Two's Company with ToTT and Sia Huat

Two's Company With ToTT and Sia Huat: Homing in on kitchenware

Tan Choon Boon, supported by daughter Grace, has succeeded in making many local and overseas kitchenware brands well known here

The next time you dine outside, check the brand of the tableware. Chances are, it is Cerabon or Safico.

It does not matter if the names do not ring a bell. What is noteworthy is that they are developed here and retail in leading local department and kitchenware stores.

The birth and reach of these brands can be traced back to the business acumen of Mr Tan Choon Boon, 67.

Supported by his daughter, Grace, 38, he has succeeded in making many local and overseas kitchenware brands known to - and used by - many here.

Ms Grace Tan is the director of household kitchenware retailer and lifestyle store ToTT (Tools of The Trade), while Mr Tan is the chief executive of ToTT's parent company Sia Huat, which sells kitchenware to industrial kitchens, restaurants and chefs.

Mr Tan's wife is also involved in the company, but his two other children are not. His younger daughter, 35, is a housewife and his son, 30, works in the logistics industry.

He says: "I'm not trying to brag, but if someone wants to duplicate our concept, it won't be easy. You just need to look at the merchandise mix that we have."

My vision for ToTT is to continue to be a trendsetter in the kitchenware and houseware scene, offering the widest variety of options, all under one roof. Perhaps, it could even become a tourist destination.

MR TAN CHOON BOON, chief executive of ToTT's parent company Sia Huat

Sia Huat carries more than 30,000 products across more than 300 brands, while ToTT carries about 200 brands, of which 70 per cent are from Sia Huat and the other 30 per cent are brand partners that work directly with ToTT.

Appealing to homeowners and industry

Mr Tan began as a sales assistant at Sia Huat in 1968, about a decade after the Temple Street company was started in 1959 by his father.

With his vision and drive, he had succeeded in securing several weighty brand partners under his belt by the time he took over managing the company in the 1980s. The company is co-owned by Mr Tan and his siblings. His youngest sister Katherine, 61, is Sia Huat's executive director, but their five other siblings are not involved in the business.

One of its brand partners is Zebra, a household kitchenware manufacturer based in Thailand. He successfully made a pitch to the brand for Sia Huat to be its sole distributor here about 40 years ago.

After securing the partnership, Mr Tan lost no time in pitching Zebra's products to department stores here.

He recalls arriving at CK Tang, now called Tangs, swinging Zebra's two-tiered stainless-steel tiffin carrier in hand. CK Tang liked the product and that deal marked Sia Huat's entry into the retail distribution business.

Today, its products retail at department stores such as Tangs and Robinsons and at supermarkets such as FairPrice and Giant.

Sia Huat is also the exclusive distributor for cookware brands Jamie Oliver and Nordic Ware, cheeseware brand Boska and Grant Primo sous vide machines.

Mr Tan launched in-house brands Safico and Cerabon in the 1990s.

In the early 1990s, Ms Tan began helping out in the business. The then 12-year-old manned the cashier with her grandfather. When she grew older, she helped out with the store's administrative work during school holidays.

She later went to study at the University of San Francisco in the United States and worked in a company there after graduating.

One night in 2002, she received a call at 2am from her father in Singapore. "He said it was time to come back to work for him," she says.

She agreed and worked in Sia Huat as a marketing executive from 2002 to 2005.

Her key contributions during this period were helping to launch Sia Huat's first product catalogue and working on refreshing the logo design and branding for Cerabon and Safico.

After this stint, she went back to the US to pursue her Master of Business Administration in marketing and get married.

Her husband is Taiwanese-American Wen Huang, 40, who works as a senior advisory consultant with Amazon Web Services. The couple have two sons, aged six and 21/2.

During this time, Mr Tan was busy brewing another idea - ToTT.

He observed a growing trend of people who enjoy cooking and hosting meals at home. He reasoned that they would want to impress their guests with their kitchenware and tableware.

So from 2005 to 2010, he and a team of five thought about how to launch a differentiated concept from Sia Huat that would appeal to homeowners.

Sia Huat opened ToTT in October 2010.

By then, Ms Tan's husband had secured a job here and the couple had moved back to Singapore.

Ms Tan, who rejoined Sia Huat in 2009, took on the directorship of the 36,000 sq ft ToTT. Its flagship store in Dunearn Road turns seven this year.

A second outlet opened at Suntec City in 2015. Its e-commerce arm has seen sales increase by 10 per cent between its launch in 2014 and last year and the store's total sales have increased by 59 per cent since its opening.

In 2013, ToTT received international recognition when it was awarded the Global Innovation Award - which recognises excellence in houseware retail and design - by the International Housewares Association in the US.

ToTT's in-store kitchens - where cooking classes and demonstrations and birthday parties can be held - are also popular. They can conduct up to 12 classes a week and have hosted up to six parties on weekends.

A new 5 Senses Bistro, by chef-owner Andrea Lim, has also opened at ToTT's Dunearn outlet in April this year. It takes the space of the ToTT bistro, which closed in February.

Ms Tan says revenue figures for 5 Senses are looking to be "significantly higher" than last year's bistro takings.

In spite of this, both father and daughter are quick to add that the learning curve has been a steep one.

Mr Tan says: "We were gutsy. We took over a huge space and I thought, 'Why can't we do everything?'"

But the truth was, the ToTT concept was new and they had no experience managing cooking studios, much less a bistro.

They initially offered the studios for cooking classes only, but later realised they were under-utilising the space. They subsequently opened them for events.

For the bistro, they found it challenging to manage a team of food and beverage personnel. With chef Lim helming it now, they are looking to change that.

Ms Tan recalls that in the early days, although they knew they wanted to position ToTT as a business-to-consumer concept, they also stocked industrial mixers in the store.

"These mixers came up to my waist. You could put a small child in them," she says.

But all the heavy commercial and industrial equipment items had to go. Together with their teams, the Tans re-curated their merchandise and sought to appeal more to household consumers.

Those early days were also challenging for their father-daughter relationship, says Ms Tan.

She used to report to him, but it was hard for her to see him as the boss and they had clashes.

She says without going into specifics: "As a father, he is not very authoritarian and I can speak to him casually. But in a work environment, a certain amount of professionalism has to be maintained even when we have our differences."

They talked about the issue and Ms Tan now reports to her aunt Katherine.

"Our working relationship is much better now," says Ms Tan.

Although the reporting structure has changed, she still consults her "father-boss" up to three times a week to exchange ideas with him or discuss how to increase sales.

ToTT's lease at Dunearn ends in the middle of next year, so Ms Tan and her team are "reviewing our options".

There are also plans to possibly franchise the brand, expand locally with a few more outlets or take it overseas.

While it remains to be seen what will be next for ToTT, one thing is certain: Mr Tan's steadfast love for his job.

He clocks 10-hour days, getting to office at 8.30am and leaving at 6.30pm.

"I'm still very passionate about the business. I still work as hard as I used to 40 years ago," he says.

"My vision for ToTT is to continue to be a trendsetter in the kitchenware and houseware scene, offering the widest variety of options, all under one roof. Perhaps, it could even become a tourist destination."

Grace Tan on Tan Choon Boon

Dad always seeks to improve products

Mr Tan tries to better the designs of tableware to enhance the dining experience for diners and servers, says daughter Grace.
Mr Tan tries to better the designs of tableware to enhance the dining experience for diners and servers, says daughter Grace. ST PHOTO: DAVE LIM

Ms Grace Tan, 38, uses her father's exact descriptions of her to describe his strengths.

"He's very passionate, creative and dedicated to the company," she says.

"Sia Huat is his 'eldest child' and ToTT is his 'youngest child'. I don't know what he would do if he retired. He might be quite bored."

Even at family dinners, Ms Tan says, her father will remind her to follow up with certain clients and regale them with stories of his early days and experiences in the company.

Although he has been with Sia Huat for nearly half a century, the work is never dull to him because thinking about product design seems to run in his blood.

"He is always finding ways to better the designs of tableware, so that the dining experience for both diners and servers can be enhanced," she says.

His keen eyes would notice if a teapot used at a dining place had a design flaw, such as when the tea did not flow back well into the teapot after being poured.

Sometimes, these observations would lead him to take action.

Ms Tan recalls him convincing German knife manufacturer Giesser in the 1990s to produce a line of Asian-style kitchen knives, after he found that the Japanese Santoku bocho (general purpose kitchen knife) was popular in Asia.

The manufacturer rolled out the products here and the knives sold so well that Giesser soon added them to its various product lines.

Mr Tan also worked with a local manufacturer last year to design a set of tableware that is aimed at changing the way Chinese combination platters - usually used at wedding dinners and large family meals - are designed. Instead of the usual single piece, this plate comprises several pieces, allowing greater flexibility in the way food items are served on it.

"He is always on the lookout to improve things," says Ms Tan.

A few times a year, he goes on sourcing trips to Europe, the United States and China, where he susses out the latest homeware trends and catches up with fellow industry professionals, many of whom have become his friends.

As the only one of three children in the business, some may think that Ms Tan is under pressure to fill her father's shoes.

But Mr Tan says he believes in meritocracy. He is "okay" with Sia Huat being run by a non-family member.

Ms Tan says: "I fully support his direction. It is more important that the company is managed by the right person, regardless of family ties."

Tan Choon Boon on Grace Tan

Daughter indispensable to business

Ms Grace Tan holds the fort in managing the ToTT team, says father Tan Choon Boon.
Ms Grace Tan holds the fort in managing the ToTT team, says father Tan Choon Boon. ST PHOTO: DAVE LIM

Ask Mr Tan Choon Boon, 67, about kitchenware or homeware and his eyes light up. He leans forward and has plenty to say.

But when this reporter asks him to share what he feels are his daughter Grace's key contributions to ToTT, he shifts uneasily in his seat and stares at me, wordless.

In that moment, it is as though he is not the head honcho of a company overseeing several hundred employees, but a shy Asian father who is uncomfortable with praising his daughter.

The funny thing is, he has the answers ready and written down on a piece of paper - he just cannot say it.

His daughter is "very passionate, creative and dedicated to the company", he writes.

His written comments add that she "holds the fort in managing the team", and has "raised the level of awareness about ToTT through social media".

When asked to elaborate on these points, he says it was Ms Tan who started ToTT's Facebook page in 2010.

The page gained some 8,000 likes within the first year and now has nearly 66,000 likes and about 65,400 followers.

On her managerial skills, he explains that none of the top management staff was based in ToTT initially and there was "quite a bit of staff turnover" at ToTT in its early years.

In 2013, it was decided that Ms Tan would be stationed at ToTT to provide stronger management and guidance to the team there.

She now runs a team of about 60 employees.

"There are far fewer resignations now," says Mr Tan.

Ms Tan's creativity has seen her spearheading several of the company's branding exercises and her dedication is evident from her working tirelessly to build up the ToTT concept.

Mr Tan explains to me why he would rather not reveal how he feels about his daughter as his employee.

"I always tell my kids that in the work place, let us have professionalism. There must be a proper protocol," he says.

"I don't like it when children working for their parents call their father, 'Dad'."

This is why Ms Tan refers to her father in the workplace and in e-mails either as "Mr Tan" or "CEO".

In spite of the attempts to delineate between their professional and personal relationship, it is clear that Mr Tan values his daughter's presence in the company.

But because he has still not said it, I am intent on doggedly pursuing the question.

I venture again: "How valuable is Ms Tan to the business?"

His answer: "My youngest sister, whom Grace reports to, cannot handle things without her around."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 12, 2017, with the headline 'Homing in on kitchenware'. Print Edition | Subscribe