TONY Telak Chan started from the very bottom to achieve success with TC Art Distributors Sdn Bhd, but it was not an easy journey, nor were there any short cuts.
Born and raised in Kuala Lumpur, the Bukit Bintang boy, better known as Tony TC, came from University of Hard Knocks, believes that experience is the best teacher in the world.
“As soon as I finished what was then the Malaysian Certificate of Education, I worked for an office equipment company as a sales man, but this only lasted for about a year because they could not pay my commissions.
“Then I moved on to selling cars for Tan Chong Motors in Jalan Pudu. It was there that I learnt the actual skills of marketing,” said Tony, who then joined Perry Sweets, an India-based candy company.
“It is a tough job being a sales person, but when you have the determination and will power, everything falls into place,” said Tony who later joined Necktie International as a sales executive.
During this time, a friend approached Tony asking for assistance to find pens to be used as souvenirs.
“I went to Petaling Street and I must say after looking at the items sold there, I just had the idea to open a gift shop,” said Tony, adding that he saw the demand for gift and souvenir items and started looking out for them during social gatherings and events.
With RM20,000, some of it borrowed from friends, Tony opened his very first gift and souvenir shop in Taman Maluri, Cheras in early 1990s.
He said he would travel to Singapore to look for items appropriate for events.
“With God’s blessings and pure hard work, the business expanded and the need to have a bigger space prompted me to relocate to a three-storey shop house in Taman Cheras Indah in 2001,” he said, adding that an investment of RM400,000 was pumped in to purchase the 1,800sq ft shophouse and do renovation work.
Now, 12 years down the road, TC Art Distributors has expanded its business to premium corporate gifts and has bought over two more three-storey shophouses next to the original location.
The company now has built-up space of about 5,400sq ft, which houses two storerooms, a showroom and office space.
When asked about the market for corporate gifts in Malaysia, Tony commented that the demand is significant.
“Everybody likes to receive and give gifts. It has become a common thing among Malaysians that every time an event is held, there will be a souvenir giving ceremony.
“It is often reciprocated — when one gives, the other party receives and gives back something in return,” said the father of three grown-up children.
Tony said he believes that the art of giving and receiving should be practised every day in life.
The company’s current roster of clients include the Malaysian Hockey Association, Malaysian Badminton Association, Malaysian School Sports Council, government agencies, non-governmental organisations and companies among others.
Although the market is huge, Tony explained that the competition is stiff due to the presence of about 200 corporate-gift companies in the Klang Valley.
“People go for low prices and if they are able to get items cheap, that’s what they go for.
“Some prefer to buy souvenir items from ordinary retail outlets,” said Tony, adding that an alarm clock can be bought for only RM2 this way.
Tony travels to China, Hong Kong and India at least three times a year to look for corporate gift items.
“It is difficult to get the items you want in Malaysia as people want something different and out of the ordinary.
“The number of manufacturers here is low and not many are creative and innovative in their ideas, which is one of the reasons why those in the trade import items from abroad,” said Tony, who is a member of the Malaysian Gifts and Premium Entrepreneurs Association (MGPA).
He shared that one of the problems faced by the MGPA is the lack of creativity and ideas among local designers who have a hard time coming up with products similar to those from abroad.
“Some manufacturers import their raw materials from abroad to manufacture the product here, but it all relates to cost and the items are very limited in number,” said Tony, adding that the lack of variety has also prompted industry players to actively source items from abroad.
The company also supplies items to agents, who take orders from companies, government agencies and NGOs.
Among the corporate gift items distributed by TC Art Distributors include 2D veneer frames, caps, golf souvenirs, ceramic and leather items, trophies, t-shirts, seminar bags, umbrellas, jute bags, premium pens (like Cross, Sheaffer, Lamy and Parker), medallions, tie clips and sports goods.
When asked about the company’s revenue, Tony declined to disclose exact figures, saying only that it was healthy while adding he expects it to grow 20% next year.
Apart from TC Art Distributors, Tony also runs Arts ThirtyEight Traders, a company dealing solely in the import of goods.
“As we are in the premium-gifts industry, the battle is even harder when other industry players come up with lower prices.
“But with perseverance and good marketing skills, there is always a way to be successful in the industry,” he said.
Asked about his plans for the future of the business, Tony said he hopes to be the one of the biggest corporate-gift companies in Malaysia.
His advice to young entrepreneurs is, “Every bump is a lesson. It is only through mistakes that we become stronger and improve in areas where we are weak.
“If you believe you have the right product in the market, then go for it and aim for the highest you can achieve.”