Mr Ho Kok Zee (Middle), Sneha Menon – Senior Business Advisor (Mr Ho’s right) and Heritage Ceramics team. 

I founded Heritage Ceramics, a ceramic tile wholesaling business, in 2001.  The recession of the time proved an opportunity for the business – conventionally, sourcing of tiles was done in Europe and other Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia and Indonesia. However, the financial crisis put these products out of reach for many Asian consumers, so they turned to alternatives. I saw an opportunity and started Heritage Ceramics to introduce a new-to-market concept of products manufactured in China. We rapidly gained market share with tiles that were competitive in price and quality and today we are one of the leading tile specialists in the region producing tiles for use in residential and commercial spaces.

Prior to the pandemic, our customers were able to view our tile collections physically at our showrooms in Singapore and China. We used to be able to interact closely with them to understand their needs and make recommendations. Most importantly, customers could touch and feel the products before making a purchase.

When Covid-19 struck, customers became sceptical about face-to-face interactions and our sales dwindled. This was exacerbated when non-essential services were forced to halt operations.

Our business in China took a hit, as many of our international clientele who used to travel there to procure our products were unable to do so due to travel restrictions. As such sales in the short term also became uncertain.

Furthermore, international travel and domestic movement restrictions put a strain on our backend operations as we were not able to travel overseas to meet with our production team and source for materials.

I was then introduced to Sneha Menon, a Senior Business Advisor at SME Centre @ Singapore Malay Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SMCCI).

Sneha Menon (left) with Mr Ho Kok Zee (Right).

Working hand in hand with Sneha, we redefined key areas of the business. We were aligned in our vision that technology would be an important enabler to ensure the longevity of our business as we continuously explore new opportunities.

The pandemic accelerated this process, and Sneha supported our efforts to develop a technology and strategy roadmap that would enhance our operations and processes as well as equip our employees with the necessary skills to adapt to new ways of working. She also helped to facilitate access to relevant Government assistance schemes, such as the Enterprise Development Grant by Enterprise Singapore, which helped us defray some of the costs involved to adopt new digital solutions and business strategies.

This led to the creation of our very own Heritage Ceramics Virtual Showroom – an interactive platform that takes customers through our extensive range of tile collections and designs. The virtual showroom enabled customers to visualise and gain inspiration through digital mock-ups.

I would never have imagined that the traditional decision-making process of tile selection through touching and feeling samples, would succeed in a virtual space.

Our customers’ trust in our brand, built over two decades of heritage and quality service, proved to be tremendously helpful in getting existing cliental and prospective customers onboard this online purchasing journey. Covid-19 has also played a pivotal role in the shift of consumer perception towards Virtual Reality, as consumers are now more open and receptive to the idea.

By bringing our showroom online, we have been able to expand our reach resulting in increased traffic to our website by 50% – 60%. This in turn has resulted in an increase in lead generation by 30% – 40%, and more people are aware of our brand today.

Today, the company is still on the path of recovery. External factors such as the resurgence of the pandemic in China and rising cost of materials have continued to weigh on our business.

The key challenge remains in balancing our profitability with market competitiveness, and we are committed to providing our customers with the best quality products and services.

The pandemic has taught us that change is the constant. With diversification in mind to hedge against supply chain disruptions and reach new audiences, we are looking at expanding our business to markets further afield.  We are continually engaging our Business Advisor, who has guided us through an Internationalisation Diagnostics tool to identify key considerations in our go-to market and product-to-market strategies.

We are also glad that travel restrictions are being eased, so we can resume overseas travel to meet and deepen relationships with existing and potential in-market partners.

The pandemic has thrown many challenges our way, but with a timely approach to embrace digitalisation aligned with a well-defined business strategy, we managed to remain approachable to existing clients and identify pockets of opportunities in new target segments.

We know that more change is coming our way, but I am hopeful that as long as we stay agile and evolve our business model in a sustainable manner, that we will be able to weather all storms and continually grow from strength to strength.

About The Writer

Mr Ho Kok Zee, 51, is the Managing Director of Heritage Ceramics Pte Ltd. The company was founded in 2001 and specialises in the design, production and distribution of high-quality porcelain tiles and has manufacturing facilities in China. Its tiles are sold in Singapore as well as many countries in Asia Pacific.