Prospering in the pandemic: When every balcony is an opportunity

While some businesses are just surviving during the pandemic, these three companies are thriving, thanks to guts, grit and good timing.

Managing Director of Durablinds Ong Shu Hwai speaks passionately about the unused potential of balconies. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

SINGAPORE -When Ms Ong Shu Hwai, 45, is on the road, she does not just see buildings around her. She sees possibilities.

"Drive down the highway, take a look at the buildings to the left and to the right and spot all the balconies. Those are the potentials," says the managing director of local home expansion specialist Durablinds.

It is the exclusive distributor of Glass Curtains, which are tempered retractable glass panels, and Ziptrak, a track-guided blind system.

Both can be used for semi- outdoor areas such as balconies and patios to protect them from the elements and increase space in the home. More than 7,000 homes in Singapore and Malaysia have installed its products.

Her optimism is not unfounded. Durablinds recorded a 17 per cent increase in sales last year despite having no revenue for about three months because of the circuit breaker and dormitory lockdowns.

When its foreign workers were still stuck in their dormitories, the handful of staff who were allowed to work in phase two of the reopening of Singapore's economy had to step up and learn about the fabrication processes while being supervised via video calls.

Her firm has almost 40 staff locally and another 16 in its Malaysia office.

At the same time, the pandemic also affected the firm's supply of fabric, "which means that there's no room for errors. Every blind has to be created correctly", she recalls.

When its workers were released from the dormitories, "the orders we had to fulfil on a weekly basis tripled" as home owners scrambled to resume renovations. "Those were very stressful and challenging times," she says.

While running a business has its ups and downs, she says the pandemic brought on a new level of uncertainty.

"With Covid-19, the challenges come very rapidly. You never know what can happen next. And there's no way for you to know that the decision you make today is going to stand next week or next month."

Besides firefighting on the production side, her team also had to deal with managing staff anxiety and the emotions of foreign workers in quarantine, while figuring out how to apply for government grants they were eligible for.

Her motto: "Break it down to baby steps. Solve one problem at a time."

Ms Ong is no stranger to adversity, having been the victim of alleged harassment by a former business partner.

She spent about five months having "sleepless nights" and feeling "very unsafe", claiming he and his team tried to intimidate her into giving up her share of her previous company, which had successfully launched the Glass Curtains distributorship in 2013.

She eventually sued the company to close it down as it was a 50-50 partnership and she was unable to continue operating without her partner's consent. It was a painful experience which cost her some $100,000 in legal and other expenses.

Even as Ms Ong Shu Hwai brews new innovations, she has learnt the value of work-life balance. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

But she believed in the product so much that she started anew with Durablinds in 2017, which she runs with her husband Kelvin Ng, 41.

As a former interior designer, Ms Ong speaks passionately about the unused potential of balconies.

"I wanted to find a solution to a nagging problem that my customers faced, which was not having enough space (inside) and having big balcony spaces that haven't been utilised," she says, arguing that a typical balcony size of 200 sq ft theoretically represents $200,000 worth of property value in a home that costs $1,000 per square foot.

In striving to always be "a cut above the rest", Durablinds even rolled out new products last year, including a Ziptrak fabric it created that repels rain and muffles sound while allowing light to filter in, as well as bidirectional motors that pair with owners' phones so they can monitor if they are open or closed.

She believes these product improvements will drive demand this year as well.

Even as she brews new innovations, she has learnt the value of work-life balance.

Ms Ong, who used to pull 80-hour work weeks because "work doesn't feel like work for me", changed her perspective after her son, Marcus, was born six years ago.

"Ever since I had Marcus, I've learnt to put a hard stop on the time at work. And lo and behold, we ended up doing better," she says.

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