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Meet the man behind the Melissa shoe brand in Singapore: Terence Yow

Before 2012, no one knew about the Melissa brand of “jelly shoes”. Today, almost 80 per cent of women know it. Here’s how Nanyang Business School alumnus Terence Yow did it

PHOTO: RAY CHUA

I was taken by surprise when the first 300 pairs of Melissa shoes I brought in were sold out, without any advertising. We focused a lot on social media and influencers, which was much cheaper than running full-page advertisements or television commercials.

Social media wasn’t the rage back then, but we managed to grow our Facebook page from zero to more than 100,000 today.

The Melissa brand of bubblegum-scented “jelly shoes” had a rocky start in Singapore with another distributor. Armed with an earlier string of business failures, I decided to focus solely on building the Melissa brand here, and asked for the exclusive rights for it in Singapore.

Many factors, apart from talent or skill, determine whether a business will be a roaring success or crash and fail. You need luck to hit on the right business idea and to find the right people to work with.

In my 14 years working at Procter & Gamble, I had listened to hundreds of pitches from distributors before, so I knew how to position myself in a favourable light.

The toughest part was rebuilding a brand that had previously failed. Before 2012, no one knew about the Melissa brand. Today, almost 80 per cent of women know it, as compared to five per cent before I took over.

I was lucky as the first standalone Melissa store was at the basement of Wheelock Place. It exposed many people to the brand.

I learnt a big life lesson after a string of six or seven businesses I started with partners failed. In hindsight, I think I was too complacent. I believed I had all the experience and skills from my earlier Procter & Gamble job to run my own business. I was dead wrong.

Many factors, apart from talent or skill, determine whether a business will be a roaring success or crash and fail. You need luck to hit on the right business idea and to find the right people to work with. With partners, there will be conflicts and differences of opinion that can make or break your venture. You have to learn how to manage and prevent major disagreements, and I learnt this the hard way. At 41, I was six months away from bankruptcy.

Some things in life I learnt via the process of elimination.

I was a pure science student in secondary school, but I didn’t like my courses. In junior college, I switched to pure arts, but did badly. I chose to study accountancy in NTU’s Nanyang Business School as I wanted to pursue something practical, and had also heard good things about the school. After graduating, I did a year of auditing and realised I didn’t like it. Through trial and error, I discovered my inclination in selling – and that’s how I landed in marketing.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing. I went to several companies, hoping they would let me do sales and marketing, but not a single one gave me an interview, as I had neither a relevant degree nor suitable experience. Things took a turn for the better with Procter & Gamble, even though I had to take a test and go through nine rounds of interviews in three months! It was truly a pivotal moment in my life when I clinched the job, as there were about 600 others interested.

My years with the multinational corporation gave me a good foundation in marketing. One of the brands I worked on was skincare brand SK-II. Back then, it was a very small and interesting brand, nowhere near the size it is today. In its early days, no one knew anything about the brand and we even had to beg department stores to take it in.

But I had so much fun marketing SK-II. I felt I was building a sophisticated brand, working with department store counters and other stores to shape the entire shopping experience. I gained the confidence to venture deeper into retail. At Procter & Gamble, I picked up skills in running my own company.

I was very idealistic and wanted my first company to make an impact quickly. I started selling unique products and brands, like handbags made from recycled seatbelts. I believed people would love the idea behind these bags and I could pioneer the next wave of eco-conscious fashion. That was a big mistake. You can’t guilt-trip people into buying fashion items solely because they are eco-friendly. Singaporeans are very practical. They would rather spend $150 on a trendy handbag than something less chic but more environmentally conscious.

Last year, we opened the world’s largest Melissa store at Raffles City. That’s not to say it will be easy from now on. Singapore is an extremely challenging market and I’m thankful my current business has been growing year on year. But I’m still always on my toes!

TERENCE YOW is an alumnus of the Nanyang Business School and the Managing Director of Enviably Me, the official Singapore distributor of Brazilian plastic shoe label Melissa. In 2009, at the age of 39, he left his comfortable job at Procter & Gamble to start his own business, eventually opening his first standalone Melissa store at Wheelock Place in 2012 and subsequently the world’s biggest Melissa store at Raffles City.