How 77th Street's Elim Chew sold UK style to Singapore
- 20 December 2010
- From the section Business
Returning to Singapore in the 1980s after three years in London, Elim Chew was shocked.
"There was nothing here. I couldn't even find coloured hair products. Nobody had coloured hair," she remembers.
It was a huge contrast with the urban street fashion which had surrounded and captivated Ms Chew while she was training in the UK's capital city.
Back in Singapore, she determined to bring some of London's edgy styles to the streets of the city state. At the time she was running her first business, a hair salon. It was a good marketing tool, she says. "I was wearing very funny clothes."
"People came up to me and said 'I like your bracelet, I like your vest, I like your jacket, can you sell it to me?' And I just called a price and they would buy it off me."
The popularity encouraged her to begin trading in her hair salon but within a year she had opened up her own retail outlet. Her company, 77th Street, is now involved in both the retail and wholesale ends of the fashion industry across Asia.
To begin with, 77th Street was funded solely by Ms Chew's hairdressing business. To her, it was the perfect launch pad to start-up her second venture.
"Hairdressing is actually a cash business so it was good because there was a service line and we were able to collect cash and keep the cash flow going."
Indeed, 77th Street took a few years to become profitable. "It was tough in the beginning because if the products didn't sell, we got stuck… There were a lot of times where we made a lot of mistakes, we lost a lot of money."
But she says that the financial leeway provided by the hair salon gave her the time to learn from her mistakes in retail.
For Ms Chew, "having a cash flow is a blood line for the whole entire business." She says she even branched out into other jobs to ensure that she didn't run out of funds while starting up 77th Street.
"I was doing every other thing. I was in the iron-on business. If you remember that they were the patches for all over your jackets…When Hard Rock Café first opened in Singapore, I was printing t-shirts for them, making their patches for them, even products like their hurricane glasses where they print their Hard Rock logo."
For Elim Chew, good staff are essential to any company because "you can only grow as much as the good people that you hire."
She says that at the beginning she shed tears over difficult employees. "Managing people is one of the toughest things. Managing products is easy because it sits there, it doesn't answer to you, it doesn't question you."
Now she has three requirements when looking to hire staff; that they love people, smile and are happy. Even then she admits it is difficult.
"It's not that easy to find people who are happy and people who smile…but, you know, it's something that is needed in a service industry."
"That's something that we place an emphasis on because the company believes in people, the company believes in our customers."
Elim Chew believes the challenges to creating a successful retail business have increased. She says demand for lower prices and increased rental and labour costs now require greater skill from businesses if they are to be profitable.
In the case of 77th Street, she says the widespread use of the internet has created a greater pressure on the business to stay ahead of the market.
"In the first few years of 77th Street, we were able to tell customers what was the direction, we were able to tell customers what they should look for in terms of what's the trend ahead," she remembers.
Now that they're able to find out the information themselves, she says the business has to be far more nimble.
Ms Chew believes that anyone can become an entrepreneur if they are prepared to see beyond their immediate surroundings.
She says, "I think as entrepreneurs we are driven by ideas… When I have my free time, I like to go onto the internet and really explore the different things that people are doing; what are the different ideas popping all over the world."
But above all, Elim Chew says people who start new businesses need to be rebels: "Being an entrepreneur is like being a juvenile delinquent... The more you tell us that we can't do it, the more we want to prove you wrong."
She is convinced that it is that defiance which has led to her success: "If we were to listen to people who keep telling us not to do it, then 77 Street would never have happened. Because in the early days everyone was telling us we would fail... Today we have proved everybody wrong."