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Gunning for the next big sale

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 21, 2013

Diana Phee is petite and fair, with big doe eyes, long silky tresses and a soft, mellifluous voice.

Her demure demeanour is at odds with her occupation which is decidedly macho and aggressive: She runs a business peddling replica armours, swords and guns.

And the former cosmetics salesgirl, 37, is doing a pretty good job too. Caesar's - which her brother set up in 2000 and which specialises in collectible weaponry - was haemorrhaging and on the brink of collapse until she joined the business and took charge 10 years ago. Today, it has two shops, customers from all over the globe, and an annual turnover of more than $1 million.

This is not Ms Phee's first stab at a male-dominated industry. Prior to Caesar's, she traversed different time zones for several years negotiating deals and contracts for a manufacturer and supplier of electronic components.

"I've been working since I was 14. Including part-time work, I've probably held about 30 different kinds of jobs so nothing fazes me," says the mother of twin boys, aged 16 months.

The second of three children and the only daughter of a taxi driver and part-time seamstress, Ms Phee grew up in a three-room Ang Mo Kio Housing Board flat.

Her father's income afforded his children no indulgences so she started working part-time at 14 to earn extra pocket money.

"I worked weekends at Sunny Bookshop in Far East Plaza," she says, referring to the famous second hand bookstore which is now located in Plaza Singapura. "I'd get $16 for 10 hours of work."

The 30-month stint, she says, was invaluable.

"Although I was very young, I was entrusted to run the shop and handle the cash flow. I also learnt a lot from the owner," she says. "She knew what her customers read and would recommend books based on their preferences. It was a very personalised service, and I realised then if you put some thought into the needs of your customers, they would come back."

The former student of Da Qiao Primary and Anderson Secondary worked through her teens.

"Every school holiday, when other students were making plans to travel, I'd be panicking, trying to look for jobs," says Ms Phee.

"I've stood in HDB blocks counting the number of vehicles going into the Central Business District before ERP (Electronic Road Pricing) was introduced, I've made sales calls for property agents, I've worked in banks and insurance companies."

Ms Phee paid her own way for a business diploma at Temasek Polytechnic by giving tuition and working three days a week as a salesgirl for Japanese cosmetic company Shu Uemura.

"I would dress appropriately and rush to work after classes, from 3pm to 10pm," she recalls.

Juggling work with studies, she readily admits, was not easy.

"My grades when I was at the polytechnic were terrible," she says with embarrassment.

But it exposed her to different life experiences and gave her a level of maturity far beyond her years.

When she was 17, she sued a property company.

"I worked for them for three months, but they didn't pay me and owed me about $3,000. I reported them to the Ministry of Manpower, and I won but they didn't pay up. I was very disappointed but I didn't have the money to take the case further," she says.

Ms Phee got her diploma in 1996.

"Probably because I have worked so much, I realised that a poly diploma was not enough if I wanted to do well in life," she says.

So she applied to study international business at the University of Western Australia.

Before leaving for Perth, she held down two jobs - one at Shu Uemura and another at an interior design company - for six months, working seven days a week.

She left for Perth in 1996 with about $10,000 in savings. By scrimping and with some help from her parents who came into some money after selling their old flat and upgrading to a new one, she completed her degree in 1999.

"I decided I had to be disciplined; I didn't work at all. And I had the best results here, I aced almost all my subjects," she says with a quiet laugh.

Singapore, unfortunately, was reeling from the effects of the Asian financial crisis when she returned home.

"I sent out 80 to 90 applications, and got three interviews, two of which were for insurance sales," recalls Ms Phee who was not keen on the jobs she was offered.

To earn her keep, she became a store manager for Delifrance for half a year.

Ms Phee finally found a sales and marketing position with a company dealing in security systems.

"I was there for a year and a half but I learnt a lot. I had to make sales pitches to so many different companies, and I came into contact with a lot of big-shot decision makers - from owners of factories to senior executives of banks and listed companies," she says.

She must have acquitted herself quite well. One of her clients poached her to do international sales for a manufacturer and supplier of electronic components.

Although not electronically savvy, she took on the job.

"I had a crash course to learn about what I was selling, what a motherboard was, how the different components worked and came together. After that, I was on my own."

It was a daunting start for a young woman who was tasked to market the company's products in Taiwan and South Korea.

"A lot of electronic components are made in Taiwan so it was like selling ice to the Eskimos," she says.

She netted no sales in the first two months and was close to despairing when she finally closed a deal worth US$500,000 (S$618,000).

The next contract she signed was worth more than US$1 million.

"After that, things just fell into place," she says.

The trick to survival, she says, was to go the extra mile.

"I did my homework. I tried to go beyond knowing how a motherboard worked. I studied how the different parts were mounted, what they could do, what the trends were. I had to show that I could do more than pitch a number," she says.

Being a woman in a male-dominated field, she adds, had its advantages.

"You don't have to know a lot more, you just have to learn a bit more because their expectations of you are so much lower," she says candidly.

"But you cannot be a bimbo lah. Don't pretend to know things when you don't and don't laugh things off. If you don't know, just admit it and say you will find out."

However, she's also had some unsavoury experiences.

One took place in Seoul and involved three Korean businessman who were trying to get distribution rights to her company's products.

"We were in a hotel cafe and when I didn't sign the deal, they refused to let me leave."

She quelled the tide of panic rising inside her by banging on the table and shouting at them.

"I told them I was going to make a phone call to my company and that if they didn't let me leave, they would definitely not get the distribution rights."

Ms Phee rose quickly through the ranks in her company. By the second year, her portfolio had expanded and she was travelling regularly to the United States and China to work with manufacturers, distributors and technology companies on new products and designs.

The regional sales manager - one of five sales staff - was also responsible for more than 40 per cent of her company's total sales.

Although she was doing extremely well, she decided to throw in the towel after three years. The death of a close friend had a lot to do with her decision.

"He called me twice while I was travelling. I told him I could talk but he felt bad about imposing. Then one day, just before I went into a meeting, I got a phone call telling me he had died suddenly in his sleep.

"He was only 28. We used to celebrate our birthdays together but ever since he died, I stopped celebrating mine," says Ms Phee.

"I told myself there must be more to life than a good sales record. My parents were getting old and I didn't even have time to spend the money I earned."

After quitting, she took a six-month break from work. In 2003, her brother got her to help out at Caesar's which he had set up three years earlier.

After going through the books, she discovered the company was more than $40,000 in the red.

"There was no money in the bank account, the business could close any time," says Ms Phee.

She injected $30,000 of her savings into Caesar's, cleared the inventory, scaled down the operations and created a system.

"I kept the staff but closed one shop, reduced the size of the office and the warehouse and went without a salary for eight months," says Ms Phee.

She also set out to repair relationships with suppliers and manufacturers, which had been soured by bad debts.

"It was very painful but it had to be done," she adds.

To get a firm grasp of the replica weaponry business, she worked on the shop floor to talk to customers, went online to do research and started reading up on the products in trade and hobbyist magazines.

"When I first took over, the shop stocked mostly guns - mainly replicas of museum pieces - and some Japanese swords," she says.

She started to travel to trade fairs, mostly in the United States, to scour for more products.

Slowly, she began rebuilding the business. Today, Caesar's has two stores - one in Plaza Singapura and one in JCube - which stock replicas and miniature versions of armour, cannons, Japanese and Chinese swords and antique rifles and pistols. Some of the biggest sellers are limited editions of mediaeval weapons from movies such as The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit.

Her database of clients - who have to be 18 years old and above - now number more than 10,000. They run the gamut from hawkers to businessmen and international collectors who shell out princely sums for these pieces, some of which meet museum standards and take international artisans months to craft.

"I've just sold two replicas of Emperor Yongle's sword from the Ming Dynasty. They are crafted in China, and take more than four months to make. Each sword costs more than $20,000," says Ms Phee, who also stages exhibitions and organises talks and roadshows to promote her products.

Communications and process manager Sharon Tan, 37, has known her for more than 10 years.

"She is a very determined person. She literally built the business from scratch, which is not easy. She has a never-say-die attitude, she is never afraid to try new things."

Ms Phee - who is three months pregnant with her third child - says her derring-do comes in part from her attempts to start a family.

Married to a civil servant, she went through at least seven operations and very painful IVF treatments before she gave birth to her twins in 2011.

In fact, she not only lost a baby but also nearly lost her own life three years ago when she suffered an infection four months into her pregnancy.

"I lost 40 per cent of my blood. When you've been through something like that, your perspective changes.

"I used to be a control freak but I take more risks now. Nothing is too difficult."

kimhoh@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 21, 2013

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