At 31-year-old, Christy Ng is not in a rush to retire. The astute businesswoman, however, underscores that in order to ‘survive’ in the tough retail landscape, laying a solid business foundation is crucial.
“Failure is very, very real. You cannot think that you will always be making money. You have to keep on improving.”
“My priority is to ensure this business is really sustainable even if I’m not around. That, for me, is the ultimate challenge as an entrepreneur.”
Arguably one of Malaysia’s most well known footwear entrepreneur, Christy started selling ladies shoes at flea markets around the Klang Valley a decade ago before taking her business online.
My priority is to ensure this business is really sustainable even if I’m not around. I think for me that’s the ultimate challenge as an entrepreneur
From shipping hundreds of boxes of shoes out of her family home in Petaling Jaya, Christy bootstrapped all the way to cash flow positive - in between studying for her biotechnology degree - selling custom-made and ready-to-wear shoes to over 30 countries, as far as the United States.
In 2016, Christy turned her eyes to retail. “We needed a brick and mortar presence apart from just being an e-commerce player,” says Christy. Within two years, she opened six stores in shopping malls in Johor and the Klang Valley, the latest being Mid Valley Megamall.
“What we are trying to achieve here is we want to be a multi-channel footwear label,” says Christy.
“Physical stores are still very relevant since not everyone would buy online. When it comes to something so personal like a pair of shoes, a lot of people would like to try it on before buying,” she adds.
The young entrepreneur is discerning in selecting locations of her stores, ensuring that they are located within catchment areas, where there are already a lot of clients who buy from her online.
“Our store doubles up as service centre to give customers more confidence to shop on our e-commerce platform.”
Shopping malls, according to Christy, are also actively approaching e-commerce retailers like herself to draw in a wider crowd. “They also want to excite the young consumers and not just cater to the older generation. So, a lot of mall landlords are actually approaching e-commerce retailers, not only me,” says Christy.
Faced with the rise of e-commerce and tough competition all around, more and more retailers are either closing their brick-and-mortar locations or cutting back. In the U.S, prominent retailers like J, Crew, Abercrombie & Fitch, Ralph Lauren and Macy’s have scaled back operations.
In the footwear realm, iconic Nine West, Aerosoles and Payless have turned to filing for bankruptcy amid a rapidly changing retail environment.
“Even local shoe brands, some of them are not doing too well, either closing down or scaling back,” says Christy.
In Malaysia, the retail and shopping mall environment is facing a tough time too. According to Retail Group Malaysia, fashion retailers suffered a negative growth of 4.8 percent in the third quarter of 2017, compared to the same period a year ago. The report cites deteriorating purchasing power of Malaysian consumers due to the rising cost of living and stagnant income growth.
Continuous innovation and making products that cater to the specific needs of Malaysian women, says Christy, is what kept her ahead of the curve.
“Over the years we’ve gradually improved the quality of our shoes. A lot of client tell us that a very key component is (that they want) shoes that are able to grip.”
Christy explains that most shoe brands sold locally do not use soles which are suited to Malaysia’s tropical climate and rainy - sometime slippery - season. “So, we’ve actually swapped the soles. My new collection are all made from rubber, sourced from Malaysia.” Christy uses escolite as its main material previously.
“Things like that actually take our brand to the next level. People trust us more because we listen and constantly improve our quality,” adds Christy.
Another ‘adjustment’ she has done is by introducing shoes with wider girth to provide more support and comfort for the feet. Bunions are common in this part of the world. Asian women who live in the equatorial area tend to have larger bone structure,” she says.
“A lot of mothers buy from us because they say our shoes allow them to walk fast, even run, with their baby. We get that kind of recognition from young mothers. That’s why we have a very loyal following.”
Amid the challenging retail environment, Christy says her business is ‘doing well’ and is in a comfortable position to expand further. She, however, declines to divulge exact margins and revenue, only to say that her company has grown over ten times since inception.
We are not that successful, we just did not die
“We are not that successful, we just did not die,” answers Christy coyly when asked about her success. “I think what we’ve managed to do is build a sustainable business. That’s why we appear to be successful.”
Christy is focused on improving her products and expanding within Malaysia, despite receiving offers from shopping malls around the region to set up shop.
“We are not doing it yet because we are not ready,” says Christy “You need to have a certain size of a war chest to be able to go abroad. Most Malaysian brands that go abroad won’t make money for the first five years.”
“For instance, one market that we do really well is Singapore. But I don’t see a reason to open a shop there. That’s because I can open a few more shops in Johor Bahru and pay much lower rent. Singaporeans will come over,” adds Christy, who has an outlet in Aeon Mall, Tebrau.
Christy’s focus next is to future-proof her business. However, securing talent, she says, is her biggest challenge.
“We are really a Made in Malaysia brand. But it’s very sad because young people don’t want to do this. Hiring new workers is a very painful process for us. The younger generation don’t want to work in a factory, they see it as unglamorous.”
We are really a Made in Malaysia brand. But it’s very sad because young people don’t want to do this. Hiring new workers is a very painful process for us.
Succession planning a continuous work-in-progress, says Christy, “I think I will probably retire by 60 or 70. So I have 30 or more years to plan.”
“Things have to be more automated, scalable and structured in order for succession to happen,”she adds.
Christy, who won the inaugural Alliance Bank Bizsmart SME Innovation Challenge in 2013 - winning RM250,000 for her business expansion - will return to the programme as one of the mentors this year.
The show, renamed BizSmart Challenge - for first time in the format of a reality TV show - is aimed at nurturing small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs).
“Don’t listen too much to what people say. Because at the end of the day, as an entrepreneur, you take the risk,” Christy advices.
“And don’t allow people make critical decisions for you. That is why my business is still privately owned. Because I cannot afford someone else making critical decisions for us.”