Family-owned shoe brand Heatwave taking business into digital age

Managing director of family-owned shoe brand Heatwave, Ms Elizabeth Tan, might just be 30, but do not dismiss her as an entitled heir.

The brand was started by her father, Mr Tan Guan Huat, 61, in 2001 as his first retail venture, following 16 years in the business of designing and manufacturing shoes for companies such as Tangs Studio.

But despite growing up around shoes, Ms Tan, a National University of Singapore history graduate, initially did not intend to join the business.

"I'd seen the long hours that my dad put in to build the brand and was quite hesitant to do the same," says Ms Tan, who is married and has a three-year-old daughter. "I didn't think the entrepreneur's life was for me."

But the myriad part-time jobs she held and the small business ventures she started to fund her university education - from an events business to selling credit card plans - inadvertently sparked her own interest in entrepreneurship.

She put that business savvy to good use when she decided to join the family business at age 23, almost immediately spotting a big problem in the traditionally run company.

"Because my dad's expertise was not in branding, we were selling too many different types of shoes without a niche that our younger consumer could zoom in on," Ms Tan says.

To rectify the situation, she spent two years streamlining the product categories to focus more on their best-selling pumps and worked on improving the sole and inner lining for their shoes.

She also worked on branding - changing the logo, store layouts and locations to target the 21st-century executive woman.

Her efforts culminated in 2009 with a new store at Wisma Atria, featuring the brand's new and improved shoes and a clean layout that showcased its pumps. But Ms Tan was already looking beyond Singapore's shores.

"As a small business, we were facing high rents, labour shortages and competition for good location spaces in Singapore. To keep the business going, I knew we needed to go international."

That is something she did over the next six years - successfully franchising the brand in countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia and Qatar. She is also in Saudi Arabia and the Philippines.

It has not always been easy. Ms Tan cites finding out that their Taiwan franchisee was copying their designs and selling them under another brand as a big lesson.

"It taught me that expanding the brand shouldn't come at the cost of good partnerships and protecting the company's intellectual property rights," she says.

Still, she has reason to celebrate. The brand now has 53 stores, including nine in Singapore, with plans to move into Dubai and India in the next year.

Her foresight also helped the company prepare for the digital revolution, starting with the integration of technology into the business in 2012.

"It was a challenge because we were primarily a brick and mortar store so there was lots of resistance to the move. But I could already see that the Internet was changing retail," she says.

She pushed for the firm to increase its social media presence and started Heatwave's online retail store - something she cites as one of her proudest achievements.

"Because our brand has been built by word of mouth, the online movement has let us interact closely with this mini tribe of loyal customers," she says.

Her 27-year-old brother handles the e-commerce for the company.

Ms Tan's forward-thinking does not just stop there. She has also used her global presence to give back to the community - working with her franchise partners to do everything from feeding street kids in Indonesia to launching a free health clinic in Myanmar.

"Building a company with a strong social conscience was important to me, as it is to many of our young, 21st-century consumers," Ms Tan says. "The business is my platform to give back."

It seems even her more traditional father has come on board with the changes she has championed.

When asked about his daughter's contributions over the past seven years, Mr Tan says proudly: "We have to appeal to the younger generation to keep the brand relevant and fresh. Thanks to Elizabeth's contributions, I feel that we have a brighter future."

avarma@sph.com.sg