Hubert Burda Media

Visionary by Design

Because of the enterprise of HO SHU YUAN, a contemporary design paradise has sprung fully formed in a far-flung corner of Singapore. By Suhana Ab

Visionary by Design

Two grumpy taxi uncles, morning traffic and a misadventure to Tuas immigration checkpoint later, the Prestige team finally arrives at Design Hub. Wandering around its generous 45,000-sq-ft premises, it becomes rather apparent why the ride this far out of town — to Tuas Bay Drive — is worth the while; But only if you're a design aficionado, architect or interior designer.

Which is exactly who Ho Shu Yuan hopes to attract. A self-professed design buff and the director of Design Hub, it was his idea to create a one-stop centre where trade professionals and like-minded folks would be able to shop for home and architectural products that run the gamut from wall coverings to kitchen fittings, lights and flooring.
Opened only in December last year, Design Hub already carries more than 40 brands, of which 90 percent are exclusively distributed by the firm. Among those new to market are wallpaper purveyor Wall&Deco, flooring brand Listone Giordano, tiles manufacturer Apavisa and bathroom specialist Devon&Devon.
“If people are going to make their way here to Tuas Bay, it's because they are coming for something truly different from what they can find, say, in Orchard Road. That is one of the pull factors of Design Hub,” says the 30-year-old of the brand portfolio. As its name suggests, Ho's intention is to grow the showroom into a veritable design hub along the lines of the mega New York Design Center and London's Chelsea Harbour Design Centre.
For now, it occupies three stories of a 14-storey office building owned by Syscon, the family-owned business — helmed by dad Freddy Ho — that specialises in concrete precast components. Built in anticipation of future developments in the Tuas area, the building was completed two years ago, with the first few floors set aside for Ho's entrepreneurial endeavour; the only thing was, he was then still in two minds about setting up shop.
It was only after some frank words from his father that Ho decided to take the plunge. “He said to me: ‘Look, Shu Yuan, I've been doing this for decades. I built the company from scratch. Would you have anything new to teach me? Are you coming in [to Syscon] as another employee or would you rather go out and work with the assets that we have?'”
“That made me wonder — what could my value-add be?” he goes on to say.
Deciding once and for all to embark on Design Hub, he began attending design and furniture trade fairs across Europe, including the Salone Internazionale del Mobile in Milan and IMM Cologne in Germany for research and to suss out unique products that would give his firm an edge.
His mission did not end at just discovering the products. Ho also had the uphill task of convincing brand principals of the potential demand for architectural and home-furnishing products in Singapore and the region. Fortunately for him, his timing was impeccable. He made his approach at a time when the European market was bearish and brands were increasingly looking outwards for business opportunities.
“A lot of it was about being persistent. I didn't promise them sales figures, but what I did instead was to be transparent about the background of the company, the store's location and our marketing techniques,” says Ho, who discovered his interest for design and architecture while studying it as an elective at Cornell University, where he majored in hotel administration. Swayed by his sincerity and Singapore's reputation as a leading trading hub in Asia, many of the brands he sought out are represented by Design Hub today.
With the foundations of the business laid, Ho is prepping for the next stage. Over the next 12 months, he intends to significantly increase floor space from three to five levels, and will augment his brand mix by adding furniture labels Eichholtz and Hülsta to the stable. (Of the 40 names Design Hub carries today, only two — John Erdos and Ark Haus —are furniture brands, the rest are architectural products.)
In the pipeline are also plans to lease part of the office building to interior design and architectural studios at a lower-than-market rental rate. A nearby block has also been identified for transformation into a separate enclave for carpenters. “When these come to fruition, then we will truly be known as a design hub,” Ho states.
For now, Ho is focused on building awareness for brands under his care, such as kitchen manufacturer Veneta Cucine. Even though it is ranked as one of the top three kitchen brands in Italy, it is barely known in this part of the world. “This is something I thought hard about — do I want to be just another distributor for an already familiar brand or do I bring something new to the table?” he says.
The savvy marketer chose the latter. “Once upon a time, nobody knew Hansgrohe or Bulthaup. They were developed and now take a prominent place in the market. In the long run, it is beneficial that I, too, do the same with [my company and brands],” he shares. In a strategic attempt to make these mostly European brands a household name in Asia, Ho and a sales team of five actively pitch to supply products and fittings to development projects around the region, including the Iskandar Project in Johor Bahru.
Such tireless efforts to make their brands known is necessary, he claims: “We are not located in a place where there is high foot traffic so we need to push ourselves even harder…I've always believed that anything worth doing is not going to be easy.”
Being far away from the crowds has its advantages, chief of which is lower rent. And at Design Hub, this means benefits for the customer as Ho passes on these savings in the form of reasonable pricing.
“There is a significant number of people who appreciate quality products, beautiful things and the luxury of original design. However, they aren't able, or rather, will not pay exorbitant amounts for them. Design Hub is here to cater to this growing market,” he explains.
According to Ho, the increasing demand became particularly apparent in the past five years. Singaporeans travel extensively and, as such, have developed a more sophisticated taste palette and are constantly looking for unique things for their home, he observes. Often, they see something interesting overseas, want it for their homes but don't actually know where to get it. This is where Ho wants his establishment to bridge the gap.
That said, Design Hub does get the odd auntie wandering in and berating them for being too pricey. “They go: ‘Haiya, so expensive,' ” the personable Ho regales with a laugh. “But they only say that because they're comparing us to the lower end of the market. At Design Hub, it's about offering quality middle- to high-end products at reasonable prices.”
Highly entrepreneurial, Ho has also started S. Capital, a company managing three restaurants sited within the property. All conceptualised and designed by Ho, there is Western eatery Greenhouse Café, Japanese restaurant Bento and Asian joint The Wok. Boasting modern aesthetics and zealous air-conditioning (apparently much desired but sorely lacking at Tuas eateries), they have proven to be a hit with the Tuas office crowd.
Ho's side project, if anything, is rather clever. Not only did he seize the opportunity to provide Tuas with much-needed lunchtime hangouts by doing so, he also maintains continuous public interest in Design Hub, which, from a real estate finance perspective, ensures the building generates revenue.
Despite the success, Ho claims to have no plans on becoming a full-fledge restaurateur. “Well, at least not right now. But you know what they say — never say never,” chirps Ho, whose first taste of the F&B trade was as a primary school student helping his drink stall operator grandfather deliver drinks at a canteen.
When not living, breathing business, Ho takes pleasure in the simple things such as catching up on sleep and channel-surfing on Apple TV, both of which have become luxuries of late. Also precious to him are the memories of his youthful travels.
Known for his wanderlust, Ho likes to mark personal milestones with epic adventures. There was the time he backpacked across Europe after completing his O-Levels; the six weeks he spent travelling across the US with nothing more than a tent over his head after earning a diploma at Singapore Polytechnic; and the trip he took to South America upon graduation from Cornell. His favourite memory to date? Pitching a tent in Monument Valley in the US and watching the sunrise.
“The experiences from those days are the highlights of my life,” he says fondly. “It allowed me to see how the world actually is and that's a good thing…I saw a lot of people out there who constantly push the envelope in their respective pursuits.”
“That is where I got the desire to push mine.”