For the love of shopping

A Japanese lifestyle store which started out carrying just five labels, has scored a coup that will bring a household name back to Singapore.

Singaporean Andrew Tan and his Japanese wife, Ms Mitsuko Murano, who run atomi in Mandarin Gallery, signed a deal two weeks ago to bring in prominent Japanese furniture retailer Actus, a move that will at least double atomi's revenue, which is estimated at slightly more than $1 million.

They had set up the store in part because they have long enjoyed shopping in Japan. Established in 2009, atomi's products include homeware, clothing, accessories and furniture from Japan.

Actus was in operation in Singapore, where it was a brand name, for about 17 years. It closed in 2002 amid rising competition in the retail sector.

Mr Tan's seven-year-old business has expanded from its original 35 sq m to occupy an additional 55.3 sq m space next door in its Orchard Road location.

It now stocks about 30 labels, including Maruni, a leading 88-year- old Japanese furniture brand.

The store atomi started out in 2009 selling lifestyle items, adding furniture to its offerings a year later. The following year, in 2011, it launched a consulting arm whose clients include the Japan External Trade Organisation, known as Jetro, which promotes trade and investment between Japan and other countries.

The name atomi yokes "a" for "Andrew" and "mi" for "Mitsuko" together with "to", which means "and" in Japanese. It encapsulates the cross-cultural strengths of their romantic and professional partnership, which has driven their success.

Since Mr Tan, a self-confessed shopaholic, was introduced by a mutual friend to Ms Murano in 2002, he has been travelling to Japan four to 12 times a year. The idea for the store germinated there.

"We wanted to bring in things that we like, after so many years of shopping in Japan. The products have craftsmanship, heritage and a high level of sophistication," says Mr Tan, a former management consultant.

These items included ceramic tableware and linen, which found a place on atomi's shelves when the couple, both 39, founded the lifestyle boutique with $150,000 of their savings.

Before they switched careers, Mr Tan was at a crossroads.

He had been in consultancy for 10 years, starting with his first job, fresh out of university, at Arthur Andersen, formerly one of the Big Five accounting firms.

He had worked on projects in different industries, which lasted six months to a year. Living out of a suitcase, he jetted to countries such as South Korea, China and the United States.

He yearned for more depth than the "troubleshooting" that he specialised in as a management consultant.

"I liked the diversity, but felt that I needed to bring myself to the next level. I didn't have the practical experience of setting up a business," says Mr Tan, who graduated from Nanyang Technological University with a business degree.

This chimed with Ms Murano, who moved to Singapore in 2002 to work for skincare brand Fancl in sales and marketing.

She was inspired by her colleagues, a couple whose professional chemistry helped them to successfully market the Japanese brand in Hong Kong.

The early years were marked by a strong work ethic and an eye for marketing, traits still evident today, which have helped grow the business.

On the first day of business at atomi, the media-savvy Mr Tan arranged to take part in a Mandarin television programme, which focused on why he gave up a $12,000 monthly salary to become an entrepreneur. He took a pay cut of nearly 60 per cent.

The couple, who do not have children, used to tote around a selection of their products, such as pots and pans, in case they met potential clients.

Even with the addition of two full-time staff over the years, they continue to work seven days a week. Each year, they still take only the first and second days of Chinese New Year off.

Being their own bosses, including manning the store by themselves on weekends, means "there is no downtime at the moment," says Mr Tan.

He says the only time they get for themselves is when he walks their dog Jen in the morning. His wife walks her at night.

Tokyo-born Ms Murano says there are "no clear lines" between work and non-work.

However, they have clearly demarcated roles when it comes to working with businesses and organisations in Japan.

They have visited factories in less well-known areas, such as Gifu Prefecture, which specialises in traditional Japanese paper, a craft that dates back centuries.

They have established a modus operandi.

Mr Tan, who learnt Japanese soon after meeting Ms Murano, makes first contact. He entertains potential business partners in a corporate Japanese landscape where he says an "old boys' club" mentality still holds sway.

She follows up with clients, associates and suppliers, and eventually talks terms and conditions with them. "It's the comfort they feel that they can communicate in Japanese," she adds.

To show their sincerity, the couple have made entire payments upfront for orders. The biggest amount atomi has paid to a Japanese supplier was $150,000, a sum they collected from their customer only six months later.

They have also localised Japanese items for Singapore, for example, producing a stylish, lightweight jacket made out of the material often used for "underwear for ojisan (older men)".

Mr Adrian Loh, group executive director of the Equip Group, whose products include luxury bathrooms and locks, has known the couple for nearly 14 years.

"They're a fantastic tag team. Their energy drives each other positively. Both have the drive to do well. Mitsuko has the Japanese expertise; Andrew is dynamic and knows the local market," he says.

But it has not been all smooth- sailing. Mr Tan had to get used to a leisurely, indirect route to sealing a business deal.

As he describes it, talking shop is typically not done at a first meeting with potential business partners in Japan. Instead, a meal is enjoyed, sake is drunk and the chatter might be about one's children or hobbies.

He had to adjust his former corporate manner, refraining from mentioning things such as return on investment.

After two years of potential partners' seemingly casual visits to their store, he occasionally asked his wife: "Can we ask them about work now?"

Ms Murano "manages the pace and says, slow down", he adds.

It can take three years to sign a contract, as was the case for the Actus deal.

The focus on "care and patience, not rushing things" in atomi's service ethos has drawn repeat customers such as Mr Damian Lee, general manager for pineapple cake retailer SunnyHills, whose headquarters is in Taiwan.

In the past five years, he has bought Maruni chairs brought in by atomi for SunnyHills' store at the Raffles Hotel Arcade, as well as for its outlets in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Taipei. He also ordered customised tea cups from atomi and the two companies have collaborated on a pop-up in Hong Kong that started in August last year.

Direct customers make up 70 per cent of atomi's clientele, with business-to-business transactions contributing 25 per cent. Their bespoke gift service makes up the remaining 5 per cent.

Mr Lee provides a clue as to how Mr Tan and Ms Murano manage the challenges of working so closely as a couple.

"When they travelled with me to Hong Kong last year to talk about the pop-up, they were so amicable and respectful to each other. It was lovely to see. In contrast, sometimes when couples discuss things, it's not in a nice tone," he says.

Having a united front is essential.

"As a couple, you have to make more than a living; you're a family," says Mr Tan.

"As long as one person disagrees (about business decisions), it's a no-go. It's a binary approach."

This article was first published on May 2, 2016.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.