main2For Mr Kurniadidjaja (left) and Mr Yong, design is a way of life. Photo: Desmond Wee

In the final 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
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September 27, 2015

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LIKE most upstarts, it was tough for Mr Nathan Yong and Mr Jefery Kurniadidjaja to hire the right people when they opened their humble furniture store at the basement of Park Mall more than five years ago.

“People still have the idea that furniture is a boring trade,” says Mr Yong, co-founder of designer furniture retailer Grafunkt.

“Moreover, most locals do not like retail hours, and even if they do, they prefer to be in the fashion line,” he adds.

And being a small company, Grafunkt, which was started in 2009, did not meet the quota requirements for employing foreigners.

So, the duo decided to invest time and money with long-term part-timers, most of whom were designer interns, to keep the company brimming with fresh ideas.

“We are passionate about design,” says Mr Yong. “It’s not just a business for us, but a way of life.

It’s about appreciating well-made items that are relevant now and hopefully in the future.”

But unlike some other designers, Mr Yong, who won the Singapore President’s Design Award in 2008, thinks the best design comes from listening to stakeholders like customers, manufacturers and his own staff.

“I also try to read as much as I can on various topics to understand humanity, life and businesses so that we can have a meaningful life, including life as a designer or retailer,” he says.

Silver award

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His philosophy towards design has paid off.

In 2013, Grafunkt, which was only three years old at that time, beat more established retailers and clinched the Silver Award for Best Furniture Retailer organised by the Singapore Furniture Council and supported by Spring Singapore.

One thing led to another, and it did not take long before Grafunkt did well enough to launch a 5,500 sq ft flagship store in Millenia Walk in 2014.

“It was a great jump for us. We took a calculated risk and saw the need to have a bigger presence in the city, which Millenia Walk provides,”says Mr Kurniadidjaja.

This was followed by a 3,000 sq ft store in the same mall that showcases furniture from the iconic French brand Ligne Roset, with which Grafunkt had clinched a deal to be its sole distributor early this year.

Even though the company has grown, the co-founders make it a point to feel the pulse of the business at every level.

Mr Kurniadidjaja, for example, has been involved in sales and customer service on the retail front to get a better sense of consumer needs.

Staying nimble

Mr Yong says: “At the backend, we try to keep the team small and nimble so we can respond faster to market needs.

“As for branding, our search for the best products that adhere to our belief in good design is relentless, so our customers know that they can trust our choice of offerings.”

To keep their offerings and retail experience fresh, the two founders have gone on overseas study trips organised and funded by Spring Singapore.

“We found the trips very useful as we got to learn from people in the same trade on how we could improve our selection of furniture and retail shopping experience,” says Mr Yong.

He adds that their expansion over the past few years was partially supported by grants.

With the manpower crunch, the duo are exploring e-commerce as a way to reach out to customers and to “balance the dependence on staffing”.

At the same time, Grafunkt is also looking at a lifestyle concept that offers a cafe, bike shop, kids’ products, accessories and an art space, beyond its current focus on furniture.

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 lifestyle_division@spring.gov.sg.