Fate leads to success

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 August, 2009, 12:00am

The ability to understand the business climate of individual markets and their particular cultural nuances have contributed to the success of ambitious entrepreneur John McLennan in the home furnishings business.

At the point when he was heading off to study architecture at university, Mr McLennan was led by fate to Asia 20 years ago and has ended up running his own home furnishings business in Hong Kong, working with interior designers instead of architects.

A native of Vancouver, Canada, Mr McLennan went to Taiwan in 1987 and worked for a company manufacturing children's furniture. In 1990, he moved to Hong Kong and has charted a successful career in the design, production and retail of home products.

'I have always had a bit of an entrepreneurial background,' said Mr McLennan, managing director of Indigo Living, a local home furnishings retail company with six outlets in Hong Kong. 'I had worked for smaller companies to help them run their overseas offices, and had helped some interior design companies from the United States start their overseas offices in Asia.'

His entrepreneurial ambitions started to take shape when he joined Banyan Tree in 2002, the home furnishings retail business arm of Tai Ping Carpets, a local company specialising in carpets and rugs. He was given the responsibility of running the rental, furniture leasing and project side of the business and, within a short stint, his exceptional calibre and performance landed him the position of managing director of Option Home Furnishings, a subsidiary of Banyan Tree.

'When the company started to expand, I could see more opportunities surfacing so I approached Tai Ping's management to state my plan, which was to expand the business not only in Hong Kong, but to take it overseas,' he said.

The carpet company preferred to focus on its core business of carpets and rugs, but his enthusiasm for the home furnishings business and his entrepreneurial spirit greatly impressed the company, which offered him an irresistible proposition to take over the whole home furnishings retail business.

Responding to the yearnings of an innate entrepreneur, Mr McLennan sought out three investors, put down the money, and bought Banyan Tree in 2006 and it was rebranded in the same year as Indigo Living. 'This allowed me to run the company in the direction that I had always wanted to,' said the 49-year-old father of two who is now the major shareholder and mastermind behind the operation.

The company started off as a retail business of home furnishings and accessories, but has split into four areas - retail, furniture leasing, wholesale and interior design projects for hotels and serviced apartments, the area that contributes most of the firm's revenue.

The company also supplies furniture to hotel groups, such as The Venetian Macao, the Four Seasons Hotel and Westin Macau, and works on design projects on the mainland, India and Dubai. 'We have expanded the company beyond just retail and we went into much bigger project business, opening up the wholesale part of the business, and expanded the furniture leasing business from Hong Kong into the mainland, Macau, India and Dubai,' he said.

All of this happened within three years. The rapid growth has brought a number of challenges to the company including understanding how business is done in different cultures.

Having lived in Hong Kong for more than 20 years, Mr McLennan understands the Hong Kong home furnishings market well enough to be able to work successfully within that market and helps him tap the mainland market. With the expansion of business into foreign markets, such as the Middle East and India, understanding those markets has become his biggest challenge.

'One of the hurdles that I have had to jump over is learning the cultural nuances and the ins and outs of how business is done in different countries,' he said. 'It is important to understand the business climate one has to work in, and it is very different from the purely Chinese or typical Asian business climate such as different styles of contract negotiation.'

In recent years, Hong Kong has seen a growing number of new local and international home furnishings companies vying for a nearly saturated market which, according to Mr McLennan, has presented a new set of challenges to Indigo Living.

'In Hong Kong, there are only a finite number of home furnishings solutions that can be set up because of its limited population and small living space; therefore you are limited on what you can do as far as design and style are concerned,' he said. Unfazed by growing competition, he adheres to the principle of constantly evolving his products and services to react swiftly to an ever changing market and customer expectations.

'Standing still and providing one type of product all the time may be successful for a short period of time, but eventually a fad or trend will run out, so we have to keep innovating and evolving and offer new things to clients,' he said.

Staffing is essential for the sustained growth of his business. 'It is very critical to find the right staff, motivate them and keep everybody focused on the company's goals and long-term objectives. I've come to realise that you need to hire people smarter and more competent than you, and that way I can give them an area of the business and delegate to them,' said Mr McLennan, who employs more than 120 people in offices across Hong Kong, Shanghai, Dubai and Delhi.

Indigo boasts its competitive edge not only in its staff but also in its product quality which comes at a good value. 'We pride ourselves on the pricing of our products, their quality and design against other players, and offer a wide range of designs.

'When clients come to lease furniture for example, we don't get customers who just want one model. They want modern, classic and aesthetics. We try and merge as much of that into anything but a dog's breakfast. With a boarder base of home furnishings items, we can cover a lot more customers, and make people more comfortable with the products we sell.'

The economic downturn has also allowed the company to refocus on its strengths and core business areas. 'We are getting a chance to take a step back, look at how we are operating in individual departments and see what needs to be fixed to achieve higher efficiency.'

Ten things I know

1 Value staff

Finding and retaining the right staff is key to the success of any business. They must be engaged, challenged, rewarded and helped to grow professionally and personally.

2 Be eco-conscious

This is the new buzz word in most businesses and it should be. We produce a large number of environmentally friendly products and it is important that we can stand behind our products from this point of view and help educate our customers about sustainability in the home furnishings industry.

3 Care for your community

Hong Kong is a tight knit community, and it is important to be part of it. I have lived here for more than 20 years and our company is involved in supporting a large number of causes from local and international schools to various charities in Hong Kong.

4 Trust your intuition

This is one of the easiest things to say and one of the hardest things to do. It has taken me a number of years to be comfortable with listening to that inner voice when doing business and it has paid off well.

5 Keep customers happy

It surprises me these days that some companies treat customers as a nuisance. The customer should be treated as a king or queen in any business. Successful companies should pride themselves on customer service which can always be improved.

6 Ensure quality and variety

Home furnishings is an industry that changes as fast as fashion. That is why we have two seasonal launches every year in our accessories lines. Customers expect to see new products almost every time they visit our stores, but without quality products, new items count for nothing.

7 Aim for efficiency

A retail outlet is no more than the fa?ade of the company. A huge back-house operation always keeps the business running smoothly. My staff work very hard to increase the company's efficiency in all areas including the use of a software system that links all aspects of the business and allows us to monitor and fine tune things as needed.

8 Operate ethically

Without ethical business practices, no company can sustain itself in the long term. It is critical to create an environment that promotes good ethical business practices and this must start from the top down and become a deeply ingrained part of the company culture.

9 Be humble

Being successful in a business is usually the result of hard work and, in most cases, involves the right timing and luck. Being humble about my success keeps me grounded and contributes to what I have achieved.

10 Maintain balance between work and life

To make this easier to achieve, you need to have the right staff and learn to delegate. For me, family is the backbone that gives me support in both good and bad times, and is something that should never be forgotten or taken lightly.