At the helm of Tollyjoy Baby Products Pte Ltd since 2001 Tan Wee Keng has been focused on building Tollyjoy as a brand dedicated to the well being of mothers and babies with an unswerving focus on quality, durability and value-for-money. Under Wee Keng’s leadership, Tollyjoy brand progressed from strength to strength withstanding and striding through the challenges of the economic downturn and dotcom crisis in the early 2000s. He was pivotal in taking this home-grown Singapore brand into other regional markets including Malaysia, Indonesia, India and Brunei.
A business graduate from the National University of Singapore (NUS), Wee Keng’s involvement in the Tollyjoy family business, traces back to his school days when he spent most of his holiday time, learning the ropes of the company from inside out.
Wee Keng strongly believes in contributing to the improvement of people’s lives and continued his parents’ legacy in ensuring safety, reliability and durability in design and product manufacturing. Recognising the need for internationally validated safety standards in the manufacturing of baby care and mother care products, Tollyjoy achieved ISO 9001 in 1996 as well as other relevant internationally recognised safety standards before they were made mandatory.
As CEO, the passion he has for Tollyjoy is further inspired by the joy he has for his children and family. Wee Keng loves sampling varieties of Asian food and spending quality time with his family.
In your own words what is Tollyjoy?
Tollyjoy Baby Products Pte Ltd (Tollyjoy) is a leading provider of reliable, durable and value-for-money products designed for the well being of mothers and babies. Incorporated in 1971, it remains the only home grown Singapore brand of its kind with an unrivalled comprehensive range of more than 250 products across different categories including Baby Hygiene, Baby Wear, Baby Play, Baby Bedtime, Baby Groom and Baby Gift and Mom’s Needs.
How did you come up with the idea of Tollyjoy?
My parents Mr Tan Khung Ngee and Madam Tan Hong Keow founded Tollyjoy. They identified the growing market need for good quality, durable and affordable baby care products, in a marketplace that was primarily dominated by big international brands.
Could you walk us through the process of starting up Tollyjoy?
Before starting Tollyjoy, my parents were in the business of general trading of goods, including baby products. They realized the need for affordable baby and mother care products in the market, where up until then, people only had choices between various international brands. Capitalising on the low labour and rental costs of that time, my parents set up a manufacturing plant in rented JTC facilities with a team of about 100 people and incorporated Tollyjoy Baby Products, as the first local baby product company in Singapore.
Did you encounter any particular difficulties during startup?
A few years after the inception of Tollyjoy, cost of manufacturing in Singapore increased exponentially and made manufacturing in Singapore no longer a feasible option. The business was restructured to remain competitive by upgrading workers’ skills, automation, as well as outsourcing the manufacturing of the products under strict Tollyjoy design and production guidelines. In the early 2000s when I officially took over the leadership of Tollyjoy as the Chief Executive Officer, Tollyjoy was already in the midst of a crisis brought on by the economic downturn and dotcom crash among others.
We could have easily slipped into oblivion if not for the sheer tenacity of all our loyal staff, who stayed by our sides throughout those tumultuous years, to help guide me and our quest to turn the company and it’s operations around and set things right once again. It was a path fraught with numerous challenges, sometimes seemingly insurmountable. I must admit that the temptation to give up the fight was great. However it was the collective faith and trust placed in the company and its management team that propelled us to rise up to each and every occasion when we were met head on with a roadblock. This enabled us to overcome our hurdles together, and emerge a stronger entity, helping us to remain at the forefront of the industry.
How have you been developing Tollyjoy since startup?
Having grown up with the brand since I was 2 years old, I adopted the business skills from my parents. I remember, having regularly worked within the walls of Tollyjoy’s warehouse, during school holidays, unconsciously learning the business and the company, inside out.
Over the years, it has been a matter of adapting our practices, to new developments and shifts in the market. Riding on my parents’ sound business ethics, I have worked towards expanding the distribution beyond Singapore to other countries across Asia including Malaysia, Vietnam, India, Brunei, China, Maldives and Myanmar. Driving growth through strategic distribution partnerships, has been a key factor in Tollyjoy’s international success and includes distribution of our products through the online portal, Amazon.com, which has in the last two years, been instrumental in growing our market share, across India.
The developmental direction is to take the Tollyjoy brand into the next phase of growth by increasing our global footprint, extending our market reach possibly beyond Asia and also investing in product innovation and technology that will allow us to establish our name as a market leader in the baby product manufacturing industry.
What kind of feedback did you get for Tollyjoy so far?
Tollyjoy is committed to offering products that adhere to stringent test standards, complemented by design, practicality and comfort. Recognising the importance of strict safety standards, Tollyjoy attained ISO 9001 in 1996 as well as other relevant internationally recognised safety standards, before they even became mandatory, and continues to review its safety standards regularly.
Tollyjoy has been recognised for its quality products through awards including Best In Mild Baby Wipes, Best In Hygienic Disposable Nursing Pads, Best In Non-Toxic Liquid Cleanser and Best In Baby Laundry Detergent by Parents World Best Of The Best Awards and Best Liquid Cleanser by Mother & Baby Singapore Awards for four consecutive years since 2011.
What is your strategy against your competition?
The past 10 years have seen an emergence of a multitude of companies and brands offering a variety of products and services to a small and limited consumer market place. There is no shortage of competitors, including long established international brands such as Pigeon and Philips Avent whom we are now competing in the same league with. Competition is a good thing for everyone, but having so many brands, products and features can sometimes be rather intimidating for the average consumer who can be overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices.
With people getting more educated, an expanding economy in general and higher disposable incomes, parents naturally look towards searching for products that are, first and foremost, recognized for their quality. Keeping this in mind, Tollyjoy products are designed to meet the requirements that fit in with people’s lifestyle aspirations, as well as to be in sync with present and/or emerging trends. This not only makes the brand evoke emotional responses that resonate positively but is also a demonstration of Tollyjoy’s understanding of the changing needs of discerning consumers.
Have you developed any industry insights that you could share?
The baby care industry has faced tremendous number of challenges over the years including, increased cost pressures from rentals and wages, increased regulatory requirements, and a small but sophisticated market base. In spite of these difficulties, many companies and brands continue to thrive. This is testament to the dynamic nature of our economy, the resilience of companies and individuals to overcome their challenges, and the unique bond that exists between consumers and brands. The baby care market in Singapore has certainly come a long way since the 70s when Tollyjoy first started out. Then, the infancy of the market meant that there were only a handful of players in catering to consumers’ needs. Today there’s a plethora of choice amidst a sea of companies and brand names. The market, although maturing, still possesses many opportunities to the discerning.
What is the future of the industry?
In a world where adult lifestyles are already being dominated by different mobile phone apps, 21st century parenting will drive the evolution of wearable baby technology, where “smart” main stream products will soon be able to monitor temperatures, heart rates, oxygen levels, sleeping habits and even when diapers need to be changed. It is really only a matter of time before this will come as a natural progression for modern day baby care, produced not only to help care for babies better, but also make parents lives easier.
Coupled with having sophisticated consumers, we are constantly challenged to keep pace with ever increasing consumer demand. Our product development team has their work cut out for them in this sense. They are constantly with their eyes and ears on the ground and with our sales and marketing team to develop products, which appeals to our consumers. That means constantly foraging through industry related journals and websites, attending related exhibitions, as well as visiting the infant department of various malls whenever the opportunity presents. All of the above will give us a sense of where we are currently, and how we can get to where we want to.
Social media and mobile technology have been big game changers for us, with the significant impact that they have on retail businesses as consumers increasingly utilize these channels for shopping, price checks, product comparisons, and information. Even though most of our products sit on shelves in the baby departments of major retail stores, It would be impossible to ignore the Internet retail platform, Case in point is India, where our sales has been largely driven through Amazon.com, which has allowed us to extend our reach across India’s vast consumer market place. We are also looking to extend this partnership to other geographical regions in the very near future.
Were there anything that disappointed you initially?
In the beginning I was reluctant and detested the job that I was forcefully placed in. Quiet obedience and filial piety took over my dreams of venturing into the field of medicine. I acceded to my late father’s wishes, at his deathbed. Little did I know that I had an entrepreneur in me and that I would take the business to next levels of growth, despite the many storms. Over the years I have started enjoying my work with Tollyjoy and is something that I am proud to be part of.
What is your opinion on Asian entrepreneurship vs Western entrepreneurship?
Aside from the obvious cultural differences in the way people do business and the way business is conducted, being an entrepreneur, regardless of where you hail from, you’d essentially be faced with similar challenges to varying degrees of difficulty. These challenges include, but are not limited to, availability of skilled manpower, accessibility to financial infrastructure and services, governmental support structures towards startups.
One aspect of the difference between Asian and Western entrepreneurs stand out. That is the concept of face. Asians typically love to “save face”. So when it comes to failure, which typically accompanies entrepreneurs, the Asian is more likely to think too much even before embarking on an enterprise for fear of failure as compared to their Western counterpart, who is more likely to accept and embrace failure as a necessary component towards success.
What is your definition of success?
As Thomas Edison famously said, “Success is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.” That rings true for me. You need to be fully immersed in your work and be actively engaged, in order to be able to drive it the way you want it to be. Ultimately, success is a state of mind. As long as you know that you have committed your best efforts in achieving what you set out to do or become, and without losing enthusiasm along the way, you will find your success.
Why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?
I was forcefully made an entrepreneur and it was a responsibility I didn’t want, a title I was happy not having. But, the circumstances of my life dictated otherwise. I joined the company immediately after graduating from university and I can’t quite remember the title I was given when my brothers were at the helm of the business as it was inconsequential to me. I took over the business in 2001 when all my brothers decided to focus on other interests in life.
In your opinion, what are the keys to entrepreneurial success?
When I took over the business, it was under a pall of storm clouds. The first order of business was to lead. With the company appearing like a headless chicken, it was natural for our employees to lack the confidence that they needed to carry on with their jobs. Mustering enough courage, and with a plan in mind, I had to convince each and every one of our employees that all was not lost, and that with their continued support, we could pull ourselves out of the rut that we were in.
The second was to reorganize our business inside out. This was especially important if we wanted to stay nimble, focused and revitalized. Our customers depended on this, and critically more so for us if we wanted to survive.
The third was to remain financially viable and flexible. We injected financial discipline in all that we did and continue to do till this day, spending only on what is necessary, cutting out frills, conserving on resources as much as possible and always saving for a rainy day.
The fourth was a dogged focus on product development and supply chain management so that we could constantly revamp and modernize our product range in order to keep up with changing trends and consumer needs and preferences, while maintaining the quality, standards and pricing that our customers have come to recognize Tollyjoy for.
The fifth was to strive for continuous improvements. We developed a thick hide and constantly asked for feedback, especially negative ones, from various stakeholders so as to as to improve on how we were doing things.
The sixth was to constantly improve on how we communicated with our consumers, especially through emerging communications channels such as the internet, in order that we may connect with emerging generations of consumers.
Any parting words of wisdom for entrepreneurs out there from your personal experience?
Along the way of your entrepreneurial journey, many obstacles will definitely come before any of your best-laid plans. Life has a way of throwing curveballs at you all the time, especially when you least expect it. One has to expect it, embrace it, live it, and thrive in order to be happy. Otherwise we risk carrying an enormous amount of grief and becoming miserable all our lives. Conversely, life also has a way of opening new windows of opportunities just when you thought all else has failed you. You need to be able to quieten your heart and mind, and in that serendipitous moment, you might just be able to find your next big break.