People

Staying with Courts through thick and thin

Mr O'Connor began his career with Courts in 1993 as a director of electrical buying, before moving up the ranks to his present position as Courts Asia's group chief executive. Under his watch, Courts operates more than 80 stores - 15 here - across th
Mr O'Connor began his career with Courts in 1993 as a director of electrical buying, before moving up the ranks to his present position as Courts Asia's group chief executive. Under his watch, Courts operates more than 80 stores - 15 here - across three markets, with more than 1.6 million sq ft of retail space.ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

CEO becomes a 'father' to the business in troubled times and nurses it back to health

When retail boss Terry O'Connor first joined Courts Singapore, he looked at its first managing director Christopher Wade and felt he could never emulate his record. Yet, he has done just that.

Mr Wade is something of a legend around Courts. He was sent here to open its first store in 1974 and ran the show until he left in 1990.

"The idea that this guy was with the company for 16 years; I thought, 'Wow, that will never be me'," said Mr O'Connor.

But he, too, has clocked up an impressive stint at Courts Singapore, beginning in 1993 as a director of electrical buying at the age of 25 before moving up the ranks to his present position as Courts Asia's group chief executive.

Mr O'Connor, now 47, left school at 17 to work. His career as a buyer began a year later, laying the foundation for his retail experience.

Later, he took the risk to move here from Liverpool and has been with Courts for most of his life, through thick and thin.

That is why he is sticking by the firm, even as rising costs, weak market sentiment and challenges from e-commerce attack the bottom line.

Group revenue has been slipping in recent years, coming in at $384.3 million in the six months to Sept 30 last year, down from the $409.7 million recorded in the same period in 2012. Courts Asia has a market capitalisation of about $175.8 million.

Singapore sales contributed 63.3 per cent of the group's sales for the six months, and dipped 2.6 per cent in the three months to Sept 30 last year, compared with the same period a year earlier, mainly due to lower sales across the categories.

Group net profit in the six months to Sept 30 last year was $12 million, down from $22.6 million in the same period in 2012.

The share price of the furniture and electronics retail giant has fallen by around 40 per cent since relisting in 2012.

Despite the middling figures, Mr O'Connor believes in the firm. After all, worse things have happened.

The litmus test came in 2004 when its British parent firm, known as a furniture retailer, was facing bankruptcy.

As Courts Singapore's managing director - a role he assumed in 2000, at the age of 32 - Mr O'Connor took charge of overhauling the Singapore operations with a team of 10 senior managers.

It included rebranding Courts as a consumer electronics retailer instead of just a furniture seller, and privatising and restructuring the company as Courts Singapore.

During that period, he stopped seeing himself as a mere manager and more of an entrepreneur who needed to save his baby. "With the events of 2004, you don't think like a corporate employee any more. It's more of an owner's mindset.

"Really, from that point onwards, I felt like a parent in many aspects, the person who's responsible for the family, and started to think more like an entrepreneur."

He fondly recalls what a long-time employee of Courts Singapore told him on the day he gathered the staff to share news of the parent firm's distress. "The longest-term employee, a lady by the name of Ms Stephanie Fong, said to me, 'You're our 'father' now.' That's a key point, as one of the things important to me was to be in front of my own management team and say, 'Look, I'm not going anywhere.' This is an opportunity, not a crisis."

Ms Fong, 59, who has been with Courts Singapore since 1975 and is now its senior manager of distribution, remembers those tough times like it was yesterday.

"Back then, it was the saddest news I heard," she told The Straits Times. "I went to my desk and started crying silently because I had so much passion working with Courts and the British directors, especially the Cohen family (owners of the Courts PLC business, then a majority shareholder of Courts Singapore).

"The feeling was similar to the loss of our parents. I told Terry that he had to be the father of Courts Singapore, and all of us would need his leadership to bring Courts to greater heights. I believed in him and saw his potential."

Ms Fong said Mr O'Connor lived up to that monicker, unleashing his potential as he demonstrated "leadership with care and passion, and remained committed to the business from that day onwards".

She called him a man of his word, and that "his assurance to lead the business to success together with us came true".

Mr O'Connor made sure to tell his team that the Asian operations were different from Britain's, that they were operating in a more modern manner and "this was our opportunity to create the kind of business that potentially wouldn't have been allowed before".

That was how, bit by bit, he and his management nursed Courts back to health, eventually relisting the company as Courts Asia on the Singapore Exchange in October 2012.

Mr O'Connor has an easy camaraderie with employees, who cheerfully call him by his given name, as he moves around the Tampines store.

Mutual respect is important to the group chief executive, something he never forgets, even during store visits. "When you go to a store, first of all, it's important to connect with the manager and give the manager 'face'. It's his or her business."

Mr O'Connor, a Singapore permanent resident who is married with a son and daughter, is no micro manager. If he spots a problem with the store, he will let the manager know and let them make the changes required to improve.

"I don't think there's any point in going to the store, and tearing people apart or ripping into people. That's not my style. But I might, if I go back and they haven't fixed it. Mistakes are allowable, but not addressing the mistake isn't."

Under his watch, Courts operates more than 80 stores - 15 here - across three markets, with more than 1.6 million sq ft of retail space.

There are 62 stores in Malaysia, with two new outlets opening there by the end of March. Indonesia welcomed two new stores in January and should have nine by the first quarter of 2017, he said.

"We recognise that the share price will move up and down, sometimes based on performance, sometimes based on market sentiment. I think the healthiest thing for us to do is to just focus on the business."

He added: "The upturn in South-east Asian markets always comes. We're in this game for the long term and we're used to going through cycles. In the interim, we'll focus on strong cost and margin management, people development and planting seeds for the long-term growth of the company."

He let slip a little secret that would have changed the course of Courts forever, if it had panned out.

"I did resign in 1996. I did three years (in Courts) and said I wanted to go back to Britain.

"But I was persuaded by the then group chief executive to rescind my resignation. He said there were long-term plans for me and I'd be given a bigger commercial role. So I did and I decided to stay."

And that is how Mr O'Connor came to call both Courts and Singapore home.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 08, 2016, with the headline 'People Staying with Courts through thick and thin'. Print Edition | Subscribe