SINGAPORE - Design is a fairly loose concept but former hospitality industry executive Yap Beng Tiong believes it is crucial in allowing firms such as restaurants to reach their fullest brand potential.
Mr Yap, the founder of Gravity+Form, is passionate about how important it is to get the right look: "In all hospitality projects that we undertake, we will always approach the planning and design aspects from the standpoint of the brand, location, owner and the competing brands even, as well as the architectural and fitting out aspects."
That passion, married with instinct and self-belief, has been guiding Mr Yap, 48, since he set up the firm in 2001. It moved into a quaint attic in Telok Ayer Street in 2002, which remains its base today.
"When I started the company, I honestly did not know why, but I knew that I needed to create this experience and that I'm able to do it. It's very instinctive," he said.
"This is something I think I'm good at. There's this fool inside of me that constantly believes. It's all about belief."
Mr Yap had been employed at hotel group Raffles, working in various departments such as technical services and property management.
When he branched out on his own in 2001 with $20,000 to $30,000 of his own money, he needed to learn business skills fast, even if reluctantly at first.
"That didn't last at all. I grossly underestimated (the) business. I had a partner who thought it was very tough as you had to convince hotel owners to believe in you, and decided to go back to the corporate world," he recalled.
The University of London economics graduate, who also holds an architecture and construction studies diploma from Singapore Polytechnic, said the Raffles group taught him how hotels operate and what brands do, but not how to run a business.
"When you rely on instinct, you do not know what you're in for... I've got the best tool, it's space. So I hung on for dear life."
Initially, he took on all kinds of interior design jobs in Singapore - hair salons, spas and residential projects - just to stay afloat.
Through his contacts, he began to get jobs in China and started working with hospitality management companies such as Howard Johnson and Frasers Hospitality.
His first hotel project was an all-day dining outlet in Xi'an Sheraton Hotel through American hospitality group Starwood, which manages brands such as Sheraton and Westin.
"It decided to help me out," said Mr Yap, who visited the hotel in Xi'an and listened to the general manager's problems about the dining area.
When Singapore was hit by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in 2003, he saw even greater potential in China. He initially focused on the interior design of food and beverage areas in hotels, and slowly won over owners and operators alike in China.
Gravity+Form designed the Wyndham Grand Plaza Royale Hotel in Changsha and later conceptualised an entirely new hotel - Hotel Ruigao in Changde, a district city in the Hunan province. It was completed in 2011.
Mr Yap noted: "China has learnt a lot about the 'hardware' over the years, and now it is focusing more on the 'software' aspects, as it deals with rapid changes to lifestyle needs. As such, it is trying to create new brands and experiences... which is essentially the next growth phase of China."
This is also where he sees potential for his firm's growth, given his familiarity with design from a "branding standpoint".
His company hires 12 full-timers and three on-site project personnel paid on a project basis, usually directly by clients.
It has an annual turnover of $600,000 to $800,000, depending on the number of projects it takes on. This is usually two to three a year, and each project takes at least two years to finish.
Even though Mr Yap wants to expand and take on more work, staffing is a major concern.
He said: "Failure is not an option, you can't go out there and clinch each and every project that comes your way.
"I'm sure a lot of small and medium-sized enterprises are facing the same dilemma. So what do we do? We break the work flow such that it can be done in various geographical locations."
While owners overseas have encouraged him to uproot his operations, he is reluctant to do so.
"Then you're no longer a Singapore company, you have to oblige them in every way and lose your unique purposes."
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