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How Gani Atmadiredja of W Atelier went from selling toilet bowls to becoming a major player in the designer furniture business

They now have showrooms at Bukit Timah and Henderson Road, and further plans for expansion.

In 2004, when Gani Atmadiredja volunteered to take over the flailing Singapore operations of his family’s sanitary ware business, he didn’t think that he would end up living here for over a decade, and move from selling toilet bowls to become a major player in the designer furniture business.

Since 1968, his family-owned PT Surya Pertiwi had been working with TOTO, the Japanese sanitary manufacturer, to produce and distribute its wares in Indonesia. The family brought the business to Singapore a few years later when it started Inhwa Marketing (a nod to the family’s Indonesian Chinese heritage), distributing TOTO products and manufactured bathtubs.

In Indonesia, TOTO had 60 to 70 per cent of the market share. But it was a different story in Singapore, where the venture was bleeding millions.

Mr Atmadiredja, 40, the second of four children, volunteered to come to Singapore to find out what the problem was. And the rest is history. Inhwa Marketing rebranded itself as W. Atelier, and from a small showroom in River Valley Road, it now has showrooms at Bukit Timah and Henderson Road. Besides an upcoming new showroom at Outram, there are plans for further expansion, and even the possibility of another name change.

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Why did you want to join the family business and sell sanitary ware?

I was interested in architecture, but felt that it would be too long a process before I could start my own firm. So I decided to study business management in Boston instead. I wanted to stay on after graduation, but then 9/11 happened and things looked bleak. So I made the decision to return home and work with my father. I grew up with business in my blood, as it was always our dinner table conversation topic. Working with my father was a good experience, it taught me lessons that I couldn’t learn in school, such as dealing with people. My older brother and two younger sisters are also in business.

Things would have been very different had you not volunteered to come to Singapore. What did you do to turn the company around?

Since the Singapore business was bleeding, I came to see if I could turn things around. If I couldn’t, it would have been best to close it. Our River Valley showroom was literally a mom-and-pop shop. Our operation processes were old. I remember having to manually write out specifications for all our products. I took the plunge to open a bigger showroom at Boon Siew Building, where we have been for the last 14 years. The larger space made us look more professional and proper. We made purchasing quality sanitary ware a necessity, rather than a low priority.

In 2009, 30 years after Inhwa had been in Singapore, I rebranded the company. I felt the name Inhwa was outdated, and changed that to W. Atelier. W stands for water. But now that we have increased our product range, I’m considering another rebranding.

What did your father, Mardjoeki, think about your decisions?

I consulted my father on these ideas and sought his advice. Even though he is semi-retired, he still goes to the Indonesian office everyday. He gave me free reign to do what I wanted in Singapore. He knew that if he kept interfering too much, things would not be able to progress.

What is the best advice that he has given you?

He always said to be fair to people. To honour what you say and don’t say what you don’t mean. If something cannot be done, it is best to be upfront about it. You may be able to get away with something the first time, but people will lose their trust in you.

From sanitary ware, W. Atelier has expanded into selling kitchens and designer furniture. How and why did that happen?

These days, people who come to buy sanitary ware are usually doing up their home. So after they’ve outfitted their bathrooms, they think about kitchens next. The factory in Indonesia has been producing kitchen cabinets for a long time initially, as the original equipment manufacturer for TOTO in Japan. But kitchens in Japan are different from the ones in Singapore. They’re a lot smaller, whereas in Singapore, we are more familiar with European brands which are bigger. We invested in machinery that would allow us to build kitchens for the local market, and eventually TOTO would lend their brand to it. Today, we stock TOTO kitchens as well as German brands such as SieMatic which is considered the Rolls-Royce of kitchens.

After we sold kitchens, clients began asking us for recommendations on furniture, and lighting, and that led to us distributing brands such as Lasvit, Zanotta and Republic of Fritz Hansen. We are adding on new brands, to be a one-stop shop for clients. But I don’t want to be just collecting brands. I choose brands that have a strong history and that offer a timeless design.

We are opening a Vitra showroom in March at Tan Boon Liat building. We don’t have office furnishings at the moment, and Vitra fills that gap.

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There are other more established furniture retailers around, and the Singapore market is small. How do you compete?

I was surprised to see how much local retailers are selling the pieces for, when I was shopping for furniture for my own home some years ago, before W. Atelier started to sell it as well.

It is so easy these days to go on the Internet and check out how much a chair is selling for in Europe. We don’t mark up our prices too much. We price our furniture close to market prices in Europe.

Sanitary ware is still our bread and butter. We may be the new kids on the block in the furniture retail business, but we are definitely shaking up the market.

Which were the good and bad years for you business-wise and how did you ride out the bad ones?

Singapore had a decade of property boom from the mid 2000s. But the slump in the last four years has been challenging for all of us in the related industries. We saw the downward trend early on and shifted to focus on the retail segment to counteract the slowing project market. We used the opportunity to expand our product portfolio to include system kitchens, home furnishing and lightings which are geared towards the retail segment.

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This article was originally published in The Business Times.

Photo: BT/SPH