Back from the brink, with steely resolve

TT International co-founder and deputy chief exec Julia Tong believes in facing challenges head-on and staying positive.
TT International co-founder and deputy chief exec Julia Tong believes in facing challenges head-on and staying positive.PHOTO: SINGAPORE EXCHANGE

There is a streak of steel in Julia Tong, the deputy CEO of SGX-listed electronics and furniture retailer TT International.

The straight-talking 55-year-old believes in facing challenges head-on and staying positive. Nonetheless, the years of trying to pull the company she co-founded with her husband, TTI's chairman and CEO Sng Sze Hiang, from the brink of insolvency have taken their toll.

"The last seven years have been very difficult," Myanmar-born Ms Tong acknowledged. In October 2008, TTI entered a standstill agreement with its creditors to undergo debt restructuring after sales plunged and liquidity dried up in the wake of the global financial crisis.

This was followed by a Scheme of Arrangement sanctioned by the Singapore High Court in October 2010. Schemes of Arrangement under the Companies Act have been increasingly used as alternatives to judicial management and liquidation of insolvent firms. "Our biggest challenge is to get the necessary funding to discharge the scheme, and once that happens, we'll be home free. Once we're out of the scheme, the rest of the business is very manageable," Ms Tong said.

TTI is working closely with its creditors on two options - bringing in strategic investors and refinancing its outstanding debt - in order to discharge the scheme.

TTI launched Akira - its home- grown brand of home appliances, audio and audio-visual products - in 1999, and was listed on the Singapore Exchange in June 2000.

It also bought over a number of local furniture brands, including Novena, Castilla and Barang Barang, in 2007. The group now owns and operates 100 stores across six economies, including Indonesia, Brunei, Cambodia, Myanmar and Taiwan. It also offers third-party logistics, warehousing, sourcing and brand management services.

When the financial crisis struck, TTI was crippled by a double whammy - banks pulled their credit facilities and market demand collapsed.

"Our pockets weren't deep enough to deal with the situation, and we were under duress," said Ms Tong.

The stock trades at around seven cents now, compared with its initial public offering price of 28 cents in June 2000, and the all-time high of 52 cents, reached on Aug 15, 2000.

Ms Tong has sacrificed much over the years to keep the business going. Sleep and spending time with her children are little "luxuries" she has had to give up.

"We need to be responsible to our staff and shareholders, and as long as we put our best foot forward, I have no regrets," she said.

She is focused when it comes to TTI's growth strategy. Once the company's Scheme of Arrangement is discharged, it will be able to free up its working capital for expansion.

The company intends to boost its Asian retail network to 300 stores, or three million square feet, by 2019 in emerging markets like Indonesia and Indochina. It completed a joint venture in Indonesia earlier this year to streamline its consumer electronics business in the country.

Standard Chartered Private Equity invested US$42 million (S$59 million) in the joint venture, boosting the balance sheet of TTI's Indonesian operations and enabling it to enlarge its retail footprint. Last June, TTI placed out 167.3 million shares to boutique funds and individual investors, raising about $26 million in working capital.

The company became a mall operator and developer for the first time after launching a 1.3 million sq ft, eight-storey warehouse retail mall in Jurong East last December. Big Box, 51 per cent owned by TTI, offers lifestyle products and services from groceries to furniture and sporting goods. Billed as Singapore's first drive-through hypermarket, it draws an estimated 600,000 customers every month."This concept can also be easily exported outside of Singapore," Ms Tong said.

•This interview is an excerpt from the Singapore Exchange's "kopi-C: the Company brew" column that features C-level executives of firms listed on SGX. A longer version can be found on SGX's My Gateway website.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 02, 2015, with the headline 'Back from the brink, with steely resolve'. Print Edition | Subscribe