SME Spotlight

To be a cut above the rest in the hairdressing trade

Mr Toh, Tai Wah Distributors' CEO, will next year introduce the Tuft Power Station, a hairstyling device that uses a high-powered motor to deliver powerful heated air through a hose which can fit a hairdryer nozzle, curlers and brushes.
Mr Toh, Tai Wah Distributors' CEO, will next year introduce the Tuft Power Station, a hairstyling device that uses a high-powered motor to deliver powerful heated air through a hose which can fit a hairdryer nozzle, curlers and brushes.ST PHOTO: DON CHI

The productivity push is a necessary force in Singapore's slowing economy, and it can make good business sense as well. In the last of a four-part series about SMEs that help other firms achieve greater productivity, Marissa Lee speaks to Tai Wah Distributors' chief executive Toh Kok Swee, who works with hairdressers to improve their productivity.

Q You're an accountant by training. How did you get into the hairdressing trade?

A I had no choice, it's a sad story. I was an accountant, I was very successful with my practice, and Tai Wah was my customer.

The shareholders of Tai Wah were growing old. I was their consultant, so I gathered the investors and venture capitalists, and they bought everybody else out.

But then the business was not well-run. They decided to sack the CEO, and then they came to me and said, "you got us in, get us out".

This was in the 80s. I had a lot of money at that time, I was very successful, in my early 30s.

In a moment of anger, I said "okay, I'll buy all of you out".

So I sold four semi-detached houses right on the top of Serangoon Gardens and raised the $6 million I needed to buy the shares of the others.

Q Tell us about some of the products you've developed for hairdressing salons.

A Next year, we're introducing the Tuft Power Station.

Imagine a hairdresser, sitting and struggling with three long cables for a hair dryer, hair iron and hair curler. The Tuft Power Station makes it easier for hairdressers to switch from one piece of equipment to another by introducing a single handle to fit many different hair styling tools.

We've also developed the I-Mat, which makes hairstyling work easier with the introduction of fast heating, cordless hairstyling appliances.

Q Has it always been your business model to come up with new hairdressing innovations?

A We started (doing this) in 2011 and our objectives have always remained the same: To improve the productivity of hairdressers, and to teach them to harness technology to provide better services.

I spend all my profits from the OEM (original equipment manufacturing) business coming up with new products for our in-house Tuft brand.

The people who make all this equipment, not all are positive-looking. They are not looking at new technology, going into the market to look at new products, or study them...

Q Is that what you do?

A All the time. We go to all the major exhibitions, and the first thing we do when we get to one, is to go around the whole exhibition to find the newest things.

We buy them, never mind that we pay an arm and a leg, and we break them apart and we study them - how can we do better?

We have a competitive advantage because we realised that a lot of equipment makers do not have a wet-product background - they do not understand how a wet product will react with their equipment or machine, but we do.

And that gives us a hell of an advantage over them.

Q What does Tai Wah's revenue growth look like?

A Right now we're doing like US$16 million (S$22 million) a year. I'm looking to do US$40 million in five years. I think it's achievable.

We have three new products that will hit the market next year. Next year will be a very exciting year for me.

We've also just come up with our latest hairdryer, and I think we probably have the strongest hairdryer in the trade today, and I think we're going to sell a whole lot of dryers.

Q Sometimes the most surprising opportunities arise from investments in new innovations. I heard that pet grooming shops have also taken an interest in the Tuft Power Station. Can you tell us more?

A The Tuft Power Station uses a single high-powered motor to deliver powerful heated air through a hose that can fit a hair dryer nozzle, curlers, brushes.

It generates 14 metres per second of air, the same as a normal hair dryer, even though the hose stretches over a metre.

So when I showed them (the dog groomers) this, they were all wowed, because they'd never thought of this, and it's a very nice effect, especially in winter when you want to shower your dogs and they want to be warm.

There are similar products in the market, but their applications are quite different.

For example, they use a huge force - the dog must be scared - it's very powerful, it literally hits the dog very hard. For a big dog, it's fine; but for a small dog, it must be scared to death because it's very powerful.

Q How long did it take you to build the Tuft Power Station?

A (Chuckles.) Really, a long time. More than two years.

Q You showed me a new modular trolley you designed but cannot patent, and shared that your very popular detangler brushes have been copied by Chinese companies. Why innovate when ideas are so easily stolen?

A By the time people get to copying my trolley, I'm onto something else.

Here's why. I'm putting in a vacuum cleaner at the base of this trolley, so you can suck up hair after cutting it. But I will keep introducing improvements to this trolley.

Whatever we do, it cannot stop there. We've just got to keep improving and doing new things and leveraging on what we already have done.

Q What are your plans in the near future?

A We are setting up a new research and development centre in Singapore next year in Sims Drive.

We've also just set up our own Classics salon, to assist us in the trial of new products.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 02, 2016, with the headline 'To be a cut above the rest in the hairdressing trade '. Print Edition | Subscribe