Gunning for the next big sale

Gunning for the next big sale

Diana Phee is petite and fair, with big doe eyes, long silky tresses and a soft, mellifluous voice.

Her demure demeanour is at odds with her occupation which is decidedly macho and aggressive: She runs a business peddling replica armours, swords and guns.

And the former cosmetics salesgirl, 37, is doing a pretty good job too. Caesar's - which her brother set up in 2000 and which specialises in collectible weaponry - was haemorrhaging and on the brink of collapse until she joined the business and took charge 10 years ago. Today, it has two shops, customers from all over the globe, and an annual turnover of more than $1 million.

This is not Ms Phee's first stab at a male-dominated industry. Prior to Caesar's, she traversed different time zones for several years negotiating deals and contracts for a manufacturer and supplier of electronic components.

"I've been working since I was 14. Including part-time work, I've probably held about 30 different kinds of jobs so nothing fazes me," says the mother of twin boys, aged 16 months.

The second of three children and the only daughter of a taxi driver and part-time seamstress, Ms Phee grew up in a three-room Ang Mo Kio Housing Board flat.

Her father's income afforded his children no indulgences so she started working part-time at 14 to earn extra pocket money.

"I worked weekends at Sunny Bookshop in Far East Plaza," she says, referring to the famous second hand bookstore which is now located in Plaza Singapura. "I'd get $16 for 10 hours of work."

The 30-month stint, she says, was invaluable.

"Although I was very young, I was entrusted to run the shop and handle the cash flow. I also learnt a lot from the owner," she says. "She knew what her customers read and would recommend books based on their preferences. It was a very personalised service, and I realised then if you put some thought into the needs of your customers, they would come back."

The former student of Da Qiao Primary and Anderson Secondary worked through her teens.

"Every school holiday, when other students were making plans to travel, I'd be panicking, trying to look for jobs," says Ms Phee.

"I've stood in HDB blocks counting the number of vehicles going into the Central Business District before ERP (Electronic Road Pricing) was introduced, I've made sales calls for property agents, I've worked in banks and insurance companies."

Ms Phee paid her own way for a business diploma at Temasek Polytechnic by giving tuition and working three days a week as a salesgirl for Japanese cosmetic company Shu Uemura.

"I would dress appropriately and rush to work after classes, from 3pm to 10pm," she recalls.

Juggling work with studies, she readily admits, was not easy.

"My grades when I was at the polytechnic were terrible," she says with embarrassment.

But it exposed her to different life experiences and gave her a level of maturity far beyond her years.

When she was 17, she sued a property company.

"I worked for them for three months, but they didn't pay me and owed me about $3,000. I reported them to the Ministry of Manpower, and I won but they didn't pay up. I was very disappointed but I didn't have the money to take the case further," she says.

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