Text and photos by Cheryl Tay
It’s not the most suitable environment for a woman to work in – the floor is slippery, high heels are a hazard and skirts are a definite no-no.
The tyre retail trade is indeed not any woman’s first choice of job, but it is not unsurprising to find ladies who live and breathe the tyre business.
Meet three local female tyre retailers who have different tales to tell…
The accidental trade
Elaine Tan, 23, Chen Jin Trading
She would never have chosen to be in this line if it weren’t for her father. Elaine Tan made the decision to join her father and help him with the tyre retail business that he set up six years ago.
The 23-year-old sweet and petite Elaine has no interest in cars or motorsports, but chose to step into this trade to assist her 52-year-old father Tan Kim Huat with Chen Jin Trading.
“After I graduated from polytechnic in 2007, I came to help my father immediately – first I took over the accounts from my elder sister, but now I’m handling the sales and marketing as well. I studied facility and building management in school, something completely unrelated to the business, but it’s alright as everyone has to start somewhere,” Elaine said.
Her father was working for others in the automotive repair line before he left to step out on his own. Although her friends encourage her to go outside and gain experience by working for others first, Elaine sees the need to be by her father’s side.
Indeed, her existence in the company has proven beneficial as she implemented the use of web marketing and improved sales significantly.
“At our Woodlands outlet where I’m based, walk-in customers are far and few as the location is too secluded. We are not along the roadside, unlike the other branch at Upper Serangoon Road, so we have to use other methods to create awareness,” Elaine explained.
Her younger brother is still schooling and helps out on Saturdays so Elaine can have a five-day work week, while some of her relatives help out at the other branch.
Getting dirt between her fingernails is no big deal for Elaine who spares no hesitation to help change a tyre or even spray a rim if things get busy in the shop.
She added, “It doesn’t bother me about getting dirty and I don’t experience any form of discrimination being a female. My role here is rather varied and I help out with everything, from serving customers to assisting with balancing of the tyres.”
Price is still the defining factor for Elaine’s customers. “The industry is still very price-sensitive and customers bother to make the effort to drive to our shop only if there is a good bargain in store for them. Customers these days know what they want and I don’t really face a problem of educating them. However, even with low prices, good service is still expected from customers,” Elaine shared.
One day, Elaine hopes to have a more modern tyre retail shop with a comfortable place for customers to relax as they wait for their cars to be ready.
“Customers want to watch their cars being worked on, so I’d like to have a lounge area where they can wait. I also hope to expand our services beyond tyres, rims and batteries to include alignment of tyres, car servicing and repair.”
Adaptability is key
Jennifer Yap, 38, Yap Brothers Motorsport
From the first day that Yap Brothers Motorsport opened its doors to the public, Jennifer Yap has been involved in the running of the business.
The 38-year-old mother of two met her husband at the age of 19 when they were both working at a car audio workshop.
Two years later, her husband decided to start an automotive-related business and she gave her fullest support from day one till today.
“Yap Brothers Motorsport started in 1994 and we have moved three times, finally settling at our current Paya Ubi Industrial Park location where we have been for the last eight years. Initially I was handling the paperwork but later I took on more responsibilities and now I help to run the business and its operations,” said Jennifer.
In the 16 years that Yap Brothers has operated, Jennifer has also proven that a husband and wife can work together.
“Between the couple, the roles need to be defined clearly. At work I rise to the occasion and I refer to my husband as Boss or Mr. Yap. Back home, I assume the role of a mother and I take care of the children and the house.
“Yes, many couples fall out or are unable to run a business together, but those who can, will realise that it actually strengthens and enhances the relationship,” Jennifer explained.
It also helps that both Jennifer and her husband have the same views and attitudes towards life and are able to comprehend each other’s goals and ambitions.
With two sons – one in Primary Four and the other in Secondary One – to take care of, how does Jennifer juggle work and family?
“Having children is a responsibility and one should be prepared before bearing them. Once I had my sons, I rarely have any personal time, but this is a sacrifice that parents have to make. When I get home after work each day, I will spend some time with them to go through their homework and talk to them about school,” she said.
Does having a female at the helm of the business cast doubt on the credibility of the company?
“Not at all,” Jennifer replied, “In fact, I gain respect from customers rather than doubt. They are surprised and impressed by my knowledge and how I am able to recommend the right tyre specifications and profile.
“In addition, I believe in befriending customers and being sincere about their needs, instead of just pushing for sales. I make it a point to always serve them a cup of coffee and giving them a proper consultation, regardless of how big or small their requirements are.”
Changing to a new set of tyres mean not making a return visit so soon, but good service experienced will lead to word-of-mouth recommendations to friends and hence, lead to more business.
“Every day is a challenge as this trade is not as straightforward as selling fishball noodles. New cars, new tyres and new technologies are emerging every day and we have to keep up in order to cater to the changing demands of customers,” Jennifer added.
“We cannot change the environment and its conditions to suit us, but we can change ourselves to suit the environment. In life we should learn to be flexible and adaptable, as well as receptive to change in our surroundings. For example, I never had any interest in cars or tyres before I knew my husband, but because I chose this path, I made the effort to increase my knowledge and become actively involved.”
E-commerce is the next ‘in’ thing
Shirley Ng, 31, Hup Soon Seng Tyre & Battery Co.
Growing up around tyres, making a career in the tyre trade is only natural for Shirley Ng.
Her grandfather Ng Key Seng came all the way from China and saved up to start a small bicycle shop at Lim Chu Kang in 1955. It later expanded into a passenger car business as motor vehicles started to replace bicycles as a mode of transportation then.
Called Hup Soon Seng Tyre & Battery Company, the family business is now based in Defu Industrial Estate with another branch at Autobay@Kaki Bukit.
Shirley’s father Ng Cheng Hua applied for the position of a Singapore Airlines technician and was ready to start work, but had to reject the job offer as he was required to help with the family business instead.
Joining in 1969, Cheng Hua learnt the ropes and took over in 1977 till today. His six brothers are also in the same tyre trade.
After completing her tertiary education, Shirley worked for others to gain some experience before returning to help her father.
“I’ve always been helping my father with the administrative duties, even while I was working for others. Then my workload started to increase and I had to make a choice. This was about six years ago and the family business was facing a crisis. The name has been around for decades and it would be a total heartache to see it close shop, so I made the decision to commit and help the business,” said Shirley.
Shirley’s younger brother is still studying and helps out on a part-time basis. Other than that, the show is left to Shirley and her father to run.
“Running your own company requires a lot of discipline as I discovered. You’re on your own time, own target so you really have to push yourself and make sure you get things done,” Shirley shares.
The tyre industry is a male-dominated traditional Chinese one that has practices hard to reform. Stereotypes of the trade have been set for half a century and most are reluctant to change.
“Being the third generation and one which is very technologically-advanced and gadget-driven, there are many opportunities to revamp the existing business model. However, the previous generation leaders are used to doing things their way that it is difficult to communicate new ideas.
“I’m lucky that my parents are slightly more open to change and I’ve managed to implement new practices, such as computerising the system and building a website as well as a Facebook page where we put up the latest offers we have,” said Shirley.
Having to give up wearing high heels or pretty dresses to work is a small sacrifice for Shirley compared to the satisfaction she derives from earning the credibility from her customers.
“As most of our customers are old-time regulars, they feel that I’m not qualified enough to advise them. Sometimes when I answer a call in my father’s absence, they end the call quickly, thinking that I have no knowledge or ability to assist them as I’m female.
“It may be a simple thing like checking of price or availability of stock, where gender doesn’t matter, but yet they feel that I’m not in a position credible enough to attend to their queries. However, over time they realise that I’m here for the long haul and that I do know my stuff as I’m making the effort to learn. Slowly but surely, some have started to approach me directly.”
With plans to enter their business into the world of e-commerce, Shirley hopes to capture the online shopper segment.
“Everything is just a click away now and the younger generation tends to prefer such convenience. E-commerce is not popular in this conventional trade yet, but it may be the thing of the future. Gone are the days of customer loyalty as price is king, so going online might just be the solution to cost reduction and revenue increase.”
*This was first published in Goodyear Singapore’s trade publication.