Part-time job packs potential for new horizons

Mr Alexis Tan ploughed the profits from the sale of a commercial property into Simply Hamper, which he started last year. It works with social enterprises for handmade greeting cards and other products.
Mr Alexis Tan ploughed the profits from the sale of a commercial property into Simply Hamper, which he started last year. It works with social enterprises for handmade greeting cards and other products.ST PHOTO: YEO KAI WEN

A stint as a packer in his aunt's hamper firm gave Alexis Tan the experience to start a lucrative business in a niche industry

Although Mr Alexis Tan took some time before investing in what he knows best - the hamper business - he managed to find a lucrative foothold in this niche industry.

The managing director of Simply Hamper recalls how it started when he was a teenager working part-time jobs.

"I was offered a position of a packer at my auntie's company.

"It was hard work, and I gave up my social life to work extra shifts to earn some extra money."

Little did he realise that the experience at her company would inspire him to set up his firm last year, backed by his knowledge of the market. Before that, Mr Tan, 32, was set on becoming an engineer after graduating from a polytechnic.

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  • Q What has been your biggest investing mistake?

    A Forex, because the loss happened in the shortest period of time. Not knowing anything when you're investing is no good.

    I thought by studying the trend of the past three months, I could predict where the market was going, but you actually need an in-depth study before you can invest or trade.

    I lost about $2,000, which is not so bad but I learnt that you must know something well before investing. That's why I later set up Simply Hamper and invested in commercial property.

    If investing were so easy, a lot of people would be rich.

    Q And what has been your best investment move?

    A The Beauty World commercial property because it gave me my first bucket of gold to invest in Simply Hamper, which is another good investment.

    I'm fortunate that I can marry my passion and job. I'm loving every day and I'm so happy to come to work, especially when I see the company progressing, sales increasing and getting good feedback from consumers and the public. Revenue has been increasing significantly, by about 20 per cent every month. We are concurrently producing more product lines.

    My elder sister Yvette, the firm's business development manager, is now developing a new floral range, emphasising on designer floral products.

    My next biggest investment will be expanding into South-east Asian markets, such as Indonesia and Thailand. I can't wait to see what the next year has in store for us.

    Rachael Boon

After he was found to have colour vision deficiency, he decided to become an indoor sales engineer at an engineering firm instead.

But the desk-bound job bored him, so he moved to doing outdoor sales in the offshore marine sector, where he came to enjoy meeting people and closing deals.

"I couldn't stand the nine-to-five job and felt restless so I made the switch, where I was given the opportunity to go overseas, to Malaysian shipyards for instance, to sell welding products," he says.

"But there's a saying that sales people must be greedy.

"I had friends in real estate who earned five-digit figures every month, so I thought it was a sector I could try out."

It was a smooth transition, says Mr Tan, who has a four-year-old son. His wife Valerie, 32, owns a manicure business in Tampines.

He was a property agent for six years before setting up Simply Hamper. He has not given up his estate agent licence, because of the knowledge and clients he has acquired.

He says of his stint as a property agent: "That was how I learnt to buy my first commercial property about three years ago.

"I had a feeling that there would be a slump after the curbs (on property purchases), so I decided to start my own business.

"I'm still serving my clients who come for help to look for property. They are like my friends and I don't feel good about just stopping."

Simply Hamper teams up with social enterprises such as Stirring Hearts, which works with welfare groups on handmade greeting cards, and Metta Cafe to provide products for its hampers.

Every week, Mr Tan attends early morning networking sessions by Business Network International.

On meeting new contacts, he says: "This is something that could be useful for new business owners to know. Do something for them, like giving business, and you will get something back eventually."

Q Moneywise, what were your growing-up years like?

A My dad was the sole breadwinner. He drove a cement truck.

Of the three of us, my elder sister was probably the strongest academically , but she gave up her studies after secondary school to help support the family.

I'm very grateful for that as it gave me a chance to pursue my studies and graduate with a diploma.

When I was younger, I worked in part-time jobs, as a sports shoe salesman and a room service employee at a hotel, for example.

Q How did you get interested in investing?

A Six or seven years ago, the property market was so good before curbs were put in place. People would buy and sell within six months, earning a few hundred thousand dollars. During those days, it was crazy how people flipped options.

Developers would give you the option and before you get the physical asset, you could sell it off.

As an agent then, I wondered when it would be my turn to start my own investments.

I had my eye on some properties and took a chance with my first investment, a commercial property at Beauty World Centre about three years ago.

I purchased the property for $600,000, but I needed a capital outlay of only 20 per cent, which was $120,000.

The remainder was acquired on a bank loan, which was not a major concern, with the property being rented out.

A year later, I noticed a rise in the price of housing and heard market talk that interest rates would go up, so I decided to sell the property for $720,000, which allowed for a full return on my investment.

I don't have a long list of investments in my portfolio but this was one of my best investments because I invested the profits in Simply Hamper.

Q Describe your investing strategy.

A "Risk comes from not knowing what you are doing" is among the many wonderful quotes about investing from (billionaire investor) Warren Buffett, and it is that wisdom that provides life and money lessons in equal measure.

I started to seek advice to find out how successful chief executives achieved greatness.

I constantly remind myself of Buffett's quote when deciding on my investments and I invest only in things that I have some degree of control over.

I also make sure I have a good understanding of the risks and rewards involved prior to investing in properties.

One thing I have learnt over the years is that it's never a good idea to have all your eggs in one basket.

This led me to search for other forms of investment, which indirectly led to a job in real estate.

Some tips I have learnt include studying the Urban Redevelopment Authority's Master Plan, as it gives you an idea of what the Government is doing on plots of land, which will affect property prices.

You also need to do some market analysis, like knowing your neighbours' prices.

You can also look out for distressed property, which is sold in a fire sale... So if you spot something like that, you have to act fast.

There's a long list of things to look out for, including interest rates and tax guidelines.

Q What's in your portfolio?

A Simply Hamper.

I plan to have more product lines, and expand regionally to places such as Indonesia and Malaysia. Putting your money in other countries is another type of investment.

Q What does money mean to you?

A It's a necessity that can give your family a sense of security or allow you to do charitable work.

I can't say that money can't buy happiness, because it does so indirectly. I donate a lot of products to low-income families.

If you can, give back to society as it can bring some laughter to those who need it.

But money is also the root of all evil. It can lead to corruption and so on. You need to handle it well.

Q What's the most extravagant thing you have done?

A Probably buying my first car, a Subaru Impreza. I wasn't earning a lot, but I wanted to be an outdoor sales engineer and needed a car, so I spent a lot just to get the job.

I don't spend on luxury goods.

Q What has been one of your biggest regrets when it comes to investing?

A I wish I had started investing much earlier. The excuse I gave myself in my 20s was, with the small amount of money I had, what could I even invest in?

But I didn't know I could pull a few friends together to invest in something, whether it's in a business or a one-bedder.

Q What are your immediate investment plans?

A I hope to achieve a 15 per cent market share in the hamper and flower business in Singapore in the next 18 months.

In our first year, we focused a lot on product development and had a full range of products, which I think is quite remarkable.

So although our market share is small, I'm confident of growing the business. By our fifth year, I hope we would have established ourselves in the region.

Q How are you planning for retirement?

A I don't think it's necessary to retire. I will get myself involved in something meaningful so I will have purpose in life.

Once you get your company running on autopilot, you still earn money, and that's a retirement plan to me.

Q Home is now/I drive...

A A four-room Housing Board flat in the east. I drive the family car - a Mercedes-Benz ML350 - and a Fiat Bravo.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 23, 2015, with the headline 'Part-time job packs potential for new horizons'. Print Edition | Subscribe