likes to put it, a modern day provision/household products store that provides high value items at affordable prices.
Beginnings Started in September 1999 as a sole proprietorship with a warehouse, 3 outlets and about 30 employees, it has now expanded to a Private Limited company with 3 directors, 68 outlets in Singapore, hiring roughly 450 employees with another 50 outlets in Malaysia and still
Mr Chin comes across as your humble, kindly uncle Steve who always have the time to sit down with you to offer you his wisdom and advice. A product of the old school Chinese Business families, Mr Chin started out at the age of 12 when he would frequently accompany his father to Brunei and East Malaysia on business trips for the family garment wholesale business. Mr Chin eventually took over the family business as he grew older and ran it with some success.
But, with business slowing and the Asian Financial Crisis hit in 1998, Mr Chin realized that the business needed to change and embarked on a mission to source out a new ‘recession-proof’ business that can stand the test of time. It was during this time, that a fateful trip to Hong Kong where he saw consumers still spending on household products despite the economic downturn sparked off both a memory and an idea in his head. He would start a lifestyle household product retail business with outlets in residential neighborhoods just like the provision shops of his childhood.
Mr Chin’s rationale is simple, ‘It is recession-proof because come rain or shine, people will always have a need for household products.’ The Japanese Branding also helps in that people tend to relate Japanese product with reliability and a perception of value. He also picked up on the ‘low-cost, high value’ concept in Hong Kong and managed to source out a few suppliers for his initial products. Upon returning to our shores, Mr Chin launched the business with a warehouse and 3 outlets which quickly expanded to 10 outlets within the first few years.
Of course, no business is without its difficulties and challenges. The outbreak of the SARS epidemic in 2002/2003 was a trying time for Mr Chin and Japan Home Retail Pte Ltd. Coupled with the lack of solid retail operation experience, Japan Home Retail reported a sharp 30% decline in revenue and had to make the hard decision to downsize from 10 outlets to 5 during those trying times to consolidate their operations and re-evaluate their market positioning. While some business owners would throw in the towel and call it a day, Mr Chin stuck it out and learnt from the mistakes made during those early formative years to come back stronger after the crisis.
One can easily see the shadow of Mr Chin’s personal philosophy of openness and sincerity throughout the culture he built within the company. This is one boss that attends personally to customer complaints and offers a ‘no-question-asked’ exchange policy for any product his outlets carries. The company’s eagerness to solicit customer feedback and opinions are also well known in the industry. This sincere approach to customer service and business dealings soon earned Japan Home Retail Pte Ltd a reputation of being a sincere company that values customer’s needs and suggestions over pure profits and revenue.
When asked about what he feels sets Japan Home Retail Pte Ltd apart from other similar businesses in the industry, Mr Chin shared with pride that they are a practical homegrown company that solves the practical problems of their customers by offering high value products at low cost. He views the company’s positioning is in offering quality products at reasonable prices. They may not be the cheapest, but they definitely give you more value. Another point of pride for Mr Chin is the ability of the company to provide localized solutions to local problems that the customers face. Different approaches are devised for the markets in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia to specifically solve problems unique to these countries. The sincerity and earnestness in which the business is run can be felt thoroughly with their ‘No-Questions-Asked’ exchange policy, if you are unhappy with your purchase for any reason, you are free to return the item to exchange for another product of your choosing. A new membership program with personalized service is also what Mr Chin feels sets Japan Home Retail Pte Ltd apart from the others in the industry.
Plans are currently in place to expand Singapore’s business to 100 outlets by 2016, and having stabilized their business locally, Mr Chin is now setting his eyes on the Malaysian Market with a population of 28 million. Public listing is also a distant possibility if the conditions are right. With 50 outlets currently running in Malaysia, Mr Chin shared that there are different challenges and obstacles in breaking into the Malaysian market, biggest of which is that the branding and positioning concept that works so well in Hong Kong and Singapore are not working as well in Malaysia due to the differences in culture and perception. But, being the ever persistent problem solver that he is, we can count on Mr Chin to come up with a new merchandising model and business concept that the Malaysians will take to.
Apart from outward expansions, Mr Chin is also currently looking out for management and operations talents to groom for senior management positions within the company and further delegate operational duties to regional managers to enable the company to respond faster and better to situations on the ground. Succession planning is also a priority for Mr Chin as he recognize that a sound and stable system of top management succession is vital for organizational stability in the long run.
Having followed his father into business since the age of 12, The Senior Mr Chin is the obvious inspiration for Mr Steve Chin in terms of running a business. The biggest lessons he shared with us that he learnt from his father was Honesty, Sincerity and Transparency in all his dealings, be it with customers, partners or staff. All these are abundantly evident in the way he interacts with the people around him, from the way board meetings are held and how information is disseminated within the company to how he deals with his customers and try to solve their problems.
When asked about his advice for young entrepreneurs, Mr Chin said matter-of-factly that hard work alone is no longer enough to be successful in business. Gone are the days when as long as you are hardworking and willing to put in the hours, you are ensured of certain success. In the current day landscape, more planning and knowing about what you want is needed.
Mr Chin offers the following to young aspiring entrepreneurs, ‘If you do not plan ahead and have a good business model, you are almost assured of failure. Plan what you want to do, know your core business concept, then go out there and build a model upon that without fearing failure. If you fail, learn from it. Working Smart is just as important as working hard now’
For someone who admits that he fears sharks but not tigers in real life, Mr Steve Chin is a fearless businessman. The years of experience and his innate characteristic of being a problem solver has given him a certain calmness and patience about him in dealing with the problems and obstacles associated with running a business.
A self-professed ill-discipline problem solver that can’t handle micro-management, Mr Chin shared with us a few principles he lives by. He believes in always being dynamic and responsive to challenges and not be too stuck in a particular mindset. A refusal to be stubborn and resistance to change has served him in good stead over the years when the pace of the business world has picked up significantly requiring more and more thinking on the feet and faster respond time. Another gem that Mr Chin shared was always be a problem solver. If there is a problem or obstacle in the way, find ways to solve it. Having analysis paralysis or being stubborn about a point of view is not going to help the situation. Be patient a look for a win-win situation for everyone involved.
When it comes to the definition of success, it comes as no surprise when Mr Chin said this, ‘Are you happy? If you are happy, then you are successful whether you are a businessman or a salaried worker.’ Achievement is also defined by Mr Steve Chin as the ability to raise a happy family where the spouse is well taken care of and the right values are imparted to the next generation. In his view, anyone with a well cared for happy family and has imparted good values to his children are successful in life.
A family man with a great sense of humor, Mr Chin’s favorite aspect of being an entrepreneur over the decades was the freedom of lifestyle, that coupled with the ability to build a company and legacy are what he found most enjoyable and happiest about. While it may sound contradictory after describing his favorite aspect of the journey as the freedom of lifestyle, Mr Chin also feels that time is the biggest sacrifice he has made over the years. He regrets the time spent away from the family which he considers the greatest sacrifice he has to make as an entrepreneur.
Unsurprisingly, in conclusion Mr Steve Chin shared with us his main goals and aspirations for Japan Home Pte Ltd, and it has got little to do with huge profits or the bottom line. Mr Chin told us that the main goals and aspirations he has for the company now is to continue building a business that can make the customers happy with their purchases and also the staff happy working there. It is Mr Chin’s belief that if you can have happy customers and a happy staff, you will have a happy and profitable business.