By: Verne Maree
Building a business can take time, money, perseverance and a lot of sheer hard work. But it can be done, as the success of White and Black Trading shows. Verne Maree got together with Justinna Pank and Emma Thomas at Emma’s home in Medway Park, a charming enclave of 1950s black-and-white houses.
It’s a Tuesday morning, and Tuesdays are when the two get together at Emma’s for meetings with the various members of their team. Several friendly-looking others chat in the living room as they wait their turn.
It all started in 2007, soon after Emma and Justinna moved to Singapore from the UK at around the same time, in support of their husbands’ careers. Charlie and Ed had worked together years earlier in a London advertising office, but their wives first met here when Emma and Charlie had Justinna and Ed over for dinner.
“At this very table,” says Emma, “the seeds for our joint business venture were sown. I’d already contacted Micro about a possible scooter distributorship; and we decided to go into it together.” Their husbands were their backers – only right, I point out, as they were busy bearing the two men’s children.
Each of them already had two youngsters, and each gave birth to a third within the first year or so of starting the business. Now with six between them – Emma’s Jude (8), Jessie (7) and Mathilda (4); plus Justinna’s Freddie (11), Daisy (9) and Gabriel (5) – there’s a readymade market focus group to test out the merchandise. (Justinna discloses that Emma’s not too bad on a skateboard herself.)
From their attractive website you can see that their stock currently includes scooters, balance bikes, skateboards, micro-luggage, tee-pees, something called crazy catch, easy rollers and accessories and spare parts for all of the above. And the list is growing, they tell me.
Did your previous work experience help you in this business?
Emma: To a point, yes. Though I had no retail experience, I had worked with a UK sports trust promoting PE and sport in schools, and had done some work on the Olympic legacy for London 2012.
In 2004, when the London Olympics was announced in Singapore, I had no idea that I’d be moving here! The crossover, of course, is healthy children being out and about and active, and it’s great for me to see them out on their scooters.
Justinna: Not in any obvious way; I was a producer for BBC Question Time, a flagship political debate programme.
Where did you start?
Justinna: We launched our business at the British Club Fair on 2 October 2007, and took orders from the two samples we had. Nine mums signed up for scooters that day – it was thrilling, but we were anxious that our first shipment would not arrive in time for Christmas. Fortunately, it did. We now sell over 600 scooters alone each month.
Why did you choose these particular products?
Emma: We started with the Mini Micro scooter because friends of friends of ours were doing very well as the distributors for them in the UK, where our own children had them. I had every confidence in the product.
Then a friend of mine, Regina, who had moved back to Melbourne, told me about Penny skateboards. All the kids there had them, she said, and we realised they were a great product that would synch with our scooters. Having a good track record with the Micro, we got the Penny skateboard distributorship quite easily.
Justinna: The others came on board as we developed. Now we’re looking at exciting new products from French brand Mookie – remember Swingball? I’ve never felt so young. A young guy called me about a skateboard he’d ordered, and started rapping over the phone – it was just brilliant!
Emma: Young guys would call at all hours, desperate to order a black Rasta Penny skateboard, for example. My husband would wake up and say, “Who is it? What’s happened?” So I had to start switching off my phone at night.
All the cool kids out there want our skateboards, so when we get asked to do presentations or give out prizes, we put on our trendiest shorts and T-shirts so as not to look like middle-aged mums!
Any challenges along the way?
Emma: Putting the legal and administrative framework in place, for one. Applying for our employment passes was an anxious time; it’s not as easy and straightforward as it once was.
Justinna: This business has been an amazing learning curve – I see it as having been a sort of graduate trainee programme for the two of us. For a long time, we were physically filling shop shelves with our merchandise, personally taking inventory of stock, doing the marketing and the accounts; there is no aspect of the business that we haven’t undertaken ourselves.
Emma: In the early years, we’d load up our cars with big cartons to take down to Paragon, and then have to convince the security gate attendants that we were there to deliver goods, not as shoppers!
What about money and cash flow?
Justinna: For the first two years neither of us earned a salary. I still remember going out for a coffee meeting, and feeling guilty about charging the company for the bill.
Emma: With the buzz of a new undertaking and the excitement of learning new things, it didn’t matter that we weren’t yet earning anything. For me, hand on heart, right from the start it’s never been about the money. I just wanted something to do.
How supportive are your husbands? I’m sure they must be proud of you.
Justinna: Apart from them being our initial backers, which was important, we still get together as a foursome every now and then to brainstorm ideas. That can be very helpful. But they have their own careers to attend to and are not much involved with ours.
What do you enjoy most about the business?
Emma: A major aspect is that it is our own business; we have no one saying yes or no to anything that we want to do. Working together has been the best thing – I wouldn’t have done it on my own. I’m really glad that Justinna and I were business partners before we became good friends. We’re completely open and honest with each other, and in five-and-a-half years there’s never been a cross word between us.
Justinna and I are quite different personalities, and I think that works. If I’d gone into a partnership with a friend who was too much like me, it might not have worked.
Justinna: Yes, though we are very different, we’ve become so close. The key to a successful business partnership is being frank with each other, I believe, even when it’s hard to do.
Another great pleasure for me is seeing our children growing up together; they are like cousins. I regard this as a family business, so I love to involve them whenever I can, getting them to help me open and unpack boxes and so on to share in the excitement of what we do.
How do you manage your time?
Emma: That is a challenge: right from the start we worked seven days a week. But now we try not to work on Sundays, and we’ve also decided to take a proper day off this year. It needs to be the same day for both of us, though, because if just one of us is off, the other is continually on the phone to her.
Does the business involve much travel?
Justinna: We enjoy visiting the toy fairs, such as the one in Hong Kong. It would be good to visit the big one in Nuremburg, also because it’s near the head office of Micro, so we can visit them at the same time.
How do you distribute your products?
Emma: Once we got Robinsons on board, it was not difficult to convince the other 40 or so stores that currently stock our merchandise. You can also buy through our website – about 30 percent of our sales are online. Until now, purchases could be collected either from here or from Justinna’s home in the east of Singapore, but this year we’re moving to having it all conveniently despatched from our Bukit Batok warehouse.
At what stage did you start taking on employees?
Justinna: The first was Angelin, who came on board in November 2011, just before Christmas; we now have Carolina doing our customer services for us, working from home. Being working mothers ourselves, we’re totally flexible about our employees working around their children’s needs, as we do.
You’ve just met Zaki, who does our marketing; and our accountant, Vincent. Faidzal and Latiff, our warehousing and logistics guys, have been with us from the beginning. Apart from Emma and me, our team is all local. We also have warehousing and logistics people in Malaysia.
What are your plans for the future?
Emma: Much to the disgust of my brother-in-law, who’s always on at me to thrash out a five-year plan, I have quite an easygoing philosophy: go with the flow and let the business evolve organically. I just want to keep enjoying what I’m doing in a way that works for my family and keeps my children happy, too.
Justinna: Our challenge is to find a balance between working and bringing up our children. I think that holds true for any working mother, and it’s something that we really aim to work towards this year. Businesswise, there are all sorts of new products out there for us to bring to our customers, and that’s what keeps me excited.
Could you describe each other in a few words?
Emma: I call Justinna “Jackie O”, because she’s always so poised, elegant and diplomatic. We definitely have different skill sets!
Justinna: Emma is warm, fun-loving and speaks from the heart. Just last week, someone described her to me as having “a sunny personality”, and I thought that was spot on.
Emma: The main thing is to accept that you have different strengths. It’s pointless wasting time and energy on something that your partner can do with greater ease and efficiency. For example, I used to do our newsletter, and Justinna used to rewrite it. So I said to her, “You know what? You should just do the newsletter” – and now she does.
Justinna: Emma’s a better fit for some meetings; I’m a better fit for others. Things simply pan out better if you work to your individual strengths.