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THE Singapore economy might be going through a soft patch, but homegrown interior fit-out and furnishing firm Grandwork Interior is not slowing down. In fact, its loyal customers - which include top designer labels like Prada, Dolce & Gabbana and Giorgio Armani - continue to expand in places like Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines. And they require Grandwork's strong track record of quality project execution to furnish their elegant, sophisticated retail shops in time for new store openings.
"Our plan to move overseas was correct," says Grandwork's founder and managing director Jay Chiu. He said that more than a third of the firm's yearly revenue now comes from projects abroad. "A lot of retailers are holding back in Singapore. But if you go to Bangkok, tourist arrivals are very strong. So they are building non-stop," he says.
This month, Grandwork is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a well-deserved party. Set up in 1996 with just a six-man team in a tiny office in Orchard Plaza, the firm has since grown to become the dominant space builder for luxury brands in Singapore.
The firm hires 220 staff in Singapore and 560 group-wide. It just moved into a 140,000-square-foot building at Sungei Kadut, 10 times the size of its previous facilities in Tagore Lane. The new building comprises an office building, a factory block and a workers dormitory. Armed with new capacity and the latest machines for wood and metal working, more projects can be taken on. Grandwork can house all its foreign workers, mainly carpenters from Malaysia, on its premises.
Grandwork's employees, be they workers or project managers, all unwind at the fourth storey of the office building by working out at the gym or playing air hockey and table tennis. There is even a bar and a space for a band to perform every month. "Our work requires a lot of teamwork. So I encourage the staff to come here after work and bond," says Mr Chiu, who is married with two children.
The pursuit of quality
Grandwork became successful because it delivers on its projects and accommodates clients' requests. "We never fail any project. If you want us to build a shop in one week, we will plan properly and finish in one week, not even one day late," Mr Chiu says. "Clients cannot afford any delays as rental costs are high. And quality is important as people will go into the shop and buy products that can cost thousands of dollars each."
Grandwork not only has skilled carpenters and the right machines to do the job, but project managers that keep schedules on track. On site, every detail is critically examined for its worksmanship, be it the alignment of paint, the painting of corners, the smoothness and flatness of ceilings and the layout of shelves. "A 2mm deviation is too much for us," Mr Chiu says.
Grandwork keeps a factory in Singapore despite higher overheads, and Mr Chiu says the Singapore production facility offers them a competitive edge. By producing at home, it can bring the Singapore brand to the world. It is also better able to customise products for its clients here.
The well-developed local logistics infrastructure helps, for it can be difficult to import or export materials from neighbouring countries. "We have no problem importing any material in a very short time, and no problem shipping it out because our forwarding services are the best," he says.
Grandwork also has factories in Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Jakarta, as well as representative offices in Taiwan and Japan. Its Thai operations are its biggest with 250 workers based there. Yet key skilled workers in the Singapore office are still flown up for projects. "We have to do that to ensure quality. That's how we deliver the contract and win over the customer."
Grandwork is notable for having secured the loyalty of its customers. Brands like Prada, Miu Miu and Kinokuniya have been clients since the beginning. The firm's commitment to delivery is epitomised in a story in its early days that Mr Chiu regards as one of the turning points for the firm.
In 2005, Grandwork bagged a huge contract for Kinokuniya in Hokkaido, Japan, and was given a few months to deliver. Disaster struck when regulations did not permit the entry of its numbers of containers packed with the necessary wood furniture. "We had to throw away the containers, which cost S$2 million. I then had to decide whether to carry on. If I didn't, I would have lost the contract and the client would never believe me anymore."
Mr Chiu decided to start again from scratch, incurring extra costs to meet Japanese building standards and even flying some products over. "That's how we gained their trust," he says. From then on, Kinokuniya let Grandwork handle all their projects in the other 11 big cities of Japan as well as elsewhere.
Revenue then grew significantly year-on-year for a few years. Grandwork expanded into Thailand, where it also fitted out the interiors of international hotel brands like Four Seasons, Le Meridien, and Crowne Plaza.
Looking ahead, the company plans to keep recruiting new staff even as it continues to expand. It is focused on the Vietnamese market this year, and the Philippines after. The firm's reputation has garnered it a host of new clients in the past year, like jewellery brands Tiffany & Co, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Cartier, along with other luxury brands like Louis Vuitton, Saint Laurent, Dior and Bottega Veneta.
Ultimately, Mr Chiu wants to make Grandwork known in every corner of the globe. "It is my dream. Not everyone can work in this industry. It is hard work round the clock. But I want to achieve something that not everyone can achieve."