A life-long passion that never dies

Updated: 2017-01-23 08:31

By Sophie He(HK Edition)

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Having gone through thick and thin in business, homeware retailer Roy Ng tells Sophie He he'll not give up his retail career and is making a comeback.

Hong Kong homeware and creative accessories retailer Star Lite (HK) Ltd may have been spooked by soaring rental and operational costs, forcing it to shut down all of its retail stores some two years ago, but it's determined to make a comeback, this time jumping on the proliferating e-commerce bandwagon.

Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Roy Ng says having been in the retail sector all his life, he's resolved not to let it go, and will launch an e-commerce platform soon.

Ng recalls starting his retail career in the United States in 1988 before moving back to Hong Kong to work for various multinational companies engaged in running department stores, as well as chain and specialty stores.

He decided to kick off his own business some eight years ago.

Ng's last post outside Hong Kong was group CEO with a listed company in Singapore - a retail and home lifestyle group with offices throughout Southeast Asia and in Shanghai and Hong Kong. After the company was acquired by a Chinese mainland conglomerate, Ng decided to take the plunge with his enterprise Star Lite.

It was in late 2008 and the iPhone 3 had just emerged in the market. Ng saw the opportunities and decided to sell iPhone 3 accessories.

"Although nobody was really doing this in Hong Kong at the time, I took the risk and started something, knocking on the doors of factories that had been exporting accessories. The Hong Kong market was too small for them, so I asked them to sell me some of their products so I could distribute them. Eventually, I got a few manufacturers that were willing to make some products for me."

Using his retail network to the fullest, Chen was very soon doing business with all the department stores. The iPhone accessories and cases he sold targeted the upper-middle to high-end markets.

"From iPhone 3 to iPhone 4, that was my success - that's how I made my first pot of gold," reveals Ng.

He was selling a lot, but because those were other people's brands that he carried, he soon found his way to the Chinese mainland, looking for factories in Shenzhen, and did his own Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) and Original Design Manufacturer (ODM).

At that time, most of his company's products were still iPhone accessories like phone cases and headphones, and screen protectors. Ng subsequently branched out selling car accessories such as accessories for people to mount their phones in vehicles.

"Since 2009, I have been carrying other brands. After iPhone 4, the demand for iPhone accessories went down significantly. So, I turned to home lifestyle products as we have a good distribution network in Hong Kong."

The company used to have several retail stores in Hong Kong apart from homeware - bags, women's accessories and gadgets.

Looking outward

"We used to have stores at Ocean Terminal, Tuen Mun Town Plaza plus an outlet in Olympian City and a store in Langham Place. We were also in Seibu department stores, as well as stores in Harvey Nicols," says Ng.

But in 2015 Star Lite didn't renew its leases with the landlords as market conditions turned sour and have not been good for the past two years.

The entrepreneur laments that the rents were hard to bear, and landlords in shopping malls were reluctant to cut rents despite a weak market. Operating costs had gone through the roof and hiring people was difficult as the company struggled to break even.

"Since 2015, we began focusing on exporting, wholesaling products to Southeast Asian countries and made a name for ourselves in the market. The buyers would come to us and we would sell products to them in Hong Kong."

Southeast Asian markets have accounted for the bulk of Star Lite's revenue in the past two years - at around 60 to 70 percent - while the rest comes from Hong Kong as the company supplies its products to department stores. According to Ng, the company's revenue hits more than $10 million annually.

Star Lite is now developing the e-commerce business, making a comeback in the retail sectors.

"We're designing our website and hiring people. We'll launch the website from Hong Kong in the first half of this year. We'll also use platforms on the Chinese mainland, like Tmall, to help us get our products there," says Ng.

Taking to e-commerce is quite challenging for the company, he admits, and their products have to be unique as the majority of these products the company buy for the local and Southeast Asian markets are made on the mainland. So, selling "Made in China" products in China has to be something different.

Ng is bullish about the mainland's e-commerce market, noting that its size is still less than 10 percent of the country's entire retail market.

Room for growth

"So, there's still a lot of room for growth, and we're thinking about reaching out to Southeast Asian countries so that we can sell directly to them. At present, we're selling to buyers and agents."

To make the company more competitive, it's developing a brand new skincare collection. The products are being researched and developed in Japan as that country's research and development in skincare products is admirable, says Ng.

"The ingredients of my skincare products will be very unique. It took us three years to develop and finalize the formulation work, and we'll be targeting the upper-middle market."

Ng aims to launch the brand in Japan late this year, to be followed by Hong Kong and the mainland. Star Lite will set up cosmetic counters to sell the products which will be supplemented by e-commerce.

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(HK Edition 01/23/2017 page8)