Global from the start, Hera Bathroom began as a business specializing in contract manufacturing of sanitary ware in China for European brands. Today, the company is based in Singapore with international offices in China, Myanmar and Malaysia.
Eeling Lew, founder and leader of Hera Bathroom’s business development, shared that although the business’s clients are based in Europe, the Hera brand’s primary distribution markets are Singapore, Myanmar and Indonesia. “Going forward, we will be venturing into Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia as they are emerging markets within the Asia region that we have identified to be of potential for our products,” she explained.
Early Digital Adoption
Even before the pandemic, Hera Bathroom was preparing for a transition from the traditional brick-and-mortar strategy to a digital platform.
“We found that a traditional brick and mortar like ours had changed very much in demographics and we must catch up on that area for the business,” Lew said. “We were preparing to digitize our company back at the end of 2019. COVID just hastened everything for us and we had to increase our transformation at lightning speed to cope with the drop in business.”
When lockdowns started, Hera Bathroom’s factories in China had already been closed down for a month due to the festivities for Chinese New Year. “The whole lockdown of China meant that no further goods could be delivered despite the lapse in deliveries of 2 months due to the festivals,” she shared. “Despite having orders, there was no way we could fulfill them. Meaning that there was zero income for us and the situation was stuck in an infinite limbo.”
Faced with challenges in many aspects of life and business, the Hera team turned to facemask distribution to fill a gap in supply at the beginning of the pandemic. “Everyone was scrambling for facemasks. The demand started from Asia spreading all the way to the west. Just when the supplies stabilized in China, we started sending facemasks to our clients and friends in Europe as there was a tremendous shortage and people were dying,” Lew said.
Digital Skills for Business Growth
“I decided to just concentrate on improving myself and signed up for various courses online for digital marketing, and back-to-back classes.”
For Lew, the idea to focus on increasing digital skills and capacity came from watching her young son in his Zoom classes. “If the children could shift and change that quickly, why can’t the adults do it? To jump-start the business, I got laptops for the staff, implemented zoom, and video conferencing and taught the older colleagues how to get it done as they were the less receptive,” she emphasized.
While going through the digital courses, Lew started to think about where her customers were going now that all of the shops were closed. “Then it dawned on me that they are all on the internet since everyone is trapped at home.”
“Instead of cutting down on expenses, I tried advertising myself online. It didn’t take me too long to realize this worked. Soon I was focusing all our resources online and throwing more advertising dollars into our Facebook and Google Ads,” she explained.
As Hera Bathroom began investing in social media, the market penetration was fast. Lew shared that paid and free digital tools enabled “the brand slowly gained recognition and our investments turned out to be the greatest decision we made during this whole pandemic.”
When the country started to reopen in Singapore, Lew shared that she “recruited a lot of young staff to help with social media, design, website” and put all that she had learned during the lockdown period to good use.
At the end of 2020, despite no sales for nearly half a year, Lew shared that the business’s annual overseas sales only dropped about 10 percent, much less than the team had expected. “And our local sales in Singapore tripled. It was a total turnaround for our business in Singapore,” she said.
The Opportunities & Challenges of Overseas Markets
As Lew and her employees broadened their understanding of digital marketing, they started to consider how digital strategies could be used to penetrate new markets.
“The biggest challenge for us to expand our business overseas was that as an SME, we lack the financial muscles and marketing dollars for penetration into foreign markets,” she said.
Due to the travel restrictions, many of their traditional methods to enter new markets were not able to be executed. “For example trade shows, face to face visits, etc. this prompt us to think out of the box. We tried building a social media presence in all the different markets that we want to go into to try out the market. It was not as difficult as we thought, soon we gain some followership,” Lew explained.
The brand’s emphasis on international marketing resulted in gaining its first Indonesian distributor. They are also working on closing a deal with a Taiwan distributorship. “They all know us through our digital platform, how we presented ourselves and the collective marketing assets that we have come up with. All these without the need to travel, without the need of exhibiting in trade shows which would have otherwise cost us a tremendous sum,” Lew remarked.
The Balance & Benefits of Dual Responsibilities
As a single mother to a 10-year-old boy, Lew divulged that she is constantly working to balance her responsibilities as a mother and her duties as a leader with her team. She also shared that “being a female in a male-dominated genre means that I would have to work doubly hard to prove my worth to my clients.”
Lew’s situation also makes her uniquely positioned to identify the real needs and problems that her clients face, and offer solutions. “I was able to identify the problems that I met at home and weaved the solutions into my products. If I have these problems, then all the ladies would have the same problems with their small bathrooms.”
“Throughout my journey, I must say I have met very supportive colleagues who can understand my struggles. They understand that I am first a mother than an entrepreneur,” she explained. Lew extends this culture into the workplace, enabling a supportive environment for working mothers, which included implementing work-from-home policies before the pandemic.
Made possible by the array of digital tools at their disposal, the Hera team stays connected through messaging platforms and emails.
The Impact of Government Support
Lew credits Hera Bathroom’s ability to quickly adapt and adopt many digital platforms to the support of the Singapore government at the time. “I was given financial help with low-interest loans, and there were a lot of programs and solutions rolled out for SMEs to digitize their operations and business,” she explained.
Due to such support, the founder shared that the once small team has now doubled its staff strength and is “still growing in terms of staff size and revenue, at an exponential rate.”
“Throughout this wave, we are grateful to say that we have not been brought down but instead risen higher and positioned ourselves better. We are very much looking forward to scaling new heights,” Lew concluded.