Mr Lee, thanks for sparing some of your precious time with me. Firstly, can you tell me more about yourself?
I have set up my factory in Bangkok for more than about 12 years in Thailand. So now, my pieces are only for a special design around the world and they are manufactured around the world especially like Europe and America. I am more towards specializing in design because in 1990, I received an award from London De Beers International Jewelry Awards. There are not more than 30 designers in the world. There are more than 20,000 designers and I am the first Asian who got this award. I had opened my own jewelry design school in Singapore and Malaysia. This is about 6 or 7 years before. So I start my business in Bangkok now
How about your family background?
I am the first son. I have three sisters and one younger brother. My mother is a fashion lecturer, seems about 30 years before. She opened a Fashion Design school in Singapore. When I was young, about 8 or 9 years old, I always followed my mother. She had many models to try the clothing. I liked to help my mom to take the costume jewelry to match the color. For instance, if the model wears red color, I would match suitable types of costume jewelry to it. Therefore, when I was young, I had already loved jewelry very much. My father runs a small business, in which he opened a departmental store at the shop house.
After my National Service, I went to the factory to learn how to make jewelry in Singapore. My mom told me, "If you love jewelry, why don't you learn design and learn more about jewelry?" Therefore, when I was 22 years old, my mom sent me to Hong Kong to study the design course.
What prompted you to set up your own company?
I learnt about the gemstone, gold balding, setting, timer, casting, and hand craft during the design courses which I took in Hong Kong and in Thailand. After I came back to Singapore, I felt that I had learnt many jewelry craft in Hong Kong and in Bangkok. Therefore, I decided to start my own school when I returned from Hong Kong. I was 24 years old then.
As my mom already had a fashion school, I therefore used her school to start my first Jewelry Design course in Singapore. It was a success. Lots of students signed up for the course and the attendance was full everyday. This therefore made me even more interested in designs. However 10 years ago, in Singapore, very few craftsmen could make what I wanted for the designs which I create are one of a kind, and they are more towards nature, such as, mountain, water, leaf, and flower. Furthermore, most of the designs in Singapore were traditional and simple. At that time, only the craftsmen in Hong Kong were able to make what I wanted. Unfortunately, the workmanship was too expensive, one piece cost me S$500. I could not produce what I wanted but my dream is that my design can sell around the world. I later tried my luck in Malaysia but it wasn't successful as they also didn't have good craftsmen. Eventually, I went to Bangkok and I found craftsmen who are very skilful in making jewelry, and the workmanship was low. That was why I started my factory in Bangkok, 10 years ago, in 1993 - to do what I want.
Tell me some stories that give me an idea of the hardships in starting your own business from scratch?
I was very successful in Singapore at that time as my school was the first Jewelry Design school in Singapore. NUS had even invited me to the conduct night courses for Singaporean who had had an interest in jewelry designing. Diamond graving, and gemology courses were some of the courses, which I had conducted.
I have a passion for jewelry but both family members do not. Therefore, I opened another branch in Malaysia and I made a lot of money from the school fees. In Malaysia, most of my students came from jewelry families. The jewelers sent their children and managers to learn from me the courses. Hence, I know many people in Malaysia and Singapore.
As such, I asked myself why I did not make jewelry and sell to them since I knew the bosses directly already, and have very good relationships with them. Therefore, I started my design in Bangkok and made jewelry there, and sold to all my students' companies.
I made a lot of money in Singapore and Malaysia. However, I also lost a lot of money in Malaysia because my business was very wide - the whole of Malaysia, from Kuala Lumpur to Penang, and from Kuala Lumpur to Johore Bahru. I was robbed in Malacca whereby all my jewelries were raid completely. The amount of money that I had lost was so huge that I had no choice but to close down my school and office in Malaysia and return to Singapore.
I was too young at that time, about 26 to 27 years of age.I made a lot of money. Just the school fees that I had earned, I use the cash money to make the jewelry, buy the stone in Bangkok, and then sell to them again. I could make about S$300,000-400,000 in one month. I was so happy. Nevertheless, experience is very important too. I lost the money because the management control is too loose, and thus, I was robbed in Malaysia. Due to this lesson learnt, I told myself to concentrate to only one. No wholesale but just manufacturing to create my designs. After thorough consideration, I decided to set up my own factory in Bangkok.
Tell me some stories of your proudest achievement to date
When I allowed that factory in Thailand to manufacture my designs, they stole my designs without my permission. I drew the designs and they made for me but before they gave me the jewelry, they had already sold my designs in the market. I was already very devastated with the robbery incident in Malaysia but this second pitfall brought a much deeper impact on me. I was terribly upset and disappointed at that moment.
As such, I decided to set up my own factory. The first factory is in a showroom in Mamooco (shopping center). It was a very small showroom of not more than 200 square feet. There were only two workers in the showroom and they made jewelry for me. This was my first start-up in Bangkok, about 7 years ago, and I spent about S$5000.
I created all my designs in a very special design in the showroom called Jewelry Center in the shopping center. All the jewelry shops within that shopping center sell very expensive jewelries, such as, diamonds and ruby. I was the only one who made silver jewelry due to the limitation of my capital.
This is my first showroom in Bangkok and I felt very sad because all the other jewelers within that shopping center were very displeased with me and they even lodge a complain of me to the Management Office. They said nasty words such as, "What kind of stuffs does this company sell? They sell crazy designs! They look for diamond and then they spoil the name! This is a jewelry center, all jewelers are obliged to sell gold and diamond but he is not a jeweler for he sells silver, very low class. And he is not high people too." This incident happened about 7 years ago. The Management Office therefore came to complain to me. I felt very sad when I learnt about this. I in turn complaint to the management, " I'm doing the natural stones, I'm doing the silver. This is not costume jewelry. This is not imitation jewelry. This is silver. Silver is the metal. Stone is the natural of stone. Why I can't I sell them in this jewelry center? Yes, my design is neither diamond nor gold. But why I can't I said this is jewelry too." This incident
is very important to me for everyone looked down on me. As it's just a small shop and my workers made a lot of noise while making the jewelry, the other jewelers complained again. They said, "This is not factory, this is shop. So how can we let you come in here?"
I fought with the management and eventually they allowed me to continue business because I sell silvers and stones which were considered in the line of jewelry. That time I made myself remember, 'I must fight! I must fight again to be successful!' because I started for S$ 5000 that time to start a show 3 months before, and it was not enough to pay for the seats, rental, and other expenses. Moreover, it is very difficult for Singaporeans to open an office in Bangkok for taxes, under-table money, and a lot of money have to be paid. It's totally not enough. At that time,
my mom was in the midst of closing down the school and my father happened to contract
leukemia. So, a huge sum of medical fee is needed everyday. Thus, my parents do not have the money to support me.
Nobody helped me. Thus I forced myself to design more beautiful things so as to sell them in Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia. Thus, after 1 or 2 years of my start-up in Bangkok, I brought all my jewelries by myself, and with just two bags , I walked into Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia. I started with one bag first, what I made and brought. I did not declare to the custom because in order to avoid paying tax. I walked from one end of the Japan to the other end, shop to shop and showed my designs. In Taiwan, again I walked to all the jewelry shops and showed all my designs to them. When I was done, I took a taxi to the hotel. I couldn't believe I had actually walked so far until my the skin of my hands peeled out, my bag spoiled, and the wheel of the bag spoiled.
In about one year, people from the countries which I had visited knew who I am, and they would come to Bangkok to buy from me. Even till today, they still come to buy from me. I fought about 3 years. At last, I set up my factory. Now I have about 200 over workers and I bought the whole six storey building in a very expensive place in Bangkok called Jewelry Trade Street, which is about 3
to 5 years' time. I bought it at about $60,000,000 BAHT.
As for the showroom that I've mentioned earlier at the shopping center, it was crowded with foreign customers from Japan, America, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia, after one year. All the other jewelry shops on the contrary, were very quiet. They had no business at all, and the people are totally different. When they saw me, they did their best in praising me.
In that showroom, I fought for three years. I went to Japan to see my clients with only one bag. One bag became two bags and the number added on until my wife went together with me to sell overseas. 3 years after, I stopped going. I joined the Jewelry International Show in Bangkok, Hong Kong, and New York. I am very lucky to have joined the Jewelry Trade Shows for I get to know more international people, vice versa.
After 3 years, I moved out of the shopping center because it is too small for me. Currently, in the Jewelry Trade Street, I have 3 buildings. In these buildings, everybody knows Alfred Lee from Singapore, very famous because only I can do one of the kinds the design- all the special designs. Nobody can copy my design because I like to create the stone, play with the design, and astrology design. They cannot copy my design because in one day, I can make about 50-60 designs.
How do you describe the competition in the market?
In Singapore, they always have price war. They have 1-karat diamond, 10-point diamond, 18-karat yellow gold or white. Everybody does the same thing. The competitors always follow blindly to the majority's taste and likings. For instance, if the teenagers like this type of design, all the jewelers in Singapore will therefore make thousand pieces of it.
Since everyone is selling the same design, the only thing that you can attract customers to buy from you is by playing with the price. Hence, this leads to a price war. For instance, Poh Heng sells at S$500. Goldheart, on the other hand, sells very simple design, and the diamonds are easily available in the market. They just told the craftsmen to make the same design. As for the diamond, they just use polythene molo, and they can become S$299. Suki, they can make the same thing again and the price becomes S$199. This is like a fighting business in Singapore now in the jewelry line.
Diamond is for investment. People feel that it is more classy to wear diamond. It also signifies that the person has taste and is wealthy. This is the feeling consumers have towards diamond. However, the lowering of price has depreciated the value of these jewelry. How would consumers think when they saw the newspaper advertisement stating, "White gold and diamond selling at S$99"? They could no longer brat about the jewelries they had purchased. The jewelries are
no longer for investment nor could it be presentable enough to be given as a gift. In my opinion, the price war in the jewelry line is getting from bad to worse in Singapore. Nowadays, when consumers see others wearing white gold or diamond, the first thing that come to their minds is that it is just a piece of worthless stone bought only at S$99. There is nothing to boast about nor is it very beautiful.
10 years ago, jewelry portrayed the image of 'taste' and 'money'. Today, jewelry has become something very common. In my perspective, the important element in jewelry is beauty- to show all the beauty for the natural and mineral. So, why should we lower the value of these jewelries? I do not care about the money, the profit, everything. Jewelry is the beauty, why must we spoil its image? To avoid this price war, I therefore sell the very special emerald, something like healing
lucky, instead of selling diamonds. I can win the hearts of consumers for I know very well what they want. People wear jewelry because of its beauty and for good luck. Birthstone and lucky stone are some of such jewelries. I use this type of design, idea, astrology, and combined them together to create a new life. In Singapore, they do not have it at all.
My brother is the one who wanted to sell in Singapore. Everybody complains that the jewelry business is very poor as you can see in Takashimaya, Wisma Atria, and China Town. However, this does not apply to my brother's business whereby the shop is filled with people waiting for new things. Consumers who patronize his shop are those who really appreciate jewelry. They buy jewelry to be kept for collection. They love beautiful things especially ladies, they love beautiful stones. Let's say the picture, if you know the picture, know the art, you will not mind buying it at S$100,000 for one picture. However, if you do not know this picture, I do not think you will buy this picture even if it cost only S$10. This is the art, image of the designer in making. Therefore, to create the art and to create beautiful things, you must be unique rather than imitating your competitors.
This is the strategy of winning the market.
Does the economic crisis affect your business?
No, it doesn't affect my business. I have orders that can last me until next year, and these orders are faxed to me everyday urgently. I have no problem in securing sufficient orders everyday for I have established a stable market in other countries. Today, not only is my name being used as a brand name in Tokyo, the Haro shopping center in London has also become my agent. This agent of mine has franchises in Tokyo and London. They are very particular about me selling the designs to other companies. Therefore, they are willing to afford any price in order to have the sole ownership of every design that I create. As such, the demand of my designs in each month is always very high. In addition, as my designs are unique and each type of the designs has limited supply in the market, I therefore do not have to worry about low demand. On the contrary, I have to worry about whether I can satisfy the thirst of my loyal customers everyday. Therefore, until today, my business is always out of stock everyday.
How many times your business is now compared to those days when you first started?
It is about 2-3 times of profit. Some diamond profit is only 13-15%. I have my own theory. I like to find free stones, free mineral of the mine. In Bangkok, I have the opportunity to know many Mexican and all the miners in Australia. In Thailand, it's easy to get to know the miners. Sometimes I can get free rough mineral stones from the miners. I use the free stones to create the design and
I sell them at S$1000 per piece. Though the stone is free but the workers cost me about S$50-100. I can sell like low price. Even this mineral, you can't tell me the cost. Like the diamond, you can know one karot how much, the gold one karot how much. They can know. The natural mineral, the stone, nobody know the cost price.
I like to create all natural minerals, and I don't like to use those that are already in the market. Recently, I found the special Sunstone, the earth, which everybody called it 'Metide'. Nobody is able to find this type of stone. I'm lucky for I can find this type of miner in Bangkok. This gives me more chance to compete in the market. Furthermore, I do not always stick to using ruby, emerald, sapphire, etc, all the time. I create new stones, new design, and new market. The reason why my business is always so good because I create special things. Everybody in
Bangkok are well aware that I create unique designs unlike my competitors who do not change until today. My customers are always there waiting for new designs. Sometimes when my workers bring out a basket of jewelries, which they had just made, these jewelries will be swept away in a second by the first customer who saw it. There won't be any chance for subsequent customers to see it. As mentioned earlier, I will only make a maximum of 30 pieces per design, then I would throw
away the mould and make a new design. The reason why I do this is because I want the customers to feel fresh. Most of them fly all the way from all parts of the world to make purchase from me. Thus, I do not want to disappoint them by offering designs, which they can find in their own countries. With this thinking in mind, it therefore urges me to continue making new things for my valued customers.
Mm… Maybe now we can move on to talk about your family.
I have one six years old and one five years old daughters. My wife is a Thai Chinese. I met her in the Bangkok airport. She was the duty-free Chanel promoter. We got married in Bangkok. My entire family is now staying in Bangkok.
Are you expecting anyone of them to take over your business?
I hope so but this is not so easy because the main point is the design. The design is so important. Everybody is able to make jewelry but not in coming out with an excellent design. I'm fortunate for my mom sent me overseas to learn designing and other essential procedures namely, gemology, diamond cutting, stone cutting course, and many more. Without going through all these courses, I might not be able to be what I am today. Hence, I know the things to look out for when choosing top quality stones. I also know how to cut these stones and how to set the diamond. I can create a 100% jewelry compiled. It is useless if one only knows how to draw professionally. In this way, it's only 50% in the process. Therefore, to create one piece, one must be able to know everything, from 1% all the way to 100%. Only by doing so can you compete with other companies.
What are the qualities that it takes to succeed in business? What are your thoughts on the "secrets" to having a successful business?
The secret is that you must know 100% of everything. You must learn and do things by yourself. You should not leave everything to your workers. I buy and select the stones myself, and I even cut the stones by my own. I don't trust my workers. After I have completed my designs, I'll teach my workers my desired ways in setting and plating.
My workers have the skills in designing but they just couldn't design what I want. They do not have the same feelings as I do while doing the designs. The jewelers in Japan, New York, and Germany have very high expectation of jewelry. If they feel that the jewelry is too light or too heavy, or the cutting and setting of the stone are done wrongly, they will reject this jewelry even if it is very beautifully designed.
I am very glad that I joined the International Jewelry show in Switzerland, Germany, Brazil, Canada, and all around the world for I get to know the different taste of these people and their buying behavior. I learn from all these jewelers what they want and what they make. They inspire me with ideas in designing. Hence, it is not a matter of designing; it is also to give customers what they want.
Who are your role model and mentor?
My master lecturer in Hong Kong is my role model and mentor. I learnt from him many things. I learnt from him the gemology and the way to do business. I remembered him telling me, 'You must always do things before others and always think about why customers buy from you.' I learnt from him about 3 years. As my lecturer is a Hong Kong, he always does things very fast! This is a virtue for if I wasn't influenced by this virtue, I wouldn't be able to succeed today and would have been lagging far behind others now..
Who do you admire in general in any field?
In Paris e.g. Peccary, Tiffany
Have you ever thought of retiring?
I'm now 39 years old. I hope that at the age of 50, I would have 10 shops around the world. I also dream that I do not have to travel around the world to find out the progress of my branches. I would be able to know all these information including the profits earned by clicking on my computer in Singapore.
I think running your won business is hardest part. Because running your own business, unlike ordinary people that work for other people, you literally have no weekends for yourself. You always think of improving your business. Do you think that's too harsh to yourself?
When I was working in the Mamooco shopping center, I had to work for 365 days including Chinese New Year. I can only get to see my mom every 3 months, and I couldn't even have reunion dinner with my family members, not even once. I remembered my mom crying very sadly after my business trip from America during one of the Chinese New Year. She asked my why I didn't make it for the reunion dinner. I replied, 'Mom, in America they have no Chinese New Year. Moreover, I might lose the trust of my customers if I cancelled the business dealing. I had no choice. They chose to discuss business with me at this time.' Though working everyday is very harsh but it is worth it.
Do you think starting a business while working for someone else a good idea?
Yes. It is a good idea. I had worked with many companies in the past, such as, Larry Jewelry and Factory Beauty Jewelry. By working in these jewelry companies, I learnt about how things should be done. I gained a lot of invaluable experience from these companies for they gave me many hands on opportunity, such as, buying the stones in Bangkok and selling the jewelry in Singapore. From the experiences gained, it made me realized which way I wanted to go.
Do you have any advice for the young people that are thinking of staring their own businesses?
Yes. They should start by building a very strong and stable foundation instead of jumping in rashly and invest blindly. They should equip themselves with the necessary skills and knowledge before they are ready to begin their own businesses. In addition, never rely on people for they will play you out one day. Trust yourself and do everything yourself. Only then will you be able to succeed!
As we try and pick the final 38 entrepreneurs from all the people we interview what qualities would you think a person should have to inspire others?
That person should be able to focus on only one direction. He should concentrate until he has established a very firm and stable base before he is ready to venture out in this challenging and ever-changing business world.
If you are chosen as one of the 38 winners will you come to the ceremony to be honored?
Will you be comfortable with the press and TV asking you many of the same questions if you are a winner?
Sure. But I prefer interviews conducted in Mandarin.
Do you have any objection to this interview being posted on the Community Web Site or published in the newspaper prior to being chosen?
If part of the Spirit of Enterprise is a scholarship given in your name directed to any school you would like to give it to: any idea now where that would be? You don't have to decide now, but if some day you are asked - any ideas? Primary school, secondary, college, technical or university?
Currently, I'm still not sure.
When the interview is written I will show you a copy for accuracy and for your signature before we post it on the Community Net site. Would it be fine with you?
Mr Lee, can I have your name card?
Why did you choose locate your shop at Centrepoint?
Firstly, it is in orchard whereby the desired crowd is there. Second, the manager of Center Point is one of my loyal customers and she persuaded me to set up my shop there. Moreover, Center Point is a place which poses very strict criteria on the types of business to be allowed in the building. Thus, by locating in this building, it upholds my shop's reputation and image.
So, basically that's all the questions that I have for you today, Mr Chiu. But, before I leave, is there anything that you want to share with me?
I want to tell the young generation not to be afraid of facing problems, risk, and losses because this is part and parcel of our lives. Rather than regretting for wasting your whole life doing nothing to pursue your dreams, you should start now and fight for it! In this way, when you look back at what you have achieved in your life, you will feel very happy.
Can I take a photo of you?
Thank you, Mr Lee.
Student Interviewer's Personal Comment