Ask someone to recall a famous Singapore shoe brand and they might bring up Charles & Keith, and with good reason.
Founded by brothers Charles and Keith Wong, the international brand is a golden example of how young Singaporeans began the entrepreneurship journey young.
But Charles & Keith isn’t the only local brand with footprints in a foreign country – Heatwave is another such brand.
The Heatwave storefront doesn’t look as luxurious as Charles & Keith’s, but behind its nondescript exterior lies a high successful brand led by one smart, enterprising daughter – Elizabeth Tan.
Feeling The Heat
Heatwave was started by her father, Tan Guan Huat, in 2001 – a product of his 16 years of experience in shoe design and manufacturing.
Unlike other entrepreneurs inspired by their parents, Tan had no plans to join her father.
“I’d seen the long hours that my dad put in to build the brand,” she revealed. She also talked about how he struggled to maintain the brand during the financial crisis and SARS outbreak.
“I wanted to do something different,” she told CNBC.
During university, Tan took on multiple jobs and business ventures like selling mobile and credit card plans to support herself. The experience sparked her interest in entrepreneurship and the potential of her father’s brand, leading to her joining him in 2008 at age 23.
Tan saw flaws in the business instantly – they were carrying too many types of shoes and there was no focus for consumers to latch on to.
She spent 2 years emphasising best-selling products and refining shoe comfort, as well as rebranding to target working professionals.
“Branding is something […] very new to my dad because he came from a generation where it was all about products and pricing,” Tan said.
“When I came on board, I was able to bring value in that aspect, by knowing what our generation wants, what kind of shopping experience they want.”
Looking Beyond Singapore
As a business coordinator, Tan also quickly set her sights on going global. After all, their product wasn’t restricted to Singaporean women only.
This decision was also spurred on by the limited resources of Singapore.
“As a small business, we were facing high rents, labour shortages and competition for good location spaces in Singapore.”
“To keep the business going, I knew we needed to go international,” Tan told The Straits Times.
Over 6 years, she broke into multiple markets and they now have over 60 stores across Singapore, Myanmar, Qatar and Dubai among others.
Breaking into Malaysia also gave them the ability to do quality control for design and production.
Meanwhile, the growing middle class in India made mid-market foreign brands like Heatwave attractive, and the brand has plans to expand to 50 stores by 2019. They also plan to expand their casual footwear range, as Indian women prefer flats and ethnic-designs.
“It’s a big market, and a big plan,” Tan says.
Going overseas did bring about a new set of problems however, when their Taiwan franchisee took their designs and sold them under a new brand.
This, along with the realisation that their contracts with external parties were poorly worded and open to abuse, motivated Tan to signing up for Intellectual Property Management for SMEs.
Looking back, Tan reflects how they thought it was only about trademarking, but realised later on that “business practices, models, know-how and much more” were also crucial.
Breaking Into E-commerce
The younger Tan’s foresight gave them one more advantage – preparing for the digital era.
Heatwave started integrating tech in 2012, and she pushed to boost their social media presence and online store.
Going online also allowed them to interact with loyal customers, and Tan considers it one of her “proudest achievements“.
“We were primarily a brick and mortar store so there was lots of resistance […] but I could already see that the Internet was changing retail,” she says.
Even her traditional father came out to champion her decisions.
“We have to appeal to the younger generation to keep the brand relevant and fresh. Thanks to Elizabeth’s contributions, I feel that we have a brighter future.”
The Heatwave Vision
“Heatwave is about empowering women,” says Tan. “We believe in the simple principle that a well made, comfortable pair of shoes can give women the confidence they need from day to night.”
They want to differentiate themselves from other shoe brands, she shares, by focusing on purpose and not taking the easy way up.
In order to maintain this vision, Tan shared how they “turned down lucrative offers from investors who did not have the same values.”
“Our aspiration is to become an international brand with 200 stores worldwide […] a company driven by purpose, creating a valuable work environment while staying true to our roots.”
“Personally, I hope to be able to empower and inspire others and through that, leave behind a legacy that my father has started.”
Featured Image Credit: hnworth