Text and photos by Cheryl Tay
They are young, they know nothing about the tyre business and it was a time of economic recession.
Yet, that did not stop Alvin Boey, Chua Jiang Jun (JJ) and Ethan Li from starting up their own retail tyre company – Arrow Tyres – in mid-2009.
The three 27-year-olds are good friends – Ethan and JJ were army mates and Alvin was Ethan’s secondary schoolmate – often meeting up to share their common love for cars.
The idea to start a tyre business came about when they realised that tyres are a necessity. “Modifying your car and upgrading its performance for example, is a want, not a need. Tyres however, are a definite need as they will encounter wear and tear eventually and need to be changed,” said Ethan.
Coming from diverse backgrounds, Ethan and Alvin are engineering graduates while JJ was schooled in finance and accounting.
“None of us knew what to do, but we are determined this is a viable business. When we first bought our machinery, we had no idea how to operate them and had to ask the suppliers to demonstrate to us,” Ethan recalled.
Spending some time to research the industry, these second-generation tyre retailers went on market visits and observed how other tyre shops ran their businesses and also analysed what consumers want these days.
“The initial stages were very difficult. We went to knock on suppliers’ doors one by one, but got turned away by some. It’s not about having the financial ability; some of them refuse to supply tyres to you for various reasons,” said JJ.
After hunting high and low for a place, they finally found a shop space at Sin Ming and opened in May 2009. They have since shifted to First Centre Building at Serangoon North and are comfortably settled in their present location from last February.
While Ethan takes care of the operations, JJ manages the finances while Alvin is the all-around guy who handles IT matters as well as washes the toilet.
“Our business was a downtime start-up and many were surprised at this leap of faith we took. We often get asked why us three degree holders – who can be working in a cushy office donning corporate suits daily – want to get ourselves involved in such a business where we literally get our hands dirty all the time,” said Alvin, who enjoys the hands-on experience of serving his customers and changing their tyres for them for example.
The tyre industry is still traditional in its ways and many are wary of shady tyre shops that do not seem sincere in helping customers.
“A challenge we faced was earning the credibility of customers. We are a completely new face on the scene and we are starting from scratch, unlike some companies who take over an established name and reputation from their fathers or grandfathers,” JJ shared.
He continued, “However, seeing how young we are, some customers are more willing to support us and they like our honest approach. We noticed that educating of the customer is missing from this industry and that’s why we are very particular about customer service. We spend time talking to customers and making sure they understand what they are paying for.
“Most shops just want to sell their tyres and it ends up in a price war. Customers may seem to benefit from the lower prices, but from a macro perspective, customers are actually losing out as they do not understand the value of tyres.”
Nowdays consumers are tech-savvy and they do their homework before visiting a tyre shop. As a result, competition between tyre businesses is very tough and the greatest challenge faced is the pricing wars.
Singapore is a small country, hence tyre shops fight on services provided other than fighting price. “We tried to offer special services different and unique from the typical tyre shop, but it didn’t work too well because people just want to change tyres,” Alvin said.
After almost two years in the business and battling the challenges of the industry, would Arrow Tyres still be in existence if given a chance to go back in time?
“Yes, we will still do this,” was the unanimous answer from all three of them.
It helps that the current COE situation is to the advantage of those in the tyre business – With COE prices at a high now, people are more likely to retain their existing rides instead of buying new cars, leading to a greater incidence of changing tyres.
Word-of-mouth referrals play a huge part in increasing customer base for Arrow Tyres – crucial for new businesses like theirs.
“Eventually we want to do distribution on top of retailing, but first we have to stabilise our operations and firm up our customer base. There are plans to expand within this year and open another retail outlet with a nicely done-up showroom, but first we have to secure the right place,” said Alvin.
*This was first published in Goodyear Singapore’s trade newsletter.