By: Verne Maree
What brought you to Singapore just over 18 months ago?
My husband’s job in advertising: it keeps us moving. We came here after spending three years back in our home country Germany. Before that, we lived in Dubai, also for three years.
After the first year here, I started looking for a job. But with Singapore being a hub, I soon found that most roles in my area of expertise would have required a lot of travelling. With our son being so young (now 5), that was not what I wanted.
Around that time, I met Helle Espersen, the founder and previous owner of FairPrice Antique. She had already moved back to Denmark, and was running the business from there, but happened to be here in Singapore to clear a container of merchandise. We clicked immediately, and soon started talking about the idea of me acquiring the business from her.
What was it about FairPrice Antique that attracted you?
For years I’d dreamt of having something of my own, something to do with interior decoration, furniture and accessories. Only, I never dared to take the plunge. But this was the perfect fit, and I thought: why not?
I loved everything about the place and was already a loyal customer. Though we brought a 40-foot container of stuff from Germany, our three-storey house in the Bukit Timah area required more furniture than we came with – a good excuse to shop!
It was reassuring that FairPrice Antique had been established in the market for 12 years, and that it proved to have a strong P&L. Asking around, I found that it had a really good reputation, too. To be frank, though, it was mainly about Helle herself: I instinctively liked and trusted her from the start, and now I see her as my mentor and “big sister”.
How do you run your business?
Not having a warehouse, what you see in the shop is the stock at hand. Every three months, I personally travel to Beijing to source new stock through my agents and at the markets, and then bring in a container. If a customer is looking for something specific that we don’t have, I’ll do my best to source it for them.
Sticking to the promise implicit in the name FairPrice, we set our prices very competitively; that’s why we don’t need to offer discounts. We are also very transparent: unlike most other stores, we do advertise our prices on our website. It’s also important for us to be very clear on whether a piece is antique (100 years or older), old, or a reproduction. That said, I have a great respect for our high-quality, handmade replicas. Having visited workshops and watched the craftsmen at work, I know that the same quality materials, authentic design and careful craftsmanship go into them. Apart from the lower price, the main difference is that the reproduction is new and the artisan is still alive!
Reputation is everything. Our rule is never to even think of implying that something might be older than we know it to be – and if we don’t know its age, we just say so.
Has your previous working experience been of help in this new venture?
Enormously! It’s as though everything I’ve done in the past – communications, marketing, branding, all the languages I’ve learnt and my experience in dealing with a variety of cultures – is now making sense.
German is my mother tongue, I speak English, French and Spanish and I picked up a bit of Arabic while we were living in Dubai. After my A-levels I worked as a GO (gentil organisateur) at Club Med for a couple of years, both in Italy and in France. I like to say that I learnt my French on the ski slopes of France! And in my student years, I studied communications at the University of Westminster, London; and art history at the Universitat de Barcelona, Spain. All of this helps me engage with the multinational audience of Singapore.
In Germany, I did client servicing and new business for the country’s biggest magazine publishing company. In the UAE, I worked for a French packaging design and branding company, after building up a new office for a Lebanese company that developed a whole new city there. All this business experience is proving infinitely valuable to me now.
What about needing Mandarin for your sourcing trips to Beijing?
I’ve always enjoyed shopping and haggling at markets, and enthusiasm helps!
However, though I can get by with market Chinese and my smattering of street Mandarin – that includes counting with finger-signs, and working a lot with the calculator! – I do currently have a tutor for Mandarin.
How difficult was the handover?
It wasn’t, because of Helle’s wonderful mentorship. For example, we went to Beijing together on a sourcing trip where she introduced me to all the suppliers, and then she generously spent five weeks here with me to do the handover.
Fortunately, Singapore makes things really easy for a business owner. People have been incredibly friendly and supportive, from the accountant who looked at the books for me but refused to bill me for his services, to the SME government agency man who came to brief me on my business-related entitlements. That would never happen in Germany!
How good is your work-life balance?
Quite good, although I’ve extended the opening hours to run from 11am to 6pm – seven days a week, of course. I’m lucky to have Aishah, my sales assistant. Because of her, I’m able to make Sunday my family day, though I do work Saturdays.
Having my own business gives me the flexibility to still be with my son when he needs me. Actually, though, it’s good for the whole family that the boys spend Saturday together: it gives my husband the opportunity to make up for the rest of the week!
Many things are still new for me, but every time I walk through this door and the little bell rings, I feel so blessed. In the past, I have sometimes envied other people because of the work they do. That no longer happens – so I know that I’m exactly where I should be.
FairPrice Antique is at Tan Boon Liat Building, 315 Outram Road; on the ground level and accessed from the spacious car park.
This story first appeared in Expat Living’s May 2015 issue.
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