The Life! interview: Shoe label Pazzion's founder Tom Ng

Mr Ng, aged 25, with his father, Mr Ng Chue Seng, at his brother’s home in Perth. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF TOM NG
Mr Ng, aged 25, with his father, Mr Ng Chue Seng, at his brother’s home in Perth. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF TOM NG
Mr Tom Ng, aged two, on his mother’s lap, with his brother and two sisters at Seletar Reservoir. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF TOM NG
Mr Tom Ng, aged two, on his mother’s lap, with his brother and two sisters at Seletar Reservoir. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF TOM NG
Fresh designs are a priority for Mr Tom Ng and he often flips through women’s fashion magazines to see what is hot in the market. -- ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI
Fresh designs are a priority for Mr Tom Ng and he often flips through women’s fashion magazines to see what is hot in the market. -- ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

Founder Tom Ng has loved footwear since his days as a student

Mechanical engineering might have been Tom Ng's chosen career path, but creating a shoe empire turned out to be his true passion.

He always had a soft spot for shoes. In the early 1990s, as a student at Oregon State University in the United States, he saved up his pocket money to amass a "sizeable collection" of the wildly popular Nike high-tops, among other sneakers.

His love for shoes would come full circle almost a decade later when he ventured out of the corporate world to become the owner of his own shoe brand.

Today, the 44-year-old is the founder and director of Pazzion (pronounced pah-zzon), the trendy, home-grown shoe label. There are eight Pazzion stores in various malls, all of which opened in the last 10 years. Its Wisma Atria store is the brand's flagship.

It is also franchised around the world in countries such as Japan, Mauritius, South Korea and Russia. Thailand alone has more than 18 Pazzion stores.

Recalling the early days when he picked up his shoe habit, he says he loved being in touch with shoe trends, even then.

He says: "Like most students, I didn't have much spare cash but given a choice, I always splurged on shoes over other things such as video games or gadgets."

His foray into the entrepreneurial world was perhaps influenced by his father, who ran an export company selling luggage wholesale for 30 years.

The family of six lived in a kampung-style house with a zinc roof in Mandai until he was 12. They then moved to a terrace house in the east. He is the youngest of four children.

He has two older sisters, aged 52 and 49, and an older brother, 46, a pilot instructor based in Australia. Their mother, Madam Tan Mui Kiang, is a housewife.

Mr Ng, who excelled at drawing and painting as a child, remembers his childhood days as being carefree and simple.

"Our neighbours were farmers who reared chickens and pigs, or they grew rambutans and durians. On weekends, my mother took us to explore the Botanic Gardens or Seletar Reservoir."

Turning 16 marked the start of his independence as his father sent him abroad to study mechanical engineering, and join his second sister, who was studying for a finance degree, in Oregon. She graduated three months after Mr Ng arrived and returned home.

Mr Ng, who studied at Broadrick Secondary School, says: "I was pretty much on my own. It was a fun time because I could do whatever I wanted." He remembers he and his friends driving to the beach or Las Vegas for weekend jaunts. But he kept his grades up and was on the Dean's List for three years out of the four that he was there.

After graduating at age 20, he came home for national service.

Soon after finishing the 21/2-year stint, he worked as a project sales executive for a local construction firm, which specialised in soundproofing works for venues such as movie theatres, auditoriums and music-recording studios.

He says: "I did have an interest in engineering, so it was a natural progression to work in the field. I thought I would expose myself to the industry, but they offered me a position in sales and managing projects, so I tried my hand at it."

After two years, he quit and joined an American oil and gas company, working in sales in the fibreglass piping department. When he left three years later, he had risen through the ranks to manage the company's sales portfolio for part of the Asia-Pacific region.

While at the American company, he did a part-time graduate diploma course in business administration at the Singapore Institute of Management.

Mr Ng, who completed it in 15 months, says: "My first two jobs ended up being non-engineering related. I wanted to learn more, to further my knowledge of the business side of things."

He wanted to further his studies but his second sister asked him to join her three-year-old shoe business. He weighed his choices carefully and decided to embark on a new career path.

"At 26, I had just been promoted to area sales manager, and I had the opportunity to oversee a portfolio of clients across the Asia-Pacific region," he says. "I was happy with my job, but when my sister called, I said yes. I thought it would be a good challenge."

He plunged headfirst into the business, handling everything from opening new stores to marketing the products to helping out on the sales floor.

"There was little competition at that time, so expansion was relatively fast. But it wasn't easy to run our own shoe business. We had to source for factories, oversee entire collections and hunt for manpower. Every day was a new challenge and I learnt the fundamentals of how to do business and handle customers. My earlier jobs prepared me for this because, essentially, I was interacting with people and their needs, just that the product was different."

Perhaps the huge responsibility emboldened him and, three years later, he started his own business.

He declines to name his sister or her home-grown business, which has five stores here and others overseas.

"From Day 1, I didn't want the support of being affiliated to any company. I started Pazzion with just my own savings and skills and I want the company to continue standing on its own merits."

He adds that he and his sister are close, even if they are rivals in business.

"I think the market is big enough for more than one shoe brand. We each have our own direction," he says. "So we don't talk about business at home. Being a business owner herself and knowing my passion for shoes, my sister knew where I was coming from."

He had sought advice from his father, Mr Ng Chue Seng, 75, who encouraged him to do his own thing.

His father describes him as being kind and mild-tempered and says: "I knew he wanted to try his hand at his own business and see if he could succeed based on his own merit. I used to run my own business as well, so I know what it feels like to want to achieve that. I gave him my blessings and told him to go for it."

Mr Ng put in $50,000 - his entire life savings at that time - to start a men's shoe label, which did not need much capital or space at the start.

With his knowledge of the shoe industry, he felt that there was a lack of well-made, stylish men's shoes in the market at the time.

"Most were black or dark brown and had a corporate look. There were limited options for casual shoes."

He worked out of a 500 sq ft office in Genting Lane and, to supplement his income, also dabbled in the export business. As a middleman, he manufactured shoes for companies from Japan and Australia.

The men's label, Barcode, opened its first outlet on the ground floor of Far East Plaza. He did everything from directing the concept to designing the look of the shoes. Barcode had so much traction that the management of Bugis Junction approached him to open a store there. Later, he opened consignment counters at Tangs Orchard and one in a men's apparel shop at The Heeren.

He says: "It all happened in just a year. We offered something that was refreshing and, at that time, with little choice for men's shoes, it excited buyers to see our designs."

He travelled often to Europe and Japan for work then and found the trends in women's shoes here wanting.

"I felt that the Asian market was behind the fashion trends of that time. We mainly had strappy sandals or slip-ons. I wanted to bring something else to the market."

Opening a women's shoe store meant closing down Barcode's operations.

"It was doing well, but there was so much potential in the market when I started Pazzion, much more than in men's shoes. Given my limited resources and knowing how tedious it was for me to come up with new designs for a ladies' line, I closed Barcode."

He approached Marina Square's management - the mall in the Marina Bay area was undergoing a revamp in 2005 - to set up the first Pazzion store.

Even with a leap of faith, he was sure that the brand, with its sparkly ballerina flats and classic high heels made with quality leather, would do well.

"I was pretty confident that the Singaporean consumer would like what I presented. It was different from other shoe stores."

Taking a chance paid off handsomely for him. About three months into the venture, he was approached to open a store in Wisma Atria. Shortly after, Bugis Junction's management asked him to set up shop there too.

Since then, the brand has grown steadily, opening its eighth store in VivoCity last year. It also has at least a 20 per cent increase in revenue year on year annually.

Its product line has also expanded significantly, with a variety of leather accessories such as bags, wallets and wristlets, in addition to shoes.

In 2011, he added a Mother & Baby collection, so women could dress their daughters, aged 18 months to seven years old, in smaller versions of adult shoes. The concept was so popular that it is now a permanent line, with new designs released every Spring-Summer and Fall- Winter season, in conjunction with the adult collection.

Putting out fresh designs is a top priority for him and he often looks through women's fashion magazines to see what is hot in the market, says his older sister, Ms Ng Mui Heong, operations manager at Pazzion

In 2005, he asked his sister, then a housewife, to join him.

Ms Ng, who has a hospitality degree from Switzerland, says: "In most areas, Tom is a typically manly guy. It's funny to see him flipping through women's fashion magazines and checking out shoes.

"He is always talking about shoes. Like most women, I love shoes and I own more pairs than I probably should. But Tom's obsession with shoes makes my shoeaholic tendencies look like nothing."

Mr Ng has about 20 pairs of shoes, including a pair of classic brown loafers from Tod's.

While he jetsets around the world managing the brand's franchises, liaising with factories and attending trade shows, he visits the stores whenever he is in town.

The store manager at Wisma Atria, Ms Elaine Ng, 37, who was his first hire when he opened Barcode, says that he pitches in to help at the cashier's or attend to customers when the stores get busy.

She says: "He treats the staff like family. He has a list of everyone's birthday and, if he's in town and free, he will buy a cake to celebrate that person's birthday."

He also started the company's corporate social responsibility activities, including designing a limited-edition Pink Ribbon Shoe for Breast Cancer Awareness in October for the last two years. Last year, he created the company's philanthropic arm, called Pazzion Cares, working with the Singapore Children's Society and the Happy Angel Organisation, with staff pitching in to pack and deliver care packages to the low-income elderly.

Mr Ng is a self-confessed workaholic but the arrival of his daughter, Crystal, two years ago mellowed him, and he finds himself making more time for his child.

He is married to Ms Ruby Wong, 34, a supply chain manager for the brand. The couple met in 2004 when he started working with her manufacturing company in Guangzhou, China. They started dating in 2008 and got married two years later. The couple live with his parents in a terrace house in Serangoon Gardens.

Even as he has excelled at running his ever-expanding business, raising a child as a first-time parent often throws him curveballs.

He says: "For now, the next and possibly biggest chapter in my life is being a father. I want to show Crystal the world and to inspire her to pursue her dreams the same way I have pursued mine."

natashaz@sph.com.sg