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Threading towards the future (Amended)

With the help of predictive business intelligence (BI) tools, family-run clothing supplier Tantex is ready for the future.

Under the stewardship of (from left) Ms Kirk, Ms Tan and Mr Tan, Tantex grew from being a buying agency for South-east Asia to becoming a key supplier to retailers in the UK, Europe, and the US.

THE conference room of clothing supplier Tantex is tucked away inside Fortune Centre and in it, all sorts of clothing hang cheek by jowl. They are samples of the products manufactured by the company, and include a monkey onesie and a lady's top emblazoned with the words "It's a bad hair and pyjamas kind of day".

Tantex began life in 1991 as a buying agency for the South-east Asia region, and it sourced raw materials for the customers that it was working for.

"Our main business started in 1991. We had humble beginnings as a buying agency for the global textile network. Today, we are a key supplier to retailers in the UK, Europe, and the US," says Juliet Kirk, Tantex's director.

Under the stewardship of Ms Kirk and her husband, managing director Johnson Tan, along with daughter Janice Tan who is general manager, the company has grown to a staff strength of 36.

It is recognised as one of the 50 fastest-growing firms in Singapore, according to credit and business information service provider DP Information Group.

Tantex today helps to design, source and matchmake global retailers with its 25 Asian manufacturers in six countries. It conceptualises the designs inhouse, and oversees quality control and compliance with its manufacturing bases.

Tantex has a network of manufacturing partners, most of which are located in South-east Asia. The company manages suppliers in Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and China.

"Our key manufacturing partners used to be our suppliers. Today, with our input, we are able to give their businesses a boost and in return, they take certain guidelines from us because we have the expertise to bring them up to proper industrial standards, which are recognised internationally," Mr Tan says.

"We are able to gain the trust of the customers, in that they know and trust we can supply them in a manner which is compliant with international ruling."

The company set up a Shanghai office in 2002, to "play in the big league". Says Ms Kirk: "China is such an integrated market. Once you produce the raw material, you can send it next door to have it cut and done, so it's much quicker and more exciting."

She adds that in the last few years, the company has moved to focus on South-east Asia, as lower costs have made it more effective for them to compete.

Technology for the ages

To move the company forward, Ms Kirk has always been on the lookout for technology which integrates well into the company's workflow and enables the smooth transfer of information within and without the company. Since its inception, the company has readily embraced computerisation as the future of technology.

"During that era, it was extremely difficult," says Ms Kirk. The company lost staff with years of experience, who simply could not cope with the new technology.

"In 1993, we designed our own Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system. It is a customised, bespoke system, tailored to our specific work demands," she says.

"Since we were in the textile industry, we also invested in a photo colour printer which cost roughly S$30,000 back in those days," she says. To defray costs, the company applied for grants through Spring Singapore, which managed to offset around 70 per cent of the costs incurred, says Ms Kirk.

"We also had an impetus to add value for our clients," says Mr Tan.

Spectrum of software

Today, Tantex has fully embraced a wide spectrum of software and electronics to assist in the daily running of the business. The company uses the Jabber suite of communications software from networking provider Cisco, which helps them to keep connected to their network of manufacturers and clients, regardless of location.

It has also engaged the services of Qlik, a business intelligence and visualisation software provider, to better read the tea leaves in its expanding cup.

Qlik enables Tantex to analyse over 25 years of data to easily identify the latest fashion trends, forecast demand and provide spot-on recommendations to its global clientele of fashion retailers.

"When they presented the system to me, I found it the best option to enable me to present data to the second generation and the younger ones in the team," Ms Kirk says.

Through visual analytics, Tantex's management can easily and quickly deep-dive into its data to investigate buying patterns and make real-time adjustments to redistribute inventory accordingly.

Ms Tan says that the business analytics provided by Qlik's digital tools provide an overview of the business at a glance, and helps to improve decision making.

"This tool is currently in use only by management, but we hope to roll it out to all our users within the next year or two," she adds.

As a family business, the founders naturally turned to their children for the security of the company's future. Despite holding a degree in psychology, Ms Tan agreed to join, obtaining her MBA from the University of Queensland not long after coming on board. "My parents actually met in this trade," Ms Tan says.

As second-generation management, Ms Tan understands the difficulty of integrating into a company with such deep-seated roots.

It was tough in the beginning, she recalls. "It took me a couple of years. But soon, I started to understand why my parents enjoyed it and how challenging it is - not to mention difficult - to explain the business to people of my generation!

"They drive you hard, even though it's a family business," she laughs.

Helping the younger generation to understand the trade is a cornerstone of Tantex's business. For the past four years, the company has been taking in interns from Temasek Polytechnic, and sponsoring them directly. They take in two every year, and the interns get to assist in garment design and shadow the design merchandisers while they work.

"The interns are only here for three months at a time, so it's not really enough time to teach them everything," Ms Tan says. "What we can do is provide them a platform where they can be in the office to hear, observe and understand what we do, to have an in depth understanding of our business."

It is important to take in as many interns as the company can handle, says Mr Tan. "We want to support the younger generation to understand this trade. Everybody buys clothes from overseas brands, but they don't see that Singapore has a thriving textile industry," he says, adding that the company "opens the doors to those who would like to stay in this line of work" after their internship.

What is next for this company, having stood the test of time when other similar firms have faded away into obscurity?

"We must create a platform for future generations to love this business," says Mr Tan. "Which is why having the interns here will help, hopefully for the long term. And we hope that technology can ease our staff's workload."

Second-generation manager Ms Tan says that she wants to scale up the business and increase its manufacturing presence across the regions where the company currently operates.

"This is why we are investing in new technology to ensure the core business, the foundation, is intact. We have been growing quite well in the last few years but we intend to continue that growth and do even better, in the next five to 10 years," she says.

Amendment note: In the story above, the newsmaker has since corrected their company size is 36, not 30, and that they have 25 manufacturers in six countries. They have also corrected that they sponsor Temasek Polytechnic students directly, not through Taff. The story above has been revised to reflect this.