A fortune in water closet

  • Focus
  • Monday, 07 Mar 2016

Chee (centre) with daughter and production manager, Mickey Lim Choo Mei Chi, 26, and son and sales manager, Jayden Lim Hong Thian, 30.

Bathroom ware manufacturer Asher Sanitary was started by a lorry driver and his wife, who parlayed a small distributorship into the successful business that it is today. LIM WING HOOI talks to Chee Wai Fong, the housewife who became the company’s MD.

THESE days, the new generation of entrepreneurs likes to use projectors, charts and other fancy audio-visual aids to explain their business strategies, and they are apt to talk about disruption, monetisation, scalability, exit strategy and IPO.

But for some so-called old-fashioned entrepreneurs, the blue-print is in their head.

And when they talk about business, they are likely to touch on the importance of working hard, having a good relationship with customers and ensuring there’s food on the table for the family — all practical and down-to-earth concerns.

Workers spray-painting toilet bowls in the factory.
Workers spray-painting toilet bowls in the factory.

This certainly describes Chee Kwai Fong, 51, the managing director of Hup Seng Sanitary Wares and Asher Sanitary Wares.

Speaking at their factory in Batang Berjuntai, Selangor, Chee says she and her husband started the sanitary ware business when they saw the opportunity to generate a better income to pay for the needs of the family.

“My husband started as a lorry driver transporting fresh fruit bunches (FFB) from oil palm estates. We had four children to bring up at the time. He had dealings with a Japanese sanitary ware manufacturer in Ijok and started to enquire if he could become a distributor of their products,” she remembers.

Her husband was then helping the company to transport its products to various hardware stores, as well as disposing of their manufacturing waste.

His request got the nod, and in 1993, the couple set up Perniagaan Hup Seng as a sole proprietorship.

The moulding section where sanitary ware are shaped.
The moulding section where sanitary ware are shaped. 

They commenced operations from the family home in Ijok, with the car porch serving as a warehouse. It was very basic, to say the least, but they were off to a hopeful new start.

As they didn’t have much capital, the manufacturer offset some of the transportation fees owed to them, amounting to some RM5,000, and gave her husband the stocks with which to launch the business.

“I was helping to take orders while taking care of the children, while my husband would go out to do sales. We also hired a lorry driver to transport the sanitary ware,” recalls Chee, who came to be known as Mrs Lim to the customers.

Her husband, she says, took the business seriously. Even when he was hospitalised before his passing in 2011, he told her: “You don’t need to spend so much time visiting me at the hospital. Please look after the business.”

And that, she certainly has done.

These days, the business has grown by leaps and bounds. The move into manufacturing in 2000 has paid off handsomely, and they have their hands full just trying to meet the demands in the Malaysian market.

QC being carried out.
QC being carried out. 

Looking back, Chee says it has been a fulfilling journey and the sacrifices have been worth it with all her four children now helping to grow the business.

“I am happy that they all have a good education, graduating in the fields of accountancy, psychology, marketing and information technology. But they chose to come back to help grow the business as they understand the hard work their father put into it and want to continue his legacy,” she says.

Of course, it has been a long and winding road to get their sanitary ware business to where it is today.

The business grew mainly on good relationship. As Mrs Lim says: You must be able to entertain clients’ queries with a happy voice and positive attitude towards the client. Always.

This was how they were able to widen their client base, supplying to various hardware shops — from Penang all the way to Singapore.

From the lone one-tonne lorry they had in the beginning, they went on to add a three-tonne lorry and hired another driver.

A worker manning the mixer used to mix the materials required to manufacture toilet bowls, sinks, urinals and more.
A worker manning the mixer used to mix the materials required to manufacture toilet bowls, sinks, urinals and more. 

In 1996, they set up a private limited company, Hup Seng Sanitary Wares. A year later, they set up a showroom at Bandar Baru Sri Damansara, Kuala Lumpur, and followed it up with one in Taipan, USJ and Klang, Selangor.

They also opened a showroom in Johor Jaya, Johor.

“As our number of clients increase, the supplier began to have difficulty coping with our requests. Also, there were many internal policies that slowed our orders.

“This prompted us to think about setting up our own manufacturing plant in 1999,” she says.

The decision led to to the establishment of Asher Sanitary Wares. The manufacturing venture required an investment of about RM3mil.

After a full year of preparations, during which time they hired a sanitary ware manufacturing specialist to set up the manufacturing lines for water closet, basin, squatting pan, urinals and others, as well as secure their material suppliers, they fired up their three-acre manufacturing plant in Batang Berjuntai, Selangor.

Asher had a workforce of 40 at the time, and it made eight products. Today, with 60 people on the payroll, it makes about 50 products, churning out some 10,000 pieces of sanitary ware every month.

Proudly made in Batang Berjuntai.
Proudly made in Batang Berjuntai. 

The company’s products cater mainly to the local market, with their customers comprising hardware shops, property developers, and contractors of public infrastructure (schools, for example).

“We also export to five countries, including New Zealand and Australia. And in some cases, we serve as an original equipment manufacturer,” Chee says.

Mrs Lim is quite the businesswoman. She is the one who juggles revenue and cost, taking into account labour, material and equipment.

“No matter what we do, we must meet all the requirements set by the clients and regulatory bodies. One of the things that we do not cut corners on is the mould, which we change every three months to ensure that the quality of our products are maintained,” she stresses.

The company is also naturally a distributer of plumbing fittings such as taps and flush valves. It’s a natural outgrowth and helps to serve their clients better.

Moving forward, the company is targeting to increase its production capacity, and to this end, has purchased a shuttle kiln (a high-performance furnace used for heat-treatment purposes).

“This will allow us to increase our production lines from 16 presently to 22,” Chee points out.

Despite the company’s growth, Mrs Lim still makes time to attend to her customers, answering their queries and entertaining requests. Sometimes when things get too technical for her customers, she simply says: “Please pass me to your plumber.”

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