Along the way to lunch at Lim Chu Kang from her Sungei Kadut office, Catherine Lim drives past Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, where the executive director of home-grown furniture brand Scanteak goes regularly to clear her mind.
But the ease that the 59-year-old exudes today is not the result of an effortless journey. Lim and her husband, Lim Pok Chin, painstakingly built and expanded their furniture-retailing company Hawaii Furnishing for over six years, only to see a thriving business crumble by the end of the mid-1980s.
“A monthly turnover of $1 million was easier to achieve then,” she recalls of those early days. To compete with international furniture players like Ikea, Actus and Habitat entering the market, the Lims invested a few million dollars to distribute furniture from upmarket French brand Fly.
Three months later, sales figures dipped to just a fraction of their monthly turnover. Barely six months later, they were a few million dollars in debt. The real deal-breaker was their ignorance of fluctuating foreign-exchange rates – French francs had risen over 30 per cent by the end of 1984, when the oil crisis hit.
“We wanted to venture overseas but we were inexperienced in international trade and not careful in building our knowledge foundation. We didn’t lock in the exchange rate. Anyone venturing abroad must do their due diligence to negate the risk of investment overseas,” says Lim, who was an orphan brought up by maids who worked for wealthy families.
By then, they had spent several hundred thousand dollars on air-conditioning for their 24,000 sq ft showroom at Marine Parade, because they thought the heat was keeping customers away.
Fly’s high prices and unpopular pastel colours did not help. To keep creditors at bay and repay Fly, Lim had to sell at least five investment properties at a loss. She shifted the business to Bukit Timah, where she found cheaper rent. More importantly, they overhauled the business and starting selling functional, minimalist teak-furniture pieces inspired by Scandinavian designs.
In 1990, the brand Scanteak was formally adopted and, five years later, the business finally became profitable. Meantime, Lim picked up accounting and spent hours tidying up the company’s books, so she did not have to spend extra money to hire staff . She has also learnt to deal in forex trading and, now, confidently manages her transactions.
“WE SHOULD BE READY TO TAKE ON CHALLENGES IN OUR L IVES WITH A SMILE. THE EXPERIENCES WE GAIN ARE VALUABLE LESSONS THAT WILL TAKE US FURTHER IN FUTURE.”
CATHERINE LIM, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, SCANTEAK
Today, Scanteak is reportedly one of the world’s largest importers of teak furniture and has over 110 showrooms across Asia, including Taiwan where it is listed on its GreTai Securities Market. Group revenue last year was over $80 million and looks set to cross the $100-million mark this year. There are plans to take Scanteak to Canada and the US.
“There will always be challenges. Face them, solve them and go through them.”