Low Cheong Kee

[dropcap size=small]T[/dropcap]here is the saying that “change is the only constant”, and businessman Low Cheong Kee is fully aware of that. It explains why his mantra seems to be ‘adopt, adapt and improve’. The founder of Homefix, the chain of DIY stores learnt to be versatile from his grandfather and parents.

His grandfather opened a shop in the early 1960s selling charcoal and chopped wood. A decade later, as Singaporeans moved from kampungs into flats, his parents realised that paint, plumbing items and tools were in demand, and added these items to their inventory, when they opened a new hardware store.

In 1993, as homeowners flocked to malls to shop, Mr Low set up his first Homefix store in Siglap Centre, stocking up on power tools and gadgets. Younger brother, Cheong Yew, later joined the business as a director.

In the last 25 years, the number of Homefix outlets grew to 26. But over the last two and half years, he began a right-sizing exercise, cutting down the number of stores to 11, to manage rising rent and manpower costs. Gone were the days when the more retail stores a brand had, the better.

Instead, Mr Low, 54, added more offerings. At a market fair in December, Homefix officially launched its online retail store, TISBO, short for Try In Store Buy Online, Homefix Rental, Homefix Home Services, Homefix Japan, and XPC or Homefix Experience Centre, a makerspace for craftsmen and tinkerers.

How is the DIY scene now compared to when you started Homefix?

Back then, DIY was pitched as fun, helping consumers save money, and instilling in consumers a sense of pride in home improvement. Those values still hold true. But we now have to go against the grain. Singaporeans still don’t have that culture of DIY compared to Australia or European countries, which is why Homefix has moved from DIY to DIFY, or Do It For You. Rather than consumers having to DIY, they can use our Home Services to help with repairs and improvements around the home, such as changing doors and gates, setting up a smart home network, and painting.

My generation is competent with tools and woodworking, but not the younger generation, who don’t have these skills, and that’s a shame. They would rather pay for a service, hence we started DIFY. At the same time, some processes have gotten more complicated. For example, changing LED lights is not as simple as merely replacing the bulb, hence consumers today would rather not do it themselves.

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Homefix’s new services sound novel, especially for hardware stores in Singapore. Where do you get the ideas for them?

We have a committee working on ideas and everyone keeps abreast of what is happening around them. The Homefix Rental service allows consumers to rent tools rather than buy them. We saw how the sharing economy works, such as Grab, AirBnb and coworking spaces, and so we took that concept and adapted it to tools. It makes more sense to rent too.

Homefix Japan came about because we wanted to offer more than what we have in the stores. We are working towards having 45,000 products in our Homefix Japan store. These are all items that are made in Japan and sold to the Japanese market. We picked Japan because the country is known for its quality products, and because the items can fit into small homes. There are quirky items such as bath stools, which some people may like but not buy when they are in Japan, but now they can do so via Homefix Japan. We ship the items directly from Japan, so there is a wait, but the retail price you pay in Singapore is the same as in Japan.

In the next two months, we will launch Homefix USA, with products coming from America at American prices.

Homefix has been around for 25 years – that is long for a country without a DIY culture. How do you do it?

I don’t stick with what I started, because you can’t go against what consumers want. You must be aware of your environment. I am mindful that things are constantly changing. If the company is resistant to change, we will die.

For example, who would have thought that 10 years ago, online shopping would be so big? But today, it is something that is so normal, and that is why we needed to have an online store too.

I’ve noticed that shops in general are becoming showrooms. Consumers come to the store to look and feel the product, and then they go to online marketplaces to purchase them as they are usually cheaper. We want to be on equal footing with these marketplaces when it comes to prices.

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All these new services are part of our transformation, to deal with the disruption created by the online marketplace and the changing buying patterns of our consumers. As an SME, Homefix has to constantly evolve.

What is it like working with your brother and who is the better businessman?

Cheong Yew tends to be more careful, he uses figures to back himself up. I, on the other hand, tend to go with gut feel. But you need a bit of both caution and risk to succeed. We cover for each other’s weaknesses. We have been brothers for over 50 years, and partners for 25. There is no major issue that we cannot resolve together.

You mentioned earlier that it is a shame that young people aren’t good with tools. Why?

I think having the basic drilling, plumbing and electrical skills to repair and make small home improvements are important. I see them as survival skills. But beyond that, having these skills allow them to collaborate with others and create something more than one person can do. I feel creativity is important to Singapore as it allows us to grow as a society. We tend to consume too much, instead of creating something of our own. This is why I champion the makers’ movement and started XPC, where makers can come together, conduct workshops and be creative.

How good are you with your tools?

I can hold my hammer and drill. My wife and I have started spring cleaning, since Chinese New Year is coming. So I’ve been doing repair and home improvement works around the home. My newest toy is a high pressure cleaner, which I really enjoy playing with.

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This article was originally published in The Business Times.

Photos: BT/SPH