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Making jewellery affordable for all

Mr Michael Teo, managing director of TLV Holdings, the parent company of Taka Jewellery and Lovis Diamonds, will always remember his youngest customer, a nine-year-old girl who bought a $9 pearl pendant which included a small piece of diamond for her
Mr Michael Teo, managing director of TLV Holdings, the parent company of Taka Jewellery and Lovis Diamonds, will always remember his youngest customer, a nine-year-old girl who bought a $9 pearl pendant which included a small piece of diamond for her mother.ST PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN

Jeweller co-founder's vision helps firm grow to 21 local outlets, supply to over 50 countries

He has been in the jewellery business for 18 years and seen customers come and go, but he will always remember the youngest.

A nine-year-old girl showed up at Taka Jewellery's outlet in Somerset with a $100 note, wanting to buy a Mother's Day present.

She left with a $9 pearl pendant with a setting that included a small piece of diamond.

KEEPING PRICES LOW

Typically, jewellers in Singapore can buy only 10 to 20 per cent of what their suppliers want to sell, because they have only the local market... But I also have the South-east Asia, East Asia, Middle East, Europe and American markets to sell to.

MR MICHAEL TEO, co-founder of Taka Jewellery, on how the firm can price its jewellery so low

While that happened many years ago, it continues to support the vision of the firm's co-founder, Mr Michael Teo: To make jewellery affordable for everyone.

He can do this simply because he buys what the suppliers want to sell, Mr Teo told The Straits Times in a recent interview.

Mr Teo is managing director of TLV Holdings, the parent company of Taka Jewellery and Lovis Diamonds, which listed on the Catalist board in September.

"Typically, jewellers in Singapore can buy only 10 to 20 per cent of what their suppliers want to sell, because they have only the local market... But I also have the South-east Asia, East Asia, Middle East, Europe and American markets to sell to."

TLV Holdings is one of a few jewellers with a wholesale business, which makes up about 50 per cent of sales revenue. The company takes part in 20 to 30 global jewellery exhibitions yearly under its Taka Jewellery and Voi brand names and supplies to more than 50 countries. Mr Teo still goes to some of these exhibitions.

It is reminiscent of the approach he takes to his business, which involved much pavement-pounding.

TLV's general manager of its Singapore business, Ms Julia Tan, recalled: "After office hours or when the paperwork was cleared, he'd go down to the outlets till about 10pm, closing time."

What would he do? Said Mr Teo: "I'd stand outside the outlet, to observe and analyse: How to invite the customer in, why they go in or why they don't. And if they go in, why do they buy, what sort of things do they buy? If they don't buy, why?... I observe how our staff serves them."

It was on one such occasion that he saw the young customer.

All these observations helped his strategic thinking, even down to details such as what type of commission structure works.

Ms Tan said Mr Teo likes to mingle with ground staff to hear from them. It is no wonder that many of his staff are still with the company after several years. Apart from Ms Tan and another general manager, three other operations managers have been with the firm for more than 10 years. Even on the ground, there are many staff members who have stayed with the business for at least five years.

The ability to observe and seize opportunities had made Mr Teo a master of various businesses even before he set up Taka Jewellery.

After finishing secondary school, he started out as an apprentice for Je Taime Jewellery, a jewellery manufacturer, in 1971. He worked as a craftsman for two to three years before starting his own manufacturing factory that supplied jewellery to retailers.

"I could afford to do so, because when I worked as an apprentice, the company let us keep 20 per cent wastage. But actual wastage depends on whether an individual knows how to save... During that time, I tried to produce more to get more wastage. And from what I saved, I started the factory," said Mr Teo.

As a result of an incident with a former partner, however, he closed it down and started a plywood laminating factory instead, running it for more than 10 years. That came about because his brother in the plywood wholesaling business saw an opportunity.

Mr Teo then went on to start a non-ferrous metal scrap business - dealing in import and export of non-ferrous scrap - and concentrated on computer scrap, which he would import from Japan and the United States and re-export to China.

"I found there was some precious metal content, so I started a small factory in China to refine the precious metal. But as it was not an open market and we had to sell at a much lower price, I decided to produce jewellery casing. It did well, so I felt I could start my own jewellery manufacturing business again."

He started out as a wholesaler, but found that collection from retailers was slow. He then started the first shop in Clementi in 2001.

Today, TLV has 21 retail outlets. Net profit rose from $8 million in its 2013 financial year to $8.5 million last year and $10.7 million in the year to March 31. The company has about 190 employees, including 60 to 70 at its headquarters in Kaki Bukit.

Ms Tan says the firm is always on the lookout to expand, although it is also very careful in evaluating where to open an outlet. "For the international business, we always want to participate in more fairs, and to sell more at every fair."

When it comes to designing their jewellery, a team led by the general manager of exhibitions, Ms Irene Ng, collects information on trends. The team then discusses with the company's sub-contractors, who produce the jewellery.

What does Mr Teo enjoy about this business? It is the joy of getting a good deal, and getting that for his customers.

Ms Tan shared an anecdote: "Before, you could, maybe, get a one-carat diamond at $6,000. And we told Mr Teo that customers wanted to buy one-carat diamonds.

"But he said he had checked and it's $7,000, so he wouldn't be buying. This is even though other retailers were selling at $10,000 and we could still make money... But he said he wouldn't be doing this kind of thing."

Initially, the staff had doubts - why was he giving up this chance of making money?

"But ultimately, his view is, if you can't give consumers the best deal, he would rather not do the deal, " she said.

Indeed, Mr Teo's foremost wish now is for the public to be educated on value. "We are trying to sell at a good price," he explained, the memory of the nine-year-old customer still vivid in his mind.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 02, 2015, with the headline 'Making jewellery affordable for all'. Print Edition | Subscribe