15 Mar 2020

Brex International is 18 years old! My Reflections

In the midst of the most difficult times and the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, I find myself alone in the office, and having a little spare time to pen down my thoughts.  Yes, this is one of the most trying times for businesses – unlike SARs in 2003, this time, it seems scarier for us.  I guess, then, Brex was a newly minted business, and the business was much smaller.  This time, the business impact seems wider, faster and deeper.   I just messaged my family that whichever businesses that are able to pull through these few months, they will turn out stronger.  I trust that Brex will be one of them.

18 Years ago till Today…

I registered Brex international with ACRA on 15 March 2002.  It was a little surreal then, as Brex was just created on the basis of a short holiday to visit my father-in-law in Vietnam, saw the beautiful lacquerware and other handicrafts, and then, on impulse, bought a suitcase worth to start the business.  I thought, “Well, if I can’t sell them, then, they will be Christmas gifts for my family and friends at the end of the year”.  No - Brex was not created with a big and detailed business plan!

How lacquerware is made - polishingMy first trip to Vietnam and I was totally enchanted by how they polish the lacquer

I started selling my wares in pushcarts in malls, bazaars and fairs.  Although it was hardwork, it was not difficult to sell the products.  Afterall, Vietnam was only starting to open up, and there is hardly any high quality lacquerware in Singapore. 

I guess one thing led to another.  From being approached by a large hotel procurement manager at the pushcart, to starting counters at departmental store and smaller retailers, the business was growing!  Very early on, we even ventured to Hong Kong and Dubai to do tradeshows, hoping to get some overseas orders.  We were a little naïve then, not understanding the size of the orders that distributors were looking at, and how many pieces our lacquerware craftsmen can produce.  We were ill-prepared with the questions they ask.  However, we were still able to find a few customers, and export our beautiful wares to retailers in Australia, United Kingdom and Denmark.


Qua Hong Kong Gift and Premium ShowOur first overseas tradeshow: Home and Gift Show in Hong Kong Exhibition Centre

   Very proud to see Qua in a shop in United Kingdom – unfortunately, the ladies running the shop had to close it down after 5 to 6 years in business

Every year, we challenge ourselves to create 2 new collections.  Most of the product development ideas came from our customers.  Our customers are always looking at more innovative and meaningful gifts.  We have worked with artists, designers, who our inhouse or interns, or like-minded organisations we have forged partnerships with.  Check out the Qua Collections that have been created.

Nanoleaf was a “incidental” find when we visited the Hong Kong Gifts & Premiums show in 2015.  Then, we were looking for an innovative and eco-friendly gift product.  Nanoleaf LED bulbs with its many RedDot design and SEAD awards tick all the boxes.

What are some of the mistakes I have made? 1) not getting a mentor and not networking enough, as I thought the retail business is not too “difficult”  2) embarking on non-core products, such as, run of the mill gadget gifts.  It was a disaster, as I have no technical know-how or passion to market the products.  

However, there are many things I am grateful for:

  • I have suppliers and partners/business associates that that have supported me through the years
  • Although I have not been very lucky with all the staff I have hired, I am grateful with a few who have gone over and beyond what they were hired for
  • My family, especially my hubby, who will take leave and work weekends to help with my office infrastructure and the many setups of the retail pop-ups
  • Customers who have placed their trust and supported us

Future: Where do I see Brex?

Brex will come out stronger after this crisis.  By then, I will want to see the “International” part of the company name come alive.  This means to repeat the Singapore model in our selected markets of working with artists, designers, like-minded companies to create even more meaningful, functional gifts and homeware - Products that are able to marry traditional with the contemporary, and are aesthetically pleasing.  I am looking forward to the next part of Brex’s journey.