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5 minute read

Journeys of Resilient Companies: Corlison & Pearlie White Share What it Means to be ‘Made in Singapore’

There is fervour. There is passion. And there is a strong dose of national pride. 

Running a business for 46-year-old Andy Ong is something that is very much in his blood — at least from the maternal side of the family. “Girls do rule the world. It was my grandmother who started the company and passed it on to my mum and that was way back in 1964.”

The trio — Mrs Helen Ong, Mr David Ong and Andy, its managing director — run one of the largest privately and fully Singapore-owned distributors of personal, healthcare and home cleaning products. They currently manage products under 20 international brands with a staff strength of 85.

What sets them apart from traditional distributors is that they are brand owners as well. Day-to-day work involves marketing, brand management, media planning, e-commerce, public relations, operations, delivery and warehousing. 

Reflecting on how Covid-19 has affected the company and himself, Andy admits to the wind being knocked out of his sails. Revenue growth has halved in the last 2 years from the usual 20% pace. “Half of our business is the local distribution business and the other half is the Pearlie White business – local and export. And the global supply chain today is in a mess. So, we’ve really tried to diversify in terms of ensuring that not only do we have multiple brands contributing to our revenue, but also pushing hard on marketing and selling our products in overseas markets.” 

Till 2001, it was Mrs Helen Ong who ran the company until she encountered a huge challenge. The company lost distribution rights to some key brands that caused its revenue to halve. Both her husband and son rallied to her side. Andy recounts the single most important strategy the company learnt back then, which is still relevant today during a pandemic: Diversification. 

They decided to manufacture their own oral care products. That too is something that is in Andy’s blood. His mother’s great grandfather, Dr Cheong Chun Tin, after whom Chun Tin Road is named, was the first local dentist in Singapore in 1869. So, the manufacturing of oral care products envelops both the pioneering and innovative spirit as well as national pride. Pearlie White is marketed and sold across Asia, the Middle East and North America.

According to Andy, it is a real challenge for an oral care brand based in Singapore, let alone one that exclusively manufactures its core products (like toothpaste and mouth rinses), to succeed globally. “Especially with business travel not being possible, we have not had the opportunity to meet potential overseas distributors or participate in overseas business exhibitions and trade missions to new countries. And first impressions in our business are best made, in person.”

Manpower challenges and WSG’s commitment

As Andy spent the first few years of his career developing mobile and e-commerce solutions for companies during the first dot-com era in the early 2000s, not surprisingly, he initiated the process of digitalisation for Corlison. “The first thing I did then was to ensure that if we could do something better with the assistance of technology, we’ll adopt that technology.”

And that mantra continues today especially with a much larger workforce, even if it remains a challenge. More than half the staff are above the age of 40 and somewhat sceptical about adopting new technological advancements and solutions. Covid-19 fast-tracked that process with many companies adopting a #WFH policy or a hybrid solution. 

Andy signed on with Workforce Singapore (WSG)’s redeployment Professional Conversion Programmes (PCP) to help retrain and redeploy staff to roles that leaned heavily on the use of technology. With the training and salary support, it meant that he could apportion working hours or days out for both formal and on-the-job training of his team to the new roles, and also motivate staff to take on these roles as there were salary increments involved. 

They revamped their business to prepare for the future and guard against shifting distribution channels and retail trends. The company has invested in digital applications and expanded into e-commerce. In 2020, Corlison accelerated its transformation with a strong emphasis on the omnichannel experience. 

What COVID-19 changed in the company

Andy declares outright that Corlison’s focus in the FMCG sector somewhat cushioned it from the disruptions of Covid-19. “We are strongly focused on products that are necessary for everyday use, regardless of a crisis or not.” This claim is backed up by a 10% increase in the company’s revenue during the pandemic.

Where they ran into trouble was in the replenishing of goods in high demand, due to global supply chain issues that are still ongoing. “Not having enough or even anything to sell is our number 1 fear.” For Andy, that’s where the lesson learnt back in 2001 kicked in — diversify or die. 

Last year, they worked with their brand principals and suppliers to arrange for multiple sources of supply to guard against such a scenario. “It costs more when you get fewer stocks of an item from multiple sources versus more stocks from a single source. But making less money is better than making no money at all if there is nothing to sell.”

For Andy, keeping operations efficient was the most challenging through it all. “The key is, how do we continue to operate with the same efficiency despite the disruptions and rapidly changing business environment.” Much of his focus and time today goes into making sure his team has everything they need to do their work without hindrance and doing it happily. 

Furthermore, the tough challenge of retaining talent has been exacerbated by Covid-19. He points out, employees expect certainty at a time of uncertainty. Andy’s solution to that is literally to be “on” all hours of the day. Fast decisions, quick responses, constant availability — these are what is demanded of leadership during a pandemic.

Dreams for the next lap

Andy has two clear goals mapped out. The first one is for Corlison to become the biggest personal, health and home care product distributor in Singapore. “Just like the biggest banks, telcos, transport providers, and supermarkets serving customers in our country are local, I want to make sure that the same happens in my category of business.” He hopes to achieve this by either growing organically or partnering with other local distributors and achieving this as a collectively bigger organisation. 

The second achievement is even more ambitious with regards to Pearlie White. He challenges by asking, “Name me a fully Singapore owned brand that makes a product exclusively in Singapore, and that people across the world (just 1% will do) use every day?” Andy firmly believes a country can get on the global map if its products allow people all over the world to interact with that country daily (through its products) and that is what he is trying to achieve with Pearlie White.

Still, he is a realist. “To achieve this in business is like Singapore’s ‘Joseph Schooling Olympic Gold moment’… but honestly, I don’t think I can reach it. I will work hard and try to get the bronze first. Then the next generation can go for the gold.” 

The race to pass the baton is on, so that Corlison and Pearlie White can march into that future properly armoured to face its many challenges ahead. 

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