"When we first started, Singapore was growing very fast. Business was good and easy. We were just selling and selling in Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Thailand.
Regionalisation was natural because these countries are the closest. Southeast Asia was booming.
Then 1997 came, and everyone got a big shock. It was around the same time that we moved to our current factory site. It was a tough few years. We had to find new business: local business was very bad. Regional business was even worse – the market was dead.
That was when we really started looking at different markets further afield and into developing new products.
That’s where the US and Japan came in. We didn’t set up offices there immediately. Let’s just say I chalked up a lot of frequent flyer miles. Around the year 2000, our contacts linked us up with potential representatives. After visiting 10 cities in seven days, we appointed a representative in Phoenix, Arizona. Together with his 17 sub-agents, he helped me to cover cities like New York, Chicago and Miami.
Japan came looking for me. The country’s economic bubble had burst and companies there were looking for new ways to do business. Overseas suppliers were cheaper, but they could not find many that could meet their quality requirements. Because of our strong brand, one of our suppliers (who also supplies to Japan) introduced us.
Expansion into Canada happened only last year. After approaching IE Singapore in 2013 for assistance, we received a GCP grant for business matching. With it, we successfully appointed an agent, who has since sent about US$1 million in sales our way. Not too bad.
The Christchurch Botanic Gardens in New Zealand is one of Singapore Safety Glass/' customers. Photo courtesy of Singapore Safety Glass.
For product development, we work with the research institutes (RI) under A*Star, the universities or even the polytechnics. We spend a lot of time surfing the net, looking out for the latest technologies, and when we find something interesting, we approach the RIs.
The Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology made a clear slip-resistant coating for us. It helped greatly in our foray into the US market. At the time, we knew of an American company that was very keen on this type of coating.
But that wasn’t the reason why we wanted to create it. It was just a cool idea we had! It was the first product of its kind in the world.
"Because Singapore, our market and our company are all so small, we have to look at niche markets. We don’t have the economies of scale common in the US, China or Europe."
So we’re always on the lookout for unique products that we can hopefully be a global leader in.
But if there is a good product out there, we’d find a way to partner with the company as opposed to creating it on our own. Collaborations are a part of our business model.
Over the years, we’ve accumulated more than 30 partnerships with interlayer companies, glass companies and coating companies.
Now, we’re looking to go into the solar business. We missed out on the solar rooftop business because we didn’t expect the prices to go down so much, so fast.
Five to seven years ago, the solar business had already caught our attention, but no action was taken. Recently, we looked at the whole market again, as well as how we could link our current business to solar energy. For instance, using solar panels as windows, facades, roofs or skylights.
In 2014, a trade mission with IE and Spring Singapore to visit Germany and understand its energy and solar solutions came up. We went with the intention to look for new technologies that could be used in the local context. After all, Germany is a solar business leader. There, we met with OnlyGlass, which does solar media facades.
We’ve signed an agreement with the company. We are OnlyGlass’ sales agent in this part of the world.
Also, if there’s a project in the region, it will send us the materials and electronics. Everything will then be assembled together with the glass, and sold as a complete solution.
There has been interest in solar products, but we’re still trying to educate stakeholders on the value. They are always looking at dollars and cents. Solar solutions will probably contribute 20 to 30 per cent to our annual turnover – which is about $20 million currently – in three to five years’ time.
We’re not planning any investments overseas, in terms of capital expenditure. Instead, leveraging on the network of our business associates, whether in manufacturing or sales, is the priority.
This country booms, that country busts. We’re trying to avoid this boom-and-bust cycle by spreading efforts across a few countries.”