Tocco Toscano, a homegrown luxurious leather goods brand, has a rich history. Founded by Joseph Lor’s father in 1987, the brand has come a long way from its humble beginnings as TOSCANO in Italy.
Joseph’s father first discovered his love for leather craftsmanship when he was required to bind leather bibles as part of a rehabilitation program in Singapore. He later took on an apprenticeship in a small workshop in Florence, Italy and learned the intricate techniques of leather-making from a local craftsman named Mr. Stefano.
Deeply inspired by the craft, Joseph’s father bought the licensing rights from Mr. Stefano and brought the brand to Singapore, where he renamed it to Tocco Toscano and fine-tuned the products for the Asian market.
He started by producing his own leather belts and sold them door-to-door, eventually convincing department stores to carry them, and expanding the product line to include bags and wallets.
However, by 2016, Tocco Toscano was facing a major crisis — the rise of e-commerce and online shopping had led to a downtrend in brick-and-mortar businesses.
As my family business was primarily situated in department stores, it gradually became unsustainable and we were losing out on a significant portion of the consumer market that had already moved online for shopping. Besides, there were a lot of traditional business practices that were quickly becoming outdated/obsolete, and my father could no longer keep pace with it.– Joseph Lor, CEO of Tocco Toscano
The business was on the brink of closure, and that’s when Joseph decided to take over.
From “the boss’ son” to the boss
Joseph, who had a background in Math and Science (B.Sc in Biomedical Science and B.Eng in Electrical and Electronics Engineering), had no prior experience in the leather industry.
He had helped out with the business in areas like sales and operations during his teenage years and after graduation, but taking over the business was a huge leap.
Joseph was driven by a deep sense of obligation to the family business, a fascination for the craft that he grew up with, and a desire to make a difference. He knew it would be a steep learning curve, but he was up for the challenge.
Naturally, I did feel a sense of ownership and felt that it would be a waste if I did not give it a good shot to save the business. … Even if it did fail in the end, I could walk away knowing I gave it my best.– Joseph Lor, CEO of Tocco Toscano
Joseph essentially started from scratch, making mistakes along the way. There was a lot for him to learn, ensuring that that the different aspects of the businesses are efficient and cohesive. Furthermore, he had to tackle the challenge of growing the business online.
Another big challenge he faced was earning the respect and trust of the employees. Many of them viewed Joseph as just “the boss’ son” and were resistant to the changes he wanted to make. However, as they saw the results of his efforts, they slowly became convinced of the viability of his ideas.
Revamping his father’s leather business
One of the key ways Joseph set Tocco Toscano apart from other leather bag brands was by making the brand more consumer-centric.
Joseph made it a priority to communicate with customers and potential customers, gathering their input and feedback through focus groups, surveys, and even personal conversations. This approach allowed Tocco Toscano to create products that were not only aesthetically pleasing, but also functional and versatile for everyday use.
In addition to being consumer-focused, Tocco Toscano also made an effort to explore alternative materials to leather, such as upcycled apple waste, canvas, and different types of nylon, to create better and newer products.
To rejuvenate the business, Joseph also implemented several changes across the board. The first aspect was to attain a positive cashflow.
He analysed past sales to determine which products sold well and focused on manufacturing those products. He also took over a salesperson role at one point of time to reduce manpower costs, and started listing products on online marketplaces like Lazada and Zalora, as well as introduced pre-orders to increase revenue.
Additionally, Joseph focused on building new channels, predominantly the brand’s own website. He acquired new customers from a younger demographic online by creating social media pages and designed products that had a higher chance of doing well both online and offline.
Last but not least, Joseph rebranded Tocco Toscano to change consumer perception of the brand. It created a younger and more relevant representation of itself with a new logo, brand colours and the likes, as well as secured collaborations with different brands, companies, and individuals to tap into their customer/fan base.
We have done a few interesting collaborations recently, such as the upcycling of life vests and seat belts with Singapore Airlines and launched a limited-edition collection with Hello Kitty in 2022. We are also a Made With Passion brand, which is an exciting milestone for us to be identified amongst the top local brands.– Joseph Lor, CEO of Tocco Toscano
The pandemic renewed their focus on online sales
Besides cashflow and elevating the brand perception, the next biggest challenge for Tocco Toscano was more people-oriented, particularly hiring the right people and managing a team well.
Joseph admits that he is not particularly good at relationship management, but is striving to be better at it every day.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought about its own set of challenges for Tocco Toscano. With store closures and a shift in consumer behaviour, the pandemic had a significant impact on their offline channels, leading to a decline in sales. However, the Tocco Toscano team saw this as an opportunity to focus on other aspects of the business, such as rebranding and strategy.
They started an overseas office in Thailand to handle local sales, along with a performance marketing team to handle global online sales.
We had already started pushing online sales before COVID-19, which saw decent growth when the pandemic struck. These pre-emptive changes and shifts in the business definitely gave us an edge over our competitors, who did not really until the pandemic hit.– Joseph Lor, CEO of Tocco Toscano
The first step of their online push, the launch of the Aimee tote series in 2018, amassed S$1 million in sales within just 11 months.
“After that, things just kind of worked out. It’s really much easier when your first step is not a misstep — you have better cashflow which you can leverage, repurpose your existing content for social media ads, and start building an online presence from the get go. From there, you get more flexibility with everything else.”
Business revenue increased 15-fold
When Joseph took over the business, he did not raise any capital, relying on the earnings from his side business, Faire Collective, to help build and shift the company.
Since Joseph’s takeover, Tocco Toscano broke even after just one year and has seen impressive growth. Although exact figures cannot be shared, Joseph revealed that the brand’s revenue has increased 15-fold, growing from a total annual revenue of S$9,000 in 2018 to over seven figures now.
When it comes to market expansion, Joseph acknowledges that it’s not an easy feat, especially when entering foreign countries where there are language barriers, lack of connections and knowledge in consumer behaviour, and navigating different aspects from logistics to marketing.
“Because of this, I generally try to expand to foreign markets via licensees and distributors,” said Joseph.
He added that the most important factor when considering expansion is to find the right partner or person to oversee operations. If the right person is in place, he then evaluates the relevance of the product to the market in terms of style, design, and price point, and finally, the estimated costs versus the potential upside.
Moving forward, the company’s future business plans include entering more offline markets and solidifying its online presence. Currently, it has its eyes set on building its presence in Thailand, and eventually entering the US market. It also hopes to expand its product offering in Indonesia, starting with eyewear.
As a second-generation owner, Joseph takes his father’s advice to heart. His father always valued loyalty, so he taught him to take care of the people who are both loyal and hardworking. As the saying goes, ‘when you take care of your employees, your people will take care of your business’.
Now as a seasoned entrepreneur, Joseph too has advice for young entrepreneurs: “never rest on your laurels, constantly innovate, and always look to learn and improve”. By following these principles, Tocco Toscano has become a successful and thriving brand, and Joseph hopes that other young entrepreneurs will be inspired to do the same.
Featured Image Credit: Tocco Toscano