Helping the family business bloom

PHOTO: Helping the family business bloom

Gracelyn Lin imagined herself striding the Central Business District in Prada shoes with the latest it-bag slung over her shoulder when she graduated.

Instead, the 33-year-old finds herself based at far-flung Punggol East playing a senior role in her family's successful floristry business Sing See Soon Floral & Landscaping.

Still, her position as vice-president of sales and marketing takes her to the offices of some of Singapore's top hotel bosses whom the firm counts as key clients.

The firm provides consultation and creative services for hotels such as The St Regis Singapore, Shangri-La, Capella Singapore, and - the latest addition - W Singapore - Sentosa Cove.

Another of the firm's prized clients is Marina Bay Sands.

Ms Lin grew up at the family nursery in Syed Alwi Road, but her path to a senior role in the business was not clear cut.

Initially, she aimed to study horticulture in the United States but realised to her horror when asked to study a plant placenta that it was not her cup of tea.

So she switched courses, and pursued a business degree at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln instead. After she had completed that, the family business, with a legacy of almost 90 years, was hard to ignore.

Ms Lin decided to prove her business acumen by taking responsibility for Sing See Soon's growth when she returned home from her studies in 2006.

The family business was born five generations ago at its first premises in Ah Hood Road, by growing orchid plants in small quantities to sell to local buyers.

"I would remember stories from my grandmother, that when she was a little girl, they used to go on bicycle and sell packets of loose flowers for people to put in their bath water," she said.

In the 1970s, Ms Lin's uncle, Mr Daniel Ee, saw a business opportunity when he collected cut flowers from a Malaysian truck that came to Singapore and sold them to retail shops. It became clear to him that there was a demand for imported flowers.

The business has blossomed since, especially after the family started importing flowers from Holland.

Mr Sebastian Ee, Sing See Soon's creative director, went on a backpacking trip to Holland for a year, and got to know the suppliers the firm is working with to this day.

"We thought, since we were doing this, we might as well expand our product range and work with higher-end businesses, like hotels and events. We always had that in mind," Ms Lin recounted.

Offering more than just chrysanthemums and carnations, Sing See Soon differentiated itself with a wider selection of flowers.

Soon the firm - then fronted by Mr Sebastian Ee - attracted the attention of celebrities at parties.

"If we did not have that reputation and history, I don't think we would have the opportunity to work with Marina Bay Sands," said Ms Lin.

Still, the business has not always been a walk in the park.

In the 1980s, Sing See Soon started a retail arm, B1 Florist, which eventually had eight outlets. But rocketing rents meant the business was not viable, and it was closed after 10 years.

Last year, the firm recorded $3.5 million in revenue, with a growth rate of 20 per cent since Ms Lin started work.

The firm imports all its flowers from countries such as New Zealand, Thailand and India, in addition to Malaysia and Holland.

The business flourished in the 1980s, but after Ms Lin joined, things changed.

Operating on 15,000 sq ft of land in Upper Paya Lebar and from a warehouse in Defu Lane until 2009, Sing See Soon was a traditional-style business that operated on cash terms.

"When I looked at all the books, there were so many people who had not paid up," she recalled.

"So I said, 'This has got to stop'." Sing See Soon got its first credit card machine in 2007.

However, the most significant development led by her was the firm's move to its current premises in Punggol East.

"This gave us space and MBS was won over by the fact that I was able to invite them to come see this 188,000 sq ft of land," said Ms Lin.

"Having this space allowed me to put everything together."

While she does not walk about in Prada shoes at the nursery, she is dedicated to her goal: to make the hard work and sacrifices of previous generations count.

But she is not worried if the family's younger generation do not share her passion for the business, as she hopes only to allow the shareholders who built the company to retire.

"I'm not worried because my ultimate aim is to help them (the older generation) retire, because all businesses come to the day when they sell."

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