In the third part of a four-week series, three companies tell Aaron Tan how they expanded from humble beginnings to make their mark at home and overseas.
The Sunday Times
September 20, 2015
ALTHOUGH Mr Ho Zen Yong’s family has been manufacturing pianos since the 1960s, he decided to make his own guitars.
“My dad asked why I wanted to build guitars when I could just take over his business,” says Mr Ho, who is known as “Hozen” to customers and friends.
Mr Ho stuck to his guns. In 2004, he started Maestro Guitars, and made his first guitars by hand using pre-made components from Chinese suppliers. Two years later, he understudied with British luthier Chris Horton to hone his craft.
During the next five years, his business grew with over 1,000 guitars sold, but Mr Ho became increasingly dissatisfied with the
quality of the pre-made parts he had to work with.
“It came to the point when I was unable to control the quality of my guitars, which could damage my brand and reputation,” he says.
“Making things worse was the labour crunch that made it hard to retain the technicians I had trained.”
So in 2010, he decided to source for raw materials and components in Singapore, and have the guitars made in a new production plant in Guangzhou, China.
It meant Mr Ho had to shuttle between China and Singapore once every fortnight, but he now had more control over the quality of his guitars.
In Guangzhou, he was involved in production processes to ensure the critical components of his guitars were made to his specifications.
These include a guitar’s braces – the wooden struts that support the soundboard and back of the guitar.
“I don’t trust anyone else to do it,” says Mr Ho, who is still in the process of instilling a sense of perfectionism among his Chinese employees.
“While my workers did whatever I tell them to do, they didn’t take enough pride in their jobs nor strive to achieve perfection. I had to
change their mindsets and get them to be proud of what they’re doing.”
After years of fostering a culture of perfectionism in the company, Mr Ho says his workers have started to show more pride in their work.
“If they feel something can be improved, they’ll tell me. They’re not doing things blindly now,” he says.
Even with the quality of the guitars under control, there is room for improvement.
For one, the “voice” of the guitars could be better in terms of tonal quality.
“I had been experimenting with different ways of voicing a guitar, like making the wood thinner or shifting the braces a little,” Mr Ho says, “but they were mostly unstructured experiments and I was somehow lost.”
That changed in February. Mr Ho went to the United States to learn about the finer points of voicing a guitar from renowned guitar builder
Ervin Somogyi. This capability development project was supported by Spring Singapore.
“It was an ‘ear-opening’ experience for me,” he says. “Through listening exercises, I learnt more about factors that could affect a guitar’s tone, such as bass, treble, projection and so on.”
Mr Ho was quick to put his new knowledge to good use. Since returning from the US, he has been hard at work, producing over 20 prototype guitars that have been well received by his regular customers.
The recent breakthrough means Mr Ho is even more unlikely to take over the family’s piano business.
“My father has said that I could always work in the family business if my business fails, but I don’t think that will happen,” he says.
For more information on the retail sector and stories on how retailers have built their capabilities, please visit www.spring.gov.sg/retail or email firstname.lastname@example.org.