He tries hard to catch your eye

PHOTO: He tries hard to catch your eye
Visionaries: Interview with Mr Bernard Yang (Managing Director) of Nanyang Optical.

He remembers running around his father's tiny spectacles shop in Geylang when he was a kid, fiddling with the intriguing gadgets there after school.

That was the first Nanyang Optical shop, which started out as a lens-grinding and edging workshop in the 1950s before being transformed into a retail outlet.

That curious child, Mr Bernard Yang, 40, has certainly come a long way since then.

He is now managing director of the leading Singapore eyewear chain, which has expanded to 12 outlets here. The company also has two shops under the Alexis name, which sells upmarket eyewear.

Recounting his childhood experiences fondly, Mr Yang said he would head to the shop every day when he was in primary school.

He would spend his time playing there, or observing his father as the older man worked.

During his secondary-school days, he began learning the trade from his father and serving customers.

His father had the foresight to set up a new shop in Katong Shopping Centre in 1979, when the shopping-mall concept was seen as a novelty and street shopping was more popular.

The older man felt that consumer behaviour would change, his son said.

"Conversely, some of his peers were resistant to the idea then, and stuck to their street shops. They are no longer in the market now," he added.

The bold move paid off, as the idea of shopping malls took off among consumers. A third shop was opened in Thomson Plaza in the early 80s, and more followed in the late 80s, at malls such as United Square and Marina Square.

The younger man pursued a Bachelor of Business at Edith Cowan University in Perth, graduating in 1992.

He returned to Singapore, where he completed his national service in 1995 and joined the company as its assistant operations manager.

His love affair with eyewear never waned, even when he was doing his graduate studies in Australia.

He was involved in the company's marketing operations for a couple of years, before helming the start-up of its distribution arm, Eye-biz, in 1999, of which he is director. It started out by sourcing eyewear brands from overseas, but moved on to distribute its own collections from 2006.

He became managing director of Nanyang Optical last year. His father, now in his 60s, is still chairman of the company.

The business has weathered turbulent economic times through the years, he said, because it is relatively recession proof.

"It's a need, so people still come to us when they can't see.

"But there is no remarkable growth either, as the industry is relatively safe and stable," he said.

The company's first overseas store, set up in Kuala Lumpur in the early 1990s, was not a success.

The staff there did not run the store properly, said Mr Yang, adding that there were cases of misappropriation. It was eventually sold off in the early 2000s.

The company currently has four stores in Beijing, the first of which opened about a decade ago.

The chain is looking to expand in other parts of Asia, but he declined to reveal where, as the plans "are still preliminary".

The company is planning to open two more shops in Singapore next year, one at Jem, an upcoming mall in Jurong East.

Mr Yang said the company tries to be different by "constantly rejuvenating and innovating". For instance, it sells products that are different by working with four different brands - eco-friendly Linkskin, Urband, Glossi as well as Eyelet - to cater to specific segments.

"If you go to a mall and everyone is selling the same things, like Gucci and Ray-Ban, consumers will just go to your shop to compare prices. That will put a squeeze on your margins," he said.

The chain's revenue has been growing 10 per cent annually over the past two years, and Nanyang Optical currently reaps a healthy revenue of more than S$20 million annually.

But for those keen on jumping onto the eyewear bandwagon, Mr Yang has this to say - think twice.

The pool of qualified opticians and optometrists - who require technical skills and a licence - is limited here, he pointed out.

"It is also a highly competitive industry so, unless they have an interesting concept that lets them stand out, they would end up being a 'me too' optical shop. What's the point?" he cautioned.



Get my paper for more stories.