THE LIFE! INTERVIEW WITH Low Cheong Kee

The DIY man who built an empire

On why he has not moved on from Siglap Centre. Mr Low’s grandfather opened Chop Tian Seng in Geylang Road (above). -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF LOW CHEONG KEE
On why he has not moved on from Siglap Centre. Mr Low’s grandfather opened Chop Tian Seng in Geylang Road (above). -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF LOW CHEONG KEE
Mr Low Cheong Kee with his younger brother Cheong Yew. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF LOW CHEONG KEE
Mr Low Cheong Kee with his younger brother Cheong Yew. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF LOW CHEONG KEE
Home-Fix founder Low Cheong Kee started out as a one-man show and with his ability to adapt and transform, his business grew and grew. -- ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN
Home-Fix founder Low Cheong Kee started out as a one-man show and with his ability to adapt and transform, his business grew and grew. -- ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Low Cheong Kee set up his first Home-Fix shop in 1993 and now has 23 stores and counting

The rise of home-grown hardware store Home-Fix mirrors the evolution of the Singapore home from simple kampung dwellings to modern houses and high-rise apartments.

Before Home-Fix founder Low Cheong Kee was born, his grandfather opened Chop Tian Seng in Geylang Road, selling charcoal and chopped firewood in the early 1960s.

Later, in the 1970s, his parents saw how Singaporeans were moving out of kampungs and into HDB flats, and realised that paint, plumbing items and tools were in demand, while charcoal and firewood were going out of fashion. They added these items to the inventory for sale.

They also moved the store across the road to Geylang Serai Market after the original shop closed and renamed it Tian Seng Hardware And Paints Enterprise.

Two decades later, as homeowners flocked to malls to shop in air- conditioned comfort, Mr Low set up the first Home-Fix DIY store in Siglap Centre in 1993. He stocked up on the latest power tools and gadgets, and created new sections for gardening and home appliances over the years.

Today, he owns 23 Home-Fix stores in Singapore, including the newest one, Elements by Home-Fix at Marina Square, which has new and exclusive brands ranging from cookware to tools to home accents, as well as a Do-It-For-You department, where customers can talk to specialised product experts about home improvement needs.

Overseas, there are nine stores in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and he opened the brand's first franchised store in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in August. He will open another in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, later this month.

Adopt, adapt and improve seems to be Mr Low's mantra. He learnt to be versatile from his grandfather and parents, who he says never set out to create a hardware store empire.

The 50-year-old managing director says: "They were simple, honest folks who were trying to make a living. But they had to adapt and transform. If they didn't, they would die.

"One of the good things was that they were open to new ideas. When I took over the business and told them that they had to change the way they worked, they were alright with it."

Walk into any Home-Fix store here and you are likely to find it a fuss-free shopping trip, with helpful staff and a well-planned store layout - a far cry from his experience working at his parents' shop.

He was not expected to work full-time there but he helped out during busy periods such as the days leading up to Hari Raya, when the store would see "really good business".

But his parents ran the mom-and-pop store with a system they created themselves, which made it hard for him to understand how they kept track of prices and their stock of hardware items.

"They placed things wherever they wanted and didn't do stock taking. They inherited a complex coding system from my grandfather, which was confusing, and prices were never consistent.

"And they kept everything in their heads. They charged different people different prices and they would have to remember how much they charged each person so that it would be the same price when they returned."

Even as the eldest son - he has a sister who is six years younger than him and a brother who is three years younger - he was not expected to take over the family business, though his parents asked him to consider coming on board as they were getting on in years.

Business was good, good enough for the family to live in a three-room flat in Geylang Serai. In the late 1980s, his parents moved to Galaxy Towers condominium in Onan Road.

After an unremarkable few months as an operations executive for a chalet operator after national service in the late 1980s, he decided to join his parents at the shop, which was at Block 1 in Geylang Serai.

He also started a small handyman business with his uncle, as customers were requesting help with their painting and plumbing needs.

"My whole life centred on that L-shaped block, where our shop was. I didn't want to grow up, live and work in the same area all through my life. That thought scared me. Doing the business with my uncle allowed me to get out of the neighbourhood for a while."

At the same time, he was trying to change the way his parents ran the business. He hunted down individual items which were placed all over the shop, packed them all together and changed the way the merchandise was displayed.

"The changing process was a long and tedious one. Every day, I would take on a different area and rework everything from visual merchandising to store design. I had to classify all the items from the cutting tools to the paint so that customers could see them in a logical, presentable way."

He eventually settled into the business, though the crammed 800sq ft ground floor space annoyed him. There was also another 800sq ft of storage on the first floor and the routine of opening at 8am and dragging in the shelves at 6pm to close up for the day got to him.

Mr Low, who did his A levels at Siglap Secondary School, says: "I was very settled at the shop and things became routine. I hated pulling things in and out of the shop because I would often get hurt by the sharp edges of the shelves."

In 1992, while reading The Straits Times, he chanced upon an advertisement announcing the opening of Siglap Centre. He thought the area was a nice neighbourhood for expanding the business, as many houses were being built there.

His parents, while supportive, were unsure of how well he would do.

Mr Low, who snagged a prime location with a shop space on the ground floor at the main entrance, says: "I had to pay more than $4,000 rent for a 600sq ft unit. It was more than triple the price they were paying for their Geylang Serai unit.

"To them, it was very expensive. But they were supportive of what I wanted to do. I felt bad about leaving them to run the shop by themselves."

His parents continued running the Geylang business before retiring in 2002. His father died about five years ago, while his 69-year-old mother still lives in the same condominium.

It was a steep learning curve at the Siglap Centre shop, which he named Home-Fix - a simple name, which he put down to a "lack of imagination". The store sold hardware products and tools for people to fix up their own homes.

He started as a one-man show, working 12-hour days from 10am. He also opened the shop every day and had to beg his brother to take over operations when he went on a belated honeymoon with his wife, Erica Ong, 49, whom he married in 1991. The couple, who have no children, live in a 1,700 sq ft condominium apartment in Siglap.

The do-it-yourself culture in Singapore was at its infancy when he got Home-Fix started and customers often asked him what DIY meant. They would also ask for discounts, even though the items had price tags, and he would give in.

In the first two years, he says business was slow, so he focused on creating a loyal customer base, and finding out what they needed. With landed properties in Siglap, he realised that homeowners needed gardening tools as well, so he created a section for that.

The same business acumen applied to future stores, and he would curate the offerings based on store locations. For example, he stocked up on indoor plants in outlets nearer flats. To attract more women customers, he held a Ladies' Nite at the company's flagship store in Marina Square in 2010, where staff did special product demonstrations and offered promotions.

He also made good friends among the shopkeepers at Siglap Centre, and the owner of the game shop above him told him he was expanding to Tanglin Mall in Orchard, which enticed Mr Low.

His brother, Cheong Yew, quit his job in the insurance industry to join him, and together, they expanded Home-Fix into its second outlet.

After manning the store while his brother was away, Mr Low Cheong Yew became hooked on the business. So when asked to come on board Home-Fix, he was game.

"And we've never looked back," says Mr Low, 47, who says working with his brother is a great partnership. Their sister runs hardware shop DIY Essentials in Sembawang Drive, though the businesses are not related.

"We don't work for each other. Instead, we make up for each other's shortcomings. He's a great public relations person, who's good with meeting people and talking to them. I'm better with the details such as accounting. We complement each other."

Six months after they got into the groove of their Tanglin operations, a juicy opportunity, too good to pass up, came their way.

Former Ikea Singapore managing director Sten Lunden invited the brothers to set up shop at the Swedish furniture giant's Alexandra outlet. He had seen their store in Tanglin Mall and liked the concept, and wanted them to open a shop, along with other businesses such as a florist and magazine store.

Mr Low says: "We had just opened our second outlet at that time, but we decided to go for it. Young Singaporeans were setting up their homes and were heading to Ikea. We were in the right place. It was our best store at that time, and finally, we didn't need to explain what DIY is.

"The Ikea store transformed our business."

He credits part of the success to hiring a branding consultant and learning how to market his stores. It sparked off a steady - and profitable - expansion.

As Home-Fix celebrated its 20th year last year, it took in about $40 million from its Singapore and Malaysian operations.

Now, its headquarters, regional logistics and training hub, and product development facility are in a 124,000 sq ft, seven-storey building in Tai Seng.

Listening to market needs, he converted two floors of Home-Fix's headquarters into Home-Fix XPC, a workshop and co-working space with specialised equipment for hobbyists, makers and professionals. There is a prototyping lab, an electronics room which has power tools and a workshop area.

He has had to close down some stores, including one in Jakarta, Indonesia, last year. With high rental costs and man- power issues a perennial problem, he says matter-of-factly: "If we can't achieve a sales target, we have to close. Relationship with tenants and landlords is of a different dimension now. In the early days, it was more personal, but being personal doesn't pay the rent.

"Money speaks a lot."

The company has 240 employees in Singapore. He constantly encourages them to upgrade their skills and new hires are put through a three- to six-year training programme.

The company also has a huge focus on corporate social responsibility. Mr Low's wife, Ms Ong, is the corporate social responsibility manager at Home-Fix.

Some programmes they have worked on include renovating homes of needy families for Hari Raya Puasa and opening up Elements by Home-Fix at Marina Square to students of NorthLight School so they can get hands-on retail experience. At Spectra and Crest secondary schools, Home-Fix has set up learning laboratories where students get a simulated retail experience.

Retail consultant Philip Wee, 68, says the spirit of giving back has always been ingrained in Mr Low, "way before it became a buzzword". They met when Mr Wee was the general manager at Ikea's Alexandra Road store, and the two have been friends since.

Mr Wee says: "If Ikea was doing something for the community in the Bukit Merah area and asked him to sponsor something, there would be no hesitation. Giving was something which was quite natural to him."

With 23 stores and counting, it looks like Mr Low is on his way to setting up 30 - the number of stores he wanted to open when he first opened the store in Siglap.

And it looks there is no stopping him. He already has plans for the direction of Home-Fix, to cater to homeowners in the future.

The avid golfer and traveller says: "I want Home-Fix to be more than just a DIY store. It should move towards selling more aspirational things such as wellness and lifestyle products which will better people's homes, such as air purifiers and anti-dust mite pillows, not just tools for fixing things. We have to move up the value chain."

natashaz@sph.com.sg