SME Champions is a series featuring the people behind Singapore’s homegrown enterprises. It tells the stories of their relentless pursuits towards success and the things that keep them going.
It isn’t every day that a furniture manufacturer can lay claim to having government bodies as part of its pool of satisfied customers.
But Mr Elsen Ng, the CEO of Chateau Italia, is able to count the Ministry of Defence, People’s Association, National University of Singapore, and more, as part of his clientele.
The company handles furniture projects secured through government tenders. Over the years, it has earned a good track record of meeting the expectations of government organizations and statutory boards.
Video edited by: Jennifer Tjahyadi
The history of the company dates back to 1983, when Mr Ng set up Melandas, probably the company’s most well-known furniture brand to date.
Chateau Italia’s current business direction was determined after some trial and error; and its good track record, slowly and painstakingly built up over its almost 40-year history.
Indeed, the company has weathered its fair share of ups and downs, including the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003, and of course, the COVID-19 pandemic last year.
Mr Ng says candidly: “We used to have about 10 showrooms in major malls in Singapore. But we had to rethink our business model when SARS hit. The rental costs were just too high.”
He decided to venture into manufacturing furniture in China, since the factory costs were lower there. But the process was more complicated than he thought it would be.
“We were a ‘foreigner’ in an unfamiliar land struggling to make it in a country that already had a huge domestic market. Doing business in China is also all about having the right connections,” he explains.
So he returned to home ground, and established Chateau Italia in 1987.
Today, the company is now not only a manufacturer, retailer, exporter and franchiser, but still continuing its project-based work and submitting tenders for government projects.
In a sea of furniture retailers and manufacturers, a few things set Chateau Italia apart from the competition: Its extensive experience and product range, as well as its good knowledge of, and relationships with, suppliers from China, Malaysia, and the Asean region.
The company offers more than 10,000 products from over 100 manufacturers on its website.
“Because of the government projects that we are involved in, we order in bulk and so are able to give our customers a lower price point,” he says.
“Our products are good value for money – not necessarily the cheapest; but quite likely to be half the price of what others are charging.”
More importantly, all of Chateau Italia’s products come with a warranty, he adds.
Thanks to its project work, the company was able to ride out the roughest parts of the COVID-19 pandemic with relatively more ease than it had during the SARS outbreak, which Mr Ng chalked down as “having learnt from experience”.
He says: “We were not that badly affected this time around as we could still continue to tender for government projects and not that heavily invested in the retail market yet.”
The company saves on expensive warehouse costs by stashing its stock safely away in its office at Oxley BizHub, where it takes up three units.
There, stylish chairs, office swivel chairs, bar stools, adjustable work tables and sofas of every imaginable size, texture, colour and design fill every cranny.
“The pandemic confirmed our theory that the solely brick-and-mortar business model cannot work. If we still had 10 showrooms now, we would be in big trouble.”
He also discovered that financial control was a key factor for business success, and that it is imperative to have cash reserves on hand “like the government”, he says with a laugh.
“You need to have enough cash reserves to last through tough times. We’re not there yet, but we’ll keep trying.”
Already, Chateau Italia has a few things going for it – experience, connections, product range – and also, its impressive track record.
Now, it wants to pivot more to the retail side of the business. By fostering stronger relationships with designers and architects, Mr Ng wants them to know that his company is a one-stop shop for any type of furniture – indoor, outdoor, office, healthcare, commercial or industrial.
“We want designers and architects to know they can simply work with us instead of having to work with 20 vendors, as we have the product range to support their needs,” he explains.
Once such relationships are in place, it will be easier for Chateau Italia to make in-roads in Asean, he adds.
Two years ago, he set up Melandas Online – for B2C customers, and Melandas Direct – for B2B clients.
Ultimately, it all comes back to Melandas – and the quality and value for money that have become synonymous with the brand.
“We want to be able to take care of the Melandas brand, as well as any problem that comes up with any product carrying our brand. That is what our customers expect from us.”
Indeed, not just government bodies have sought the company’s expertise and services, but also many a satisfied customer. Some even ask if a Melandas sofa they bought 20 years ago can be reupholstered.
“Those who know the Melandas brand know they are getting quality and good value for money, which is why they still come back to us after so many years.”
For the company’s next growth phase, Mr Ng hopes to go regional. To him, the Asean market holds great potential in the next 10 to 20 years – taxation and supply chain management issues notwithstanding.
He also wants the company to further explore e-commerce – whether through its website or via tie-ups with e-commerce platforms such as Shopee and Lazada.
“We must change with the times. Life is moving and changing so fast. If you don’t, you’ll become a dinosaur,” he says.
Chateau Italia is located at Block 65 Oxley BizHub 1 #01-67/83/84, Ubi Road 1, Singapore 408729. For a comprehensive catalogue of its products, visit www.melandas.com.sg. Call 6733 3308 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Belinda loves thinking about random stuff, and collecting useless bits of facts and trivia. She often roots for the underdog, and believes the world needs more happy endings.