Kenny Koh, managing director of Star Furniture Group.
Adopting a design focus boosts long-term competitiveness but resistance to change can often trip best intentions.
Starting out as Ngoh Hock Furniture before rebranding to Star Furniture Group, the 35-year-old company was founded in 1981 by two brothers, Richard Koh, executive chairman, and Koh Kian Huat, deputy chairman.
In its humble beginnings, the company dabbled in wholesale before expanding into its three current principal business activities: manufacturing, retail and export. Today the furniture group operates seven retail brands and can proudly call itself a vertically integrated retailer, said Kenny Koh, managing director of Star Furniture Group.
Trudging through tough times
But it wasn’t a bed of roses initially. There was a trying period in the 1980s when the brothers were at the mercy of retailers during the tough economy.
Resilient, they carefully re-strategised their business model and started reaching out to end-users as a retailer.
“Now all the middlemen are almost gone and only a few of them survive because of relationships. Wholesale is not easy in a small market like Singapore,” said Kenny.
When Kenny joined in 1989, the situation took a positive turn and by 1991, they were exporting and had opened a chain of retail stores. Currently, the company has factories in China and Malaysia.
But to revise the method of production remains a challenge as their factory workers are resistant to change.
“The workers have been with us long time so it is quite difficult to change their method of production,” said Kenny.
Collaboration with design
Still, Star Furniture sought to reinvent itself in other ways. In order to react quickly to the changing trends and demands from consumers, the company started its own in-house design capability, which allows them to customise furniture for their customers.
Star Furniture and Jerry Low started out with a rendering of the Jotter Desk. Photo credit: JotterGoods by Star Furniture
JotterGoods uses Walnut as its main material with Ash as secondary. Photo credit: JotterGoods by Star Furniture
It was no surprise when a joint partnership between Star Furniture Group and award-winning designer Jerry Low culminated in a 14-piece furniture collection called “JotterGoods”.
“It’s a collaboration between designer and manufacturer,” Kenny said. And it all happened when Jerry showed Kenny a design of the JotterDesk. The rest became history.
Working together, Kenny said the success of JotterGoods lies in Star Furniture’s strong belief in Jerry. The furniture collection exudes an understated aesthetic, which was inspired by “Jotter Book”, a simple notebook crafted for practicality yet its distinctive character with a bit of “rough” conjures a certain charm and nostalgia to its utilitarian design.
JotterGoods is catered to the professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) and uses mainly Walnut in its product range.
Asked if manufacturing and design are moving closer or further apart, Kenny replied that they are always in tandem, but “only by design, can you control your market better,” he said. Citing IKEA as an example, he described how the biggest buyer in the market creates a price war by developing their own design and bringing it to many different manufacturers to achieve the lowest cost.
“They are not buying from you because you have a good design. They bring the design to you at this price and so have better command in terms of profitability,” he said.
Beyond the manufacturing and design departments, Kenny believes that the customer experience is as important or in fact, even more so.
“In Japan, they are very good at curating a very pleasant and enjoyable experience at the retail store. That’s why people enjoy shopping,” said Xu Xue Ting, group retail manager of Star Furniture Group. “So this is the direction we are looking at – how to make our touch points enjoyable so that our customers want to come back to make the physical purchase.”
And that’s what Star Furniture is trying to achieve—creating a great and consistent customer experience so that they will spend a longer time in the store.
“And if they don’t buy more, open a café and they will drink more,” Kenny joked.
This article was first published in Panels & Furniture Asia (Jan/Feb issue).