Catching Up

This S'porean Entrepreneur Turned A Sinking Ship Into A Globally Recognised Oral Care Brand

If you don’t already know, Pearlie White is the only homegrown oral care brand in Singapore; and it is also the only brand that continues to manufacture within the country.

Pearlie White is a subsidiary of parent company Corlison, a family business founded by Dr. Cheong Chun Tin together with his two sons back in 1964.

As the first practitioner of dentistry in Singapore, Dr. Cheong was bestowed the honours of having a road (and building apparently) named after him in the Bukit Timah district.

Chun Tin Court at Chun Tin Road / Image Credit: 192dmx.com

Fast forward today, Andy Ong – a member of the family’s third generation – has taken over Corlison and is now the managing director of Pearlie White.

Family Business Not His First Choice 

But here’s the thing: Ong never saw the family business as his destined career path despite growing up with it.

When he was younger, the only child often helped out by packing products in the warehouse.

Andy Ong at his university graduation with his parents / Image Credit: Andy Ong

And after graduating from National Junior College, he went on to pursue a business degree at Curtin University in Australia, where he consistently made the Dean’s List.

But despite having a family business to step into, he spent the next four years working in the e-commerce industry instead.

He only started having a change of mind about his career choice when Corlison met with a crisis.

In 2000, the firm was told that it was going to lose exclusive distribution rights to its biggest brand, which raked in sales of several million dollars for the company.

After the brand owner was bought over by a large pharmaceutical company, it started dropping its distributors, and this caused the company a huge financial loss.

“It was really tough because we lost almost two-third of our revenue in a matter of months,” Ong said in an interview with The Active Age.

But this crossroad served as a turning point for Corlison because that was also when Ong realised that he needed to join the company to lend a helping hand.

“I owed it to my mother to help out, but I also 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 told The Straits Times.

Creating Their Own Brand

It was a really difficult time for the company back then because they had lost nearly 70 per cent of its business, and was struggling to survive.

But with Ong on board, things were set to change – for the better.

Corlison, which started off as an importer and distributor of oral care products, started looking into making their own products instead of relying on the distribution lines of international brands.

“At that time, we could have stuck with the status quo and took on another brand to distribute. But we decided to take a leap of faith and create Pearlie White,” said Ong.

“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,” he added.

It wasn’t easy though; establishing a whole new brand takes a lot of hard work and dedication.

He was very focused on churning out something that was different from what was already in the market. And over the next year, Ong spent all his time conduct product research – from ingredients, packaging, to pricing.

“Unlike other brands, we state our ingredients clearly, ensuring that they contain no harsh ingredients like sodium lauryl sulphate, saccharin, parabens, triclosan or artificial colouring,” said Ong.

Instead, he adds natural elements such as aloe, camomile, and papaya extract to his formulations.

He went on to name the brand Pearlie White, which Ong felt had an international flair and was easy to remember, according to The Straits Times.

And in 2001 – just a year after the financial setback – the company launched its first Pearlie White product: a whitening toothpaste.

Pearlie White’s whitening toothpaste / Image Credit: Pearlie White

But contrary to expectations, sales did not immediately take off.

In fact, Ong spent many afternoons as a promoter in departmental stores like John Little and Robinsons “[convincing] aunties and uncles about the merits of [their] toothpaste”.

Nonetheless, the poor sales never daunted them and they never lost faith in the brand.

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

Business has been really good so far despite the brand’s higher pricing compared to similar products (made-in-Singapore items are easily double the price of those manufactured in countries like China, India and Thailand).

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

And today, the Pearlie White range carries over 60 products, including toothpaste, toothbrushes, mouth wash, and denture care products.

People As A Core Business Pillar 

In today’s digital era when logistics and supply chain are fully automated, you would expect this 53-year-old company to have jumped on the digital bandwagon too.

After all, digitalisation has been a huge buzzword in recent years, especially in the manufacturing sector.

But Corlison’s warehouse, located in the heart of industrial Ang Mo Kio, is still very much stuck on manual processes – and this is a “conscious decision” of the company, Ong revealed.

Corlison’s logistics team / Image Credit: Corlison

“At Pearlie White, we choose people. We do agree that we are far less productive because we employ more people at certain portions of our production instead of letting machinery take over, at ten times the pace,” said Ong in a separate interview with The Active Age.

We can obviously purchase equipment to handle the process and lower costs, but that does not create more jobs.

Essentially, Ong wants to continue to provide jobs in its production line for packers and movers in Singapore and shuns the idea of machines replacing its men.

It is pretty obvious that the company adopts a very people-centric approach, prioritising its workers.

In fact, Ong’s parents – David Ong and Helen Cheong, who are in their 70s – are still very active 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.

They may be past retirement age, but they still uphold very good work ethics and make it a point to be the first people in the office every day.

And although they’re a family business, Ong never addresses his parents as ‘Ma’ and ‘Pa’ at work. Instead, he is only allowed to call them Mr and Mrs Ong in the office.

He did not elaborate on the reason, though I reckon that it is a subtle way of drawing the line between personal and work life.

“Our team at Corlison is very close and I’m really grateful that we keep things very professional,” said Ong.

Going Global

Although the bulk of Pearlie White’s production arm is based in Singapore, the company still has its eyes set on the global stage when it comes to distribution.

The brand started distributing regionally in 2009, and it now sells its products in all of Southeast Asia, the United States, China, and the Middle East.

But there are still room for expansion on its business map, with plans to break into the European market next year.

And this – taking the homegrown brand overseas – is something Ong is personally very proud of.

“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,” Ong told The Straits Times.

He confessed that it hasn’t been easy convincing international retailers to come on board, adding that it actually requires a lot of legwork. He often has to travel to various markets to meet new retailers and to connect with his distributors.

That aside, competition from local and foreign brands who outsource their manufacturing (thus lower production costs and higher marketing budgets) often pose a challenge. But unlike them, Pearlie White strives to “keep it authentic”.

“We continue to produce all our core products like toothpaste and mouth rinses in Singapore for local and global consumption. That also means that we keep all operations and employment within Singapore; and in turn, keep all profits in our country and within our economy,” said Ong.

Ultimately, he has plans in the pipeline to continue building awareness for Pearlie White as a Singapore brand while reaching out to international markets.

From its location, to its team members and marketing campaigns, Ong said that they are always aligned with their vision and objectives to build Pearlie White as a local brand to Singapore customers.

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.

Featured Image Credit: The Active Age