Young Singaporean CEO turns father's shoe business into a global brand

Young Singaporean CEO turns father's shoe business into a global brand

Think of Asian shoe design and the "rags-to-riches" story of Malaysian footwear maestro Jimmy Choo comes to mind.

But Singaporean Elizabeth Tan was hesitant to join her father's footwear business, because she'd seen him struggle to keep it afloat through tumultuous times at the turn of the century, when Asia was hit by a financial crisis and then the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak.

"I saw the ups and downs," Tan told CNBC in an interview. "I wanted to do something different."

Tight finances put her plans for pursue a degree overseas on hold. Instead, Tan studied history at the National University of Singapore, working part-time jobs including selling credit card plans, mobile phone plans and organising events, to put herself through four years of study.

In the end, though, family ties lured her away from the alternate career path she sought. Tan, who grew up around shoes, said she eventually saw the potential in the family business and decided to give it a shot, armed with a few ideas of her own.

"Family is something that calls back to you," Tan said.

Tan is now managing director at Heatwave Shoes, a mid-market ladies footwear business that was founded by her father, Tan Guan Huat, in 2001.

She joined the company as a business coordinator in 2008 but soon set her sights on building a global brand, after realizing Heatwave had strong following among young Singaporean working women with penchant for heels - something that was hardly a Singapore-specific phenomenon.

"I think branding is something that was very new to my dad because he came from a generation where it was all about products and pricing," Tan said. "When I came on board, I was able to bring value in that aspect, by knowing what our generation wants, what kind of shopping experience they want."

Her father is a self-taught shoe designer, who spent nearly two decades designing and manufacturing shoes for local brands such as Tangs Studios. Now, having handed the business's reins over to his daughter, he trains the company's new generation of production and design staff.

The company has 56 stores in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Vietnam, the Philippines, Cambodia and further afield in markets such as Dubai and Qatar. The shoes are designed in-house and produced in factories in Malaysia that are either owned by Tan's family or ones that exclusively produce Heatwave products. Tan said this allowed Heatwave to better maintain quality control and quickly adapt to customer feedback.

Heatwave has now partnered with Arvind Sports Lifestyle, a recent venture started by India's largest integrated textile companies, to enter the major cities of Delhi and Mumbai. Heatwave will officially launch in India on July 25.

The country's growing middle class made it an attractive prospect for mid-market foreign brands such as Heatwave, as Tan and Arvind Sports Lifestyle's CEO Rajiv Mehta told CNBC.

"It's a big market, and a big plan," Tan said, of a schedule that involves opening about 50 Indian stores by 2019.

A challenge faced by many family businesses that expand into new markets face is that what works in one country, may not work in another.

"Expanding overseas is not a simple exercise of replicating the existing business model," Ng Siew Quan, Asia Pacific entrepreneurial and private clients leader at PwC Singapore, told CNBC by email. "As they globalise, family businesses must account for the cultural differences in different territories and adapt."

This is something Tan has prepared for. "In India, their style is much more casual," she said. Many Indian women preferred flats and ethnic-designed footwear over high heels and Heatwave planned to expand its range of casual footwear to cater to the audience, she added.

Heatwave had also ventured into e-commerce, necessitated by high rental costs of running brick-and-mortar stores, while maintaining a lean workforce and adjusting to the retail trend of offline-to-online sales.

"E-commerce is something that as a Singaporean brand, we have to focus on and adapt to," Tan said.

Regardless of the platform, though, Tan said that there were two elements that were fundamental to her father's business ideals, and remained so for her: quality and affordability.

"We felt, why not just make it affordable so more people can have it?"

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