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Putting people first

The Life Interview with Pearlie White's Andy Ong:

Putting people first

Corlison, which created home-grown oral care brand Pearlie White, continues to provide jobs in its production line for packers and movers



Seeing as Corlison's offices and warehouse - the family-run business that created Singapore's only home-grown oral care brand, Pearlie White - are located in the heart of industrial Ang Mo Kio town, one would expect it to be whirring with the sounds of machinery and automation.

Instead, in one corner is a group of middle-aged women, chatting away while meticulously filling boxes up with tubes of toothpaste. In another section, a forklift operator speedily stacks pallets, awaiting the transport that will whisk them away to their destinations. Yet another worker is poring over the delivery labels.

In an era when logistics and supply chains are fully automated, the 53-year-old company has stuck to the old ways of doing things, continuing to provide numerous jobs in its production line for packers and movers in Singapore.

Corlison, which makes 60 of its own products and distributes more than 600, including cleaning products brand Method and feminine care brand Vagisil, has a staff strength of 60.

I believe that running a successful business requires having your finger on the pulse of what your customers are saying. Till today I still reply to all customer feedback and inquiries myself. It keeps me grounded and helps me tweak my products in the most productive way.

MR ANDY ONG on staying connected with his customers

"It's a conscious decision for us," says managing director of Corlison Andy Ong. "We are a home-grown company with lots of heritage, so for us that means putting our people first. It takes a team effort to bring a made-in-Singapore product to life and we want to be genuine to that label."

The people-centric approach that the 41-year-old touches on time and again when referring to his third-generation family business is not surprising, given that familial ties keep the engine of this company running.

Mr Ong's wife, Ms Cheryl Soh, left her job in finance more than a decade ago to come on board the company. She is now its general manager and is in charge of local sales.

Although past retirement age, Mr David Ong and Mrs Helen Cheong - Mr Ong's 70something parents - are the first people in the office every day and are still very much involved in the company. The senior Mr Ong, who joined his wife's family business in 1999, is a director and manages intellectual property and regulatory matters, while his wife oversees operations.

The family live together in the Seletar Hills home that the younger Mr Ong grew up in.

Touching on his family's work ethic, he says with a smile: "My wife looks after the local business and my parents still call each other Mr and Mrs Ong at work - even I am not allowed to call them Ma or Pa.

"Our team at Corlison is very close and I'm really grateful that we keep things very professional."

His wife Cheryl says of her husband of five years: "I think one of his strongest qualities is that he is so focused - he always sets goals for himself and the team and he's constantly trying to make those goals a reality."

For Mr Ong, a strong work ethic is all he has known. He was raised in a family that knows hard work. His mother's great-grandfather, Dr Cheong Chun Tin, was the first local dentist in Singapore in 1869. Chun Tin Road in Bukit Timah is named after him.

On the back of his expertise and those of his two sons, dentists Cheong Chin Nam and Cheong Chin Heng, the family started Corlison in 1964. Back then, the firm was an importer and distributor of toothpastes, mouth rinses, denture care and other oral care products, and it had the exclusive distribution rights to a globally recognised toothpaste brand which made up a significant part of their business.

As his mother was helping to run the family business and his father was working in the human resource industry at the time, Mr Ong was raised primarily by his grandmother. He was dropped off daily at her Queenstown house.

Chatty and outgoing, he recalls spending his childhood helping to pack products in the warehouse.

He says: "In many ways, I grew up as part of the family business and I took it as a given that everyone had to go to work, including my mum, who was very involved in running the business from a young age. Now that I look back, though, I was lucky to have them as role models."

His parents' busy schedules instilled in him the importance of hard work. After completing his O levels at Maris Stella High School, he qualified for National Junior College and went on to read business at Curtin University in Australia, where he consistently made the Dean's List.

But despite having a family business to step into, he shunned the idea of joining Corlison straight out of school.

Instead, he spent the next four years working in the e-commerce industry.

The only child had no plans to deviate from this career path until one day, in 2000, when Corlison was told that it was going to lose the distribution rights to its biggest brand. The brand owner had been bought over by a large pharmaceutical company and, as a result, had dropped its distributors.

Just like that, Corlison lost nearly 70 per cent of its business and was struggling to stay afloat. It was at this point that Mr Ong realised that he needed to come on board to help out.

"I owed it to my mother to help out, but, also, I felt that we had a real legacy to uphold and I didn't want to see the business shutter as a result of this setback," he says.

His first order of business as the newly appointed marketing manager at Corlison was to convince his family to make their own products, instead of relying on the distribution lines of international brands.

"We had over 35 years of expertise and every dentist in Singapore knew our company. That's why I knew we had what it took to create our own brand - a move that would allow us to be the first in Singapore with our own oral care products and also keep our business alive."

 

My life so farMy life so far

 

DRIVEN TO COMPETE WITH BIG BOYS


 

Over the next year, Mr Ong steered the new project, doing countless hours of research on everything from ingredients to packaging to pricing.

Knowing that he wanted to create something different from what was on the market at the time, he eliminated harsh ingredients like sodium lauryl sulphate, saccharin and titanium dioxide from his formulations. Instead, he added elements such as aloe, camomile and papaya extract.

To seal the deal, the product was packaged in a sleek and modern design, giving it a premium feel. It was named Pearlie White, which Mr Ong felt had an international flair and was easy to remember.

In 2001, Corlison's first Pearlie White product, a whitening fluoride toothpaste, was launched. And although sales did not immediately take off - "I spent many afternoons as a promoter in John Little and Robinsons trying to convince aunties and uncles about the merits of our toothpaste," quips Mr Ong - the Corlison team did not lose faith.

Over time, through marketing efforts and word of mouth, the brand become a crowd favourite, especially among consumers who appreciated its clean ingredients list.

Today, 15 years on, the Pearlie White range targets oral care issues such as tooth sensitivity and gum care. It now has more than 60 products, including toothpaste, toothbrushes, mouth rinse and denture care products.

Keeping to its Singapore roots, core products like toothpaste and mouth rinses are made in a manufacturing plant near the firm's warehouse in Ang Mo Kio.

Business is swift despite the brand's higher prices - made-in- Singapore items are easily double the price of similar products made in countries like China, India and Thailand.

But even though much of Pearlie White's production arm is in Singapore, the company sets its sights on the global stage when it comes to distribution.

The brand started distributing in South-east Asia in 2009 and now sells it products in all of South-east Asia, the United States, China and the Middle East. There are plans to expand into Europe next year.

For Mr Ong, taking the home- grown brand overseas has been one of his greatest achievements.

He says of the expansion: "Creating a new brand and competing with the big boys has not been easy, but I'm proud that retailers have been supportive of the brand which has allowed us to grow internationally."

He declined to reveal figures, but says that sales for Pearlie White have increased by between 12 and 15 per cent year on year over the past five years.

Despite having turned the business around, the boss admits that the job still comes with its fair share of challenges.

For one thing, he says, the strength of a Singaporean label can only take one so far and convincing international retailers to come on board continues to require a lot of legwork.

On his part, he travels often to various markets to meet new retailers and connect with his distributors.

But it is evident that Mr Ong has the drive.

"Increasingly, we are seeing more local brands close down or being sold off. I want to keep my family's legacy alive. I know we have it in us to compete with the big boys and to put out a product that we're proud to call made-in-Singapore."


avarma@sph.com.sg