'Crazy ideas' are the future for Futuristic's CEO

Mr David Low, founder and CEO of Futuristic, has turned the company into a thriving global consumer proxy with revenue of nearly $70 million last year. Futuristic hires more than 700 employees globally.
Mr David Low, founder and CEO of Futuristic, has turned the company into a thriving global consumer proxy with revenue of nearly $70 million last year. Futuristic hires more than 700 employees globally.PHOTO: FUTURISTIC STORE FIXTURES

Construction industry veteran David Low believes the future revolves around crazy ideas - bold, off-the- wall concepts that can help businesses make a quantum leap forward and remain relevant in a changing world.

With this in mind, the founder and chief executive officer of unlisted Singapore-based Futuristic Store Fixtures aims to hire more millennials, a generation with a penchant for the wacky and unconventional.

"The younger people tend to behave and work differently, and they have better resources in developing crazy ideas - my hope for the company lies in attracting more millennials to work for us," said Mr Low, 54, who has nearly four decades of contracting and carpentry experience.

Futuristic, which will explore an initial public offering to raise capital and boost branding "when the time is right", has received an injection of funds from Heliconia Capital Management, a unit of Temasek Holdings.

In 2005, Mr Low founded the present Futuristic Store Fixtures, which began as a small renovation contractor in the late 1970s. He remodelled it into a scalable business making customised store fixtures - including shelving, display units and gondolas - for global retailers such as Bath & Body Works, Victoria's Secret, and leading fast-fashion brands from Japan and Sweden.

The business, which was previously part of then Sesdaq-listed general contracting firm Futuristic Group, was subsequently bought out by Mr Low in 2006. The listed entity was renamed SingXpress Land Ltd, and then SingHaiyi Group Ltd, focusing on property development.

DISCIPLINED AND DETERMINED

The tough environment in which I grew up shaped me to be who I am today - someone who is disciplined, will not take 'No' for an answer, and has the determination to see things through to the end.

MR DAVID LOW, founder and CEO of Futuristic.

Futuristic has grown its employees to more than 700 globally, compared with only a hundred a decade ago. It has rolled out over 7,000 retail stores across 56 countries, and owns combined manufacturing and warehousing space of almost 56,000 sq m in Malaysia and China.

HAPPINESS QUOTIENT

The important role that millenials play in the organisation can be seen in its Division Y club, set up in October 2015.

Division Y tries to create a conducive environment for the 20- somethings in Futuristic, providing them with avenues for creative expression, and helping them relate better to their older, more experienced colleagues. It also conducts promotional activities in selected colleges and universities in Nanjing, to boost awareness of the brand and facilitate hiring of fresh talent.

Current projects include an exclusive WeChat social media platform for Division Y's 16 members, and installing a high-tech robot that will perform simple tasks and greet staff while roaming the factory floors.

"These activities inject a spirit of fun and youthful enthusiasm into the company, which in turn boosts the happiness quotient of all employees," said Ms Nancy Gao, the 34-year-old leader of the club.

Underscoring the slightly offbeat atmosphere is a 40m by 5m graffiti wall in Futuristic's Malaysian plant, painted by a street artist.

CUTTING EDGE

Futuristic is also leveraging state- of-the-art technologies to drive productivity gains and broaden its marketing reach. Virtual reality tools allow the company to showcase products and facilities to prospective clients, while 3D-animation techniques improve workflows and manufacturing processes in its plants.

Harnessing the latest technology in mixed reality, it works with tech experts to create new environments and visualisations, including those that reduce response time in prototype-building for clients.

Last October, Mr Low was named Singapore's EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2016, and also clinched the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Award in Manufacturing Supply Chain.

Futuristic had a record year in 2016, generating revenues of nearly $70 million, which reflects a compounded annual growth rate of more than 20 per cent over the past three years.

DISRUPT YOURSELF

Mr Low acknowledges he has come a long way from being the 18- year-old who dropped out of school to help his father run the family's furniture business. At the time, he could barely string sentences in English, and struggled to interact with customers and suppliers.

Mr Low realised that in order to survive, he had to teach himself English. At the end of the day, it boils down to how much you really want to succeed, he pointed out. "The tough environment in which I grew up shaped me to be who I am today - someone who is disciplined, will not take 'No' for an answer, and has the determination to see things through to the end."

Such strength of character has allowed Mr Low to turn Futuristic from a plain-vanilla renovation firm into a thriving global consumer proxy.

In today's fast-changing, digitalised world, businesses need to constantly reinvent themselves. In other words, you must disrupt yourself, before you are disrupted, and ultimately left behind, he noted.

While global growth remains lacklustre, the company is not sitting still but investing heavily to tap future opportunities. "We're running at almost 100 per cent capacity now. We invested in machinery to boost productivity, and moved to a new facility in Malaysia this month, which will double our output by the second quarter of 2017," Mr Low said.

"We're increasing our production floor space in China, and that will also double our output in the first half of this year."

With North America accounting for more than 50 per cent of sales and Asia contributing about 20 per cent, Futuristic hopes to diversify its revenue base geographically. One option is to grow via mergers and acquisitions.

"Size matters today," Mr Low said.

The next step is to build a network of support services to cater to the expanding needs of global brands.

Futuristic is also eyeing a stake in a creative design outfit that is well-versed in retail concepts.

"As we diversify away from the US to focus more on Asia, several regional brands have asked us to provide interior design services, so this potential acquisition will add value to our core business," he said.

TECTONIC SHIFT

"Even with 4 per cent to 6 per cent global growth, the middle class will still expand, driven by China. And as the middle class expands, our (number of) customers will continue to grow," Mr Low added.

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the global middle class is forecast to nearly triple in size to 4.9 billion people between 2009 and 2030.

Two-thirds will be residents of the Asia-Pacific, with the majority located in China.

•This is an edited excerpt from Singapore Exchange's Kopi-C: The Company Brew column that features C-level executives of firms. A longer version can be found on SGX's My Gateway website: www.sgx.com/mygateway.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 28, 2017, with the headline ''Crazy ideas' are the future for Futuristic's CEO'. Print Edition | Subscribe