SME Spotlight

R&D helps Trentios stand out

Local companies face many challenges when trying to build their brands across global markets, but it can be done. In the second of a four-part series, Tiffany Cheong speaks to the person behind home electrical appliance brand Trentios, Mr Joel Ho, about the brand's growth and overseas success.

Mr Joel Ho, founder of home electrical appliance firm Trends and its in-house brand Trentios, believes that adopting new technologies sets the firm apart from its competitors. With a presence already in China, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, the fi
Mr Joel Ho, founder of home electrical appliance firm Trends and its in-house brand Trentios, believes that adopting new technologies sets the firm apart from its competitors. With a presence already in China, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, the firm plans to invest $5 million in the next three years for further expansion.PHOTO: DON WONG FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Q How did Trentios' journey begin?

A I founded Trends in 1998 at age 27. In 2003, we supplied air-conditioners to supermarket group Carrefour and provided installation and operational services.

In 2006, we partnered a firm in China to do research and development (R&D) on portable air-conditioners.

I wanted to incorporate other functions in the air-con, like a dehumidifier, fan, heater and cooler.

So in 2010, we created a four-in-one air-con system. In 2012, we added the air-freshener function. In 2013, we added a Wi-Fi function for home owners to switch on their air-cons via smartphones.

Sales were good as we catered to different social classes, with products ranging from affordable to high-end types.

However, we did not have our own brand. We wanted a Singapore brand, with Singapore technology and "made in Singapore" products.

I approached International Enterprise (IE) Singapore to explore options to create our Singapore brand, and bought a factory for production in 2013.

In 2014, we created our own brand, Trentios.

We aim to bring living comfort to people through quality, user-centric and affordable products that are constantly improved with R&D.

I always put customer service as the top priority. We take feedback seriously and improve our products based on customer complaints.

Q What were the initial challenges Trentios faced?

A The biggest challenge facing small and medium-sized enterprises is cash-flow management.

However, we received much help with government support and grants. Other than support from IE Singapore, we are also in talks with Spring Singapore to help us with R&D and capability development.

Another hurdle is hiring the right person for the right task. Singaporeans usually are reluctant to do jobs like air-con installation. This forces us to hire foreign talent, but the foreign worker levy poses a challenge for us.

Employees take time to master skills for the job. Since they have temporary work permits, it is difficult to teach them skills that can be used on the job for a long time.

While we have senior supervisors to guide new employees, it takes a toll on our supervisors as they teach things over and over again as employees come and go.

We have managed to mitigate this issue by outsourcing these specialised roles to third parties.

While we face competition from other firms, we have an edge over them as the first local four-in-one air-con manufacturer and with technology such as the Wi-Fi system.

Also, we have a plant locally, which means we can serve customers faster. We usually provide servicing within 48 hours.

By doing R&D ourselves and having our products made locally, we are strict with quality control.

While this means higher labour costs, and thus higher prices, our products are still affordable, considering the fact that we incorporate many functions into one appliance.

Q What is the scale of your company now?

A We have 40 employees in Singapore for a range of jobs, including installation, operations and customer service.

We also have four to five employees in China doing R&D.

On the marketing side, we are working on e-commerce. Our annual turnover is over $10 million.

With IE Singapore's support, we have successfully built up our business presence in China, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.

We wanted to expand in South-east Asia as we saw many opportunities in its emerging markets. For example, we are selling air-cons at 36 Giant hypermarts across Malaysia.

Through our overseas expansion, we realised the need to reduce electricity consumption in developing nations. This led us to focus on making energy-saving products.

Demand for our products has been increasing rapidly. Being customer-centric propels us to put user-centricity and functionality at the core of our products.

We never compromise on quality and this value guides us to strive for excellence in product development and dedication in customer service.

What sets us apart from other firms is that we are constantly improving by experimenting with the latest technologies and adding smart innovations to our products.

Q What are some innovations and technologies that Trentios has worked on?

A We have been focusing on developing portable air-cons since 2004.

From 2008, we started to develop instant water heaters.

In 2015, we incorporated air-purifiers into our air-cons. We also developed small home appliances like the vacuum cleaner and oven.

Besides air-cons, other Trentios appliances have not been introduced overseas yet, as we believe in focusing on one thing at a time.

Singapore is a good place for new product launches.

As there is high demand, there is a lot of feedback to help us improve our products before introducing them to global markets.

R&D has always been our core focus. We had an idea to recycle the wastewater produced by air-cons, so as to reduce water wastage.

This led us to partner Ngee Ann Polytechnic last year to co-develop technology for a water-filtration system in air-cons to make the recycled water drinkable.

We are also collaborating with the National University of Singapore to design our air-con products.

Design is an important aspect to me - the appearance must amaze one at first sight. This will differentiate our products.

Q How else are you looking to grow Trentios?

A We are repositioning ourselves in local and global markets by continually improving our products, catering to energy efficiency, smart technology and user-centric designs.

In the next three years, we plan to invest $5 million in both local and global market expansion and hire 50 per cent more employees as we focus more on digital technology.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 26, 2017, with the headline 'R&D helps Trentios stand out'. Subscribe