"Business as usual" may be a long way off in Malaysia, which is still suffering from the impacts of the coronavirus. Chen enlightens us on the ways he has employed to overcome these difficult times, and how the brand plans on moving forward.
Options: Royal Selangor has continued to introduce new products in the last 18 months, despite Covid-19. How do you keep staff safe and motivated
Chen Tien Yue: When Covid-19 hit Malaysia more than a year ago, the first thing to address was safety. All our craftsmen are Malaysians, so we did not have to deal with the dormitory issues that some manufacturers had to grapple with. We quickly developed our own SOPs for all staff to follow whenever they were on site, and established the teams that could work from home, such as finance, IT, sales and marketing. To keep everyone motivated through such an uncertain period — especially since we had lost our entire tourism segment with borders closed and no idea when travel would return to 2019 levels — we focused on ‘stay-at-home’ products for our local customers such as drinkware, chess sets, limited-edition collectibles and our new category of amplifier pods, Phonos. The team is motivated by the fact that their efforts in designing, producing and marketing these particular products have yielded results, so no one is sitting around ‘waiting for the market to recover’.
How has the pandemic changed the way you think, work and play?
The typical work week has changed dramatically during this pandemic. While I miss the trips to meet our teams and business partners in other countries, and the strength of relationships you can build simply by having a meal together, I am certainly grateful for the time I have with my three young children while working from home. I don’t think the pandemic has fundamentally changed the way we think about our business because we continue to focus on good design and quality craftsmanship, but there is an increased focus on our key markets and key product categories rather than trying to do too much in too many places.
As executive director, how involved are you in the creative aspect of the business?
We have a great design team, so I try not to get in their way. But I get a lot of feedback from our customers and sales team who speak to customers in our retail stores every day (when they are open), so I combine the sales data and customer feedback to provide ‘market input’ for our design team.
Looking ahead, what is the biggest challenge for the company, given the current health and economic situations?
There isn’t a single-biggest challenge to deal with. There are evolving challenges in each market that we operate in, as each moves in and out of various stages of lockdown. But while some markets such as China have bounced back relatively quickly even in 2020 and the US consumer kept spending throughout the pandemic, other markets such as Malaysia will still face difficult trading conditions this year and the next. We have adapted to our clients’ needs, for example, by working with corporate clients on bespoke designs for marketing programmes when their needs for business travel and event gifts declined during the pandemic. But we will need to keep adapting to the market because ‘business as usual’ is still a long way off in this country.
Do you have a favourite Royal Selangor product or two? What are the must-haves from its vast range you use frequently at home?
My late mother’s favourite design was the melon teapot, so that has a special place in my heart. When we used to have lunch at our Visitor Centre almost every day with some other family members, the one constant was this teapot, a replica of founder Yong Koon’s original design. At home, besides this teapot, I also have Erik Magnussen’s hurricane lamps at one end of my dining table; our Rounds 6-cup Set by Freeman Lau still in its original packaging, waiting for when we can have guests over for that ‘round’ of drinks; and a row of Disney Music Carousels with tunes that my kids loved growing up and still sing today!
What does ‘home’ mean to you and how do you make it a sanctuary for yourself and a welcoming space for others?
It’s strange to think of home as a sanctuary right now when it’s the only place we can be! We were fortunate enough to move into a larger apartment last October, and so instead of being in a smaller space with lots of toys on the floor, we are now in a bigger space with a lot of toys on the floor. Can’t complain. We will tidy up when visitors can come over again.
When not working, how do you like to pass the time?
I spend as much time with my kids as possible while they still want to spend time with me. And exercise is a run outside while I catch up on my audiobooks with an earphone in one ear. Working from home has made running through the Kuala Lumpur city area quite enjoyable, especially with the reduced traffic.
What is the one thing that never ceases to amaze you about working with pewter?
How versatile the material is, from the fine details of the limited-edition Mandalorian figurine, to our shiny Mallea drinkware. The same metal but finished in very different ways.
As a large family that goes on getaways together, how have you stayed connected amid the lockdowns and travel curbs?
Besides the usual WhatsApp chat messages, we have organised huge Zoom calls on major occasions. But it’s not the same, is it?
Where would you like to go when we can travel freely again, and why?
Anywhere! To explore again without staring at a screen.
This article first appeared on Sept 6, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.