IF YOU’RE driving along busy Route 17, in South Carlstadt, New Jersey you are bound to catch a glimpse of an off-white single-storey bungalow that has a signboard that reads Crystal Palace.
If the name sounds familiar, it is. The store used to belong to Kristaline Worldwide, a Malaysian company based in Kuala Lumpur that has Crystal Palace showrooms in the city and Petaling Jaya.
The store is now owned and run by Malaysian businesswoman Chooi Mei Foong, better known as Mei Tan, who prides herself in promoting and selling “mostly” Malaysian-made products.
“Kenneth Yeoh who was running the store for Kristaline Worldwide was returning home to Malaysia and was looking for a buyer. My husband suggested that if the price was right he was interested and that’s how I got started,” says the affable Mei.
That was in 1999 and today the store has established itself for quality custom-designed chandeliers and light fittings and PU (polyutherane) decorative fittings.
Mei who came to the US at the age of 18 after finishing her Form V at the Sri Aman School in Section 14, Petaling Jaya, didn’t dream she would be running a business.
“I wanted to study biology but ended up doing Medical Technology,” she says.
After graduating she worked for a while as a medical technician in ER (Emergency Room) at Montgomery Rehabilitation in Alabama.
Mei says: “But the pace there was slow and so I decided to come to New York where the prospects and pay were definitely better.”
She worked for five years at a private clinic before getting married to businessman Kirby Tan and becoming a full-time home keeper. With three daughters she had enough to keep her busy.
But with the girls, Amanda, 10 and Emelyne, 7, off to school leaving little Carolyne, three, at home, Mei had some free time and was looking for something else to do. This was when the offer of the store came up.
She will be the first to admit that it was not plain sailing going into a new field and it took some time learning the ropes.
For a start, not many knew of them and besides not everyone could afford chandeliers.
“And when things appeared to be improving Sept 11 occurred and that again affected my business,” says Mei.
“One of the important lessons I learned was how to deal with people. This was a new environment and the work culture was different, given the diverse races and language problems, it took some getting used to,” she says.
She had a good teacher too in her husband, who was in the printing business and who while helping her always was in the background helped. Now, she practically runs the operations on her own.
Mei says that the selling of light fittings and chandeliers was very competitive especially with products from China being so much cheaper.
“There is no way we can compete with their products so I had to create a niche market for myself, I went for quality finished products and targeted the high-end market. While we get our crystals from Austria and Egypt the frames for our chandeliers are made in Malaysia and are plated in 24 carat gold. That means unlike the lower quality which rust or lose the shine after a while, our does not.”
“Another advantage we have is that our styles are different and no one else carries them. We also change our designs from time to time.
She says: “We also help our clients design chandeliers to meet the individual taste and the setting of the homes.”
Mei said her customers, who mainly came from New York and New Jersey, were very exacting in their demands and wanted things exclusive and made to perfection.
“Some even want the colour of the fittings to be of a particular shade and visit us and watch as we work on their pieces. While they demand a lot they are willing to pay for it and are very appreciative of the work done.
“Here they go for quality and if they like something, price is not a problem.”
She says that the quality of work spread by word of mouth and many of her new customers were referrals.
“People who are happy with our work recommend their friends to us and this has helped our business grow,” says Mei.
But one product that is really catching on here is PU mouldings that are used as decorative pieces for the home.
“Such mouldings add an artistic touch to the home. Americans love this. These fittings can be made from wood but the labour cost will put it out of the reach of most people. This makes the PU a good alternative.
“Besides being cheaper, it is easier to cut and install and it won’t rot. What more you can also paint it any colour you want?
“Because of the good quality of our PU products it is getting very popular. We have already begun distributing container loads throughout the United States and the Caribbean and are planning to go into the whole of North America.
Mei says: “We also plan to increase the items to include, among others ceiling tiles, railings, cornices, chair rail corbels and ceiling architecture mouldings.”
Her mouldings come from a Malaysian company ACM Direct that has its factory in Tawau, Sabah.
“One of the reasons why we are doing well is because we get 100 percent support from the company and that makes it easier to promote their products,” she says.
Mei is proud that most of her products are from Malaysia and in her way she is promoting the country.
She says there are many Malaysian businessmen in places like New York and New Jersey and she hopes, especially those in the construction and building industry, would begin to use Malaysian-made products.
Mei says she was very surprised at the response for our products judging from the growth in business.
“There is so much potential here and I am confident the business can grow even further.”
Mei wants to see more Malaysian products on the market and is willing to help anyone in Malaysia who wants to promote their products in the US. She says that she is always on the look out for new products that have potential.
Mei adds: “Our products are superior in many respects like quality and design and we should do everything to promote them.”