SINGAPORE: Mr David Low dropped out of school in Secondary 2 and his first job was as a carpenter in his father’s furniture business. Today, he runs a global company that supplies store fixtures to global brands such as Victoria’s Secret and Guess.
The chairman and CEO of Futuristic Store Fixtures was recently named EY (Ernst and Young) Entrepreneur Of The Year Singapore.
In 1979, he moved away from his dad’s business and started his own contracting business where he did everything from being a carpenter and painter to driver. In 2005, he joined Futuristic Store Fixtures which was then his uncle’s company.
An encounter with a Canadian businessman led him to realise that he could transform the small renovation contracting business into a supplier of store fixtures for global retail brands looking to expand and outsource their work to Asia.
Today, Futuristic serves leading international retail brands across 56 countries and has a presence in Malaysia, China and North America.
Mr Low went “On the Record” with Bharati Jagdish about the negativity plaguing Singapore businesses today, how he overcame depression to build a global company and his journey from carpenter to CEO of a global company.
David Low: Back in the 70s, Singapore was not that developed. Not many could speak good English. I grew up in the Chinatown area and dad was in the furniture business. During my schooling years, I spent half a day in school and the moment I got home, I would drop my school bag and my dad would tell me to get to the workshop. So my life was about going to school to study, come back home and work.
I didn’t do well in school because of the environment I was in. The factory was on the ground floor of where we lived. It was a shophouse. I worked on weekends too. Didn't really have the environment to study.
Bharati Jagdish: Did you want to study and stay in school?
Low: I guess I didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t say “no” to my dad. He was running a factory, and he was an entrepreneur of his time and I was an odd-job labourer. Anything I could do to help, I did.
Bharati: Did you enjoy the work?
Low: To be frank, it's hard to say whether I enjoyed it or not because first of all, it wasn’t my choice. But as I got deeper into it, I learnt to make furniture. When we got our first allotted HDB flat in Bukit Purmei, we didn't have a budget to get a contractor to fit out the place. I built all the furniture in the house myself. So I learnt and it made me feel a sense of achievement. I guess I'm someone who is hungry to learn. I'm very curious about things. I always ask questions about how things are built. An engineering mindset - I think that's me.
THE STRUGGLE TO LEARN ENGLISH
Bharati: Do you regret any of this? Do you feel that if you could go back, you might have wanted to stay in school, for instance?
Low: I think if the clock could be turned back, of course I would like to enhance my academic education.
Bharati: Why? You seem to have done well without it.
Low: I joined Futuristic in 1979. My uncle ran it at that time and he did work for quite a fair bit of high-end fashion boutiques and multinational customers and they all used English as a language to communicate. Me, I couldn't even speak a word of English.
Bharati: You speak fine now. How did you manage?
Low: I told myself that in order to survive, I don't have a choice. I have to learn. So I started reading the newspapers and using an English-Chinese dictionary. In those days, the dictionary was so thick. So I had to be patient. I could spend the whole day doing nothing but reading and in my left hand is a dictionary and in my right hand was a newspaper. I would read every single word. So I learnt through reading. From there, I developed the habit of reading.
I told myself that actually learning is not that difficult if you have the heart to do it, if you have the urge to do it, if you are hungry to do it. I got to a point where I got so tired of flipping the dictionary and the newspaper, so I just read the dictionary. It was so crazy. I just flipped through the dictionary and read every single word.
I tried to use the words that I learnt and applied them to day-to-day communication. I can’t live without reading today. Every day I read. The more you read, the more you become very inquisitive about things. So along the way, I’ve picked up an interest in political news and business news. I have the ability to piece things together, to analyse how global politics evolves and how that impacts businesses. And from there I can shape my business to be more in line with the global situation.
A BORN ENTREPRENEUR
Bharati: You mentioned that you did feel an element of regret for not having done well in school. If you had stayed and done well in school, what would you have wanted to do with your life?
Low: I have a very strong sense that I am a born entrepreneur. So I would have still gone into business. From young, I’ve wanted to do well. I would see my neighbour who is a businessman driving a nice Porsche and I remember saying to myself: “Hey David, one day you should own that car too.” I wanted progress in my life and business would be a good way to achieve that.
Bharati: Is it just about the money?
Low: I see it as progress in life. You dream to be the people whom you see progress and think you want to progress to that level. That was my childhood dream. Of course, along the way in life's journey you develop a very different perspective.
When you do slightly better than the rest, you realise that life is not just about money. It's the balance of lifestyle. My philosophy is that I've got to balance between my career which I have really put a lot of time into, my family, and my social life. I don't neglect my family and I don’t neglect my friends. So I carry the philosophy of balancing these 3 to guide my life.
At any point of time if I find that I have over-tilted the scale, I’ll try to recalibrate. So money isn’t everything and it’s also about using it to provide others such as my employees with opportunities.
Bharati: You said you were a born entrepreneur, but this particular business is an extension of what you were doing as a kid while helping your father. And Futuristic was your uncle’s company, so it sounds as if you just fell into this business. If you could do any other sort of business, have you thought about what it might be?
Mr Low receiving the EY Entrepreneur of the Year award from National Development Minister Lawrence Wong.
Low: I’ve never thought of that partly because my grandfather came from China in the 1930s and 1940s and he started a furniture shop in Upper Cross Street. So the furniture business had flowed down from my grandfather. I feel furniture is somehow in my blood. My grandfather did a lot as a businessman. He owned shophouses, coffee shops. So I think I have my grandfather’s blood passed down through my father. I have the entrepreneurial blood and spirit. If you ask whether I would do a different business, it's very tough.
DISRUPT YOURSELF BEFORE YOU ARE DISRUPTED
Bharati: What are your strategies for going global?
Low: The first thing is the mindset. You must have the determination that your product should be global. Next is execution. There is always an execution risk. To minimise the execution risk, you have to find the right partner. Finding a strategic partnership is crucial. Someone who can really align the mindset, culture and chemistry. Being able to strongly believe in each other to forge a strong partnership.
And also, my philosophy is that we have to make our partner happy in order for yourself to be happy. If you want to find the right partner, you first have to conduct and carry yourself well in the business community to build your reputation. You must have a reputation of wanting win-win partnerships. Have that track record, so it's something to show to your potential partner. It's about how you present yourself, how you share your business model with a customer.
In today's digitalised world, the conventional incumbent businesses have to reinvent themselves, embrace technology. Disrupt yourself before you are disrupted. So we focus a lot on thinking three steps ahead and how we can disrupt ourselves.
Bharati: So what are you doing currently in terms of disrupting yourself?
Low: Well, there are a couple of things we do. Automation is one of them. At the facility level, productivity is very crucial. I constantly remind my team not to use yesterday’s skill for tomorrow’s work. You have to constantly remind yourself that you have to upskill and upgrade yourself and think of new ideas to do things. I have built this culture in the group.
So my people know that the moment they sit down, it's about what ideas they put on the table. Don't dwell so much on the problem. We face problems every day. It's not a problem. It's a process. We face the process, the challenges everyday. We need a solution, so I try to inculcate this culture in my team. We also have to think about tomorrow, what our clients and the industry will need and how you can provide it. Thinking about tomorrow, engage technology, social media, or get better software to improve your speed of drawing, for example. So these are the areas that I constantly focus on and share with my team.
Bharati: Do people resist?
Low: I think the pressure I put on them is too much. I don't face immediate resistance to my face but I do hear from third-parties that there is resistance. But I think one of the strategies to deal with this is to form a goal and vision and then engage the staff. I give them my time. For example, when I travel to Malaysia, I make sure I have a time slot for senior staff. I talk to my staff with goals in mind. What do you want to get from me half an hour later? What do you want to learn from me? So I constantly engage my people. I make them feel very comfortable so I’m not just putting pressure on them. I ask them to work hard and all that, but I'm also open to discuss issues with them at a different level. That's how I engage them.
I LOVE CRAZY IDEAS
Bharati: How challenging is it to get good employees – people who can actually shift their mindsets and deliver?
Low: My criteria for a “good employee” are integrity, a hunger to learn, and I’m also looking for younger people. I'm not trying to discriminate against older people, because I want them too. In our trade, we need experienced engineers and I need more mature workers for that to provide guidance to the younger staff. Experience in our kind of trade is not something you can learn from school. You've got to go through a certain process to learn the skill.
But the young are important because now, our company is global, we need to engage with the world. We need to communicate with the potential brand that we work with and I'm trying to find ideas. Today, I feel that the millennials are in a better position to be able to present crazy ideas. They’re exposed to different things from us. They’re on their phones a lot and are very resourceful in using it to find answers for you.
Then those with years of experience are in a better position to analyse and sift through the ideas on the table to find the best idea suited for what we want. So there needs to be a balance of maturity and youth.
I love crazy ideas. I don't like conventional ideas. We also need more staff when the older ones leave so we have to get young people or we won’t be sustained in the long term. It can also be challenging to get young people. So I set up a Youth Club at our regional office when the HR department in China told me that younger people didn’t want to work in our factory. We go to the universities to talk about our company to inspire them and say: “Hey, don't look at us as a factory, look at us as a family, a facility that services world-renowned retail brands that are very, very sexy.
Bharati: You said you love crazy ideas. What sort of crazy ideas have they contributed?
Low: Well, in China, a member came up with an idea of a wall with very fun graphics to say "Hey, this company is very different." This helps with our image and clients see us as lively and energetic.
Bharati: You said that young people tend to be very resourceful, but they’re often criticised for lacking commitment. Have you had to deal with that?
Low: I think it's natural that they are not committed and it's fine. I think you need to maximise each person’s strength. Some people are committed and can be counted on and you need to reward them for that. Others are not committed but good at generating ideas to maximise that skill and talent. If you want your business to flourish and to find a more sustainable answer for tomorrow, you need the best of both worlds.
Bharati: How would you describe your business philosophy?
Low: Win-win. I always look first for how to benefit my customer, my stakeholders, my business partners and all my suppliers. Then how it benefits me. We all have to win. We all have to come together, be open-minded, transparent. I think it's my determination. It's in me that in my life, I cannot afford to fail people. Even when I was doing my renovation contracting business, when I took on a job, I wouldn’t sleep. I would get the job done. Deliver 100 per cent. It's in my blood. It's in my genes. But you need a very good team. They must all be willing to work as a team to make it happen. I have to lead by example.
BIGGEST OBSTACLE BUSINESSES HERE FACE? THEMSELVES
Bharati: You talked about disruption earlier. What's your advice to businesses people who, at this point, might be struggling with this?
Low: In fact I do see a lot businesses suffering. I feel that the onslaught of digitalisation and the Internet does create a lot of pressure. So I think for businesses to sustain, business owners may really need to take stock of their position, whether they are in a good financial position to engage social media to enhance the value of the business. Or if they find that they are not in this position, think about consolidating the business, joining a bigger company, M&A, or if they're in a better position financially, buying over some smaller companies that are very strong in technology who can add value to the conventional business. I think that may forge a better solution or strategy.
Bharati: So don't go it alone if you can't manage it?
Low: You shouldn’t because time is not with us. We don't have the luxury of time because while we are thinking, while I am talking to you, things change. It's too fast, faster than you and me can imagine. Businesses don't have the luxury of time. Put aside your pride. If you can't survive on your own, you have to find the fastest solution even it means joining a bigger company. Piece together ideas, even with people in the same trade. So in my case, if someone else is doing store fixtures, I would sit down with him or her and say: “How can we do better if we are together?” I'm very open and the world market is huge.
I think business owners have to come with a very open mindset. There is nothing we can change about the way the world develops and evolves. The only thing we can change is ourselves. Singapore businessmen have to stop being negative. Sometimes, the biggest obstacle we face is ourselves. Let's be positive. I know it took a lot of tears and blood to achieve what they have today. But what helped you succeed before will not be able to carry you to the next 5-10 years. I don't think so. So you have to be very open and realistic.
It's just that there is suddenly this onslaught of all these new challenges coming on and they find it very difficult to manage. But I think if they keep their minds very clear, keep themselves very calm, take stock of themselves, ask themselves many questions, it will be ok. Take a piece of paper and write down what have you achieved and what will help to carry you to the next level. I think that's more important. Seek consultants, talk to government agencies. I’m sure they have many ideas. I think for businesses that really want sustainability, they have to look at the region at some point and the global market.
Today it’s much easier. You can do it through the Internet.
Bharati: What are your views on Government schemes to help businesses?
Low: I think the Government has done a good job. They're putting in a lot of effort and resources to help SMEs. I look around the region and when you compare to other countries, the Singapore Government has really done a good job.
However, I think more important is the businessman himself. He has to help himself before he can get the Government to help him. Government can only lessen the pressure but it can’t help you to shape your business model. To do that, you have to depend on yourself. If you can't help yourself to shape a more sustainable business model, I think Government help may not help much.
CLIMBING OUT OF DEPRESSION
Bharati: I’m sure you’ve had your share of failures. Which one stands out for you?
Low: When I was in the interior contracting business, I grew my business. I worked very hard with my uncle and in 2003 we floated the company. And we didn't do so well. It was quite a bad setback. I went into depression actually.
Bharati: What happened? Why didn't you do so well?
Low: There was too much pressure in managing a business by itself that we had to expand the business while managing shareholders’ expectations. I admit that I was not good enough to manage the capital market at that point in time. There were some external shocks too. The Iraq war, etc. We really didn't do very well. So that was one very big setback for me.
In fact a client from the US came to me and looked me in the face and said: "David I think you are not yourself. I think there's something wrong with you." That is when I realised I was experiencing mild depression. I wasn’t sleeping or eating.
Bharati: How did you manage that?
Low: First, I decided to calm myself down. And I can't remember who recommended a book called The Art of Happiness. I read the book and really got into it. I healed myself and I stood up again. I wanted to be happy again.
Bharati: What did that episode teach you about business?
Low: I got myself into a position where I could think better. I started to re-examine myself. I started to refocus myself to a point where I said: “Look, I have to think of a solution that can help my business.” That is how I slowly got into the business that we are doing today. I realised the business has to be very focused and I have to be very focused to have a vision to get there. So my vision is to set up a store fixture specialist that is able to serve global brands, able to have my product’s footprint all over the world. I had to look for customers that have an ambitious plan with a global footprint which was in line with the globalisation phenomenon at that time.
At that point, we were still doing some general contracting but I told myself that in order to succeed, in order to increase the chances of success, I have to cut off the contracting business and have my full attention on the store fixtures side to make it happen.
Bharati: What or who would you say has influenced you over the years?
Low: I think most people have an idol. Mine is Lee Kuan Yew. I have read every single article on Lee Kuan Yew. I have read every single book on Lee Kuan Yew. I admire him a lot. I admire his ability to turn Singapore, within a short period of time, within 50 years, from a third-world country to a first-world country. No one else in the world can do it. If he can do it, why can't we try to apply his philosophy to business?
Bharati: You worked with your dad a lot. What sort of influence did your dad have on you?
Low: My dad has already passed but I thank him. If it wasn’t for him putting me in a position to work for him, I don't think I would be who I am today. I thank him a lot.
He tried to do everything from running a coffee shop to a furniture shop to a contracting business. He would do anything to survive, so I admire him in that area.
Bharati: What sort of a succession plan do you have in place?
Low: I think one of the challenges that most Singaporean businessmen face is we came from a country that succeeded in a very short period of time, 50 years, and I’m part of that journey. I’m part of that process. To find people now with the mindset that we had while growing our business is difficult. Times may be different now, but you still need a strong vision. To find a successor with that kind of quality, the thought process and the kind of mindset that I had, is a challenge.
However, my philosophy is this: I try to impart my skillset. I share my philosophy of business with all my regional heads and heads of department. I try to engage them. I built a good team that is good in their own division, so one day, if I happen to not be around, things will still work. If I decide to get someone involved to take over my role, I would like to find a visionary leader to whom I can impart my thought process so that he can share my vision and develop that vision into a mission that will proliferate down to the team.
Within my organisation I have very good people. However, I cast the net wide. Whoever can come in and say; "I can do better than you. Let’s talk.” I will sit down with them. I am very open minded.