He’s famously moulded his family business from a contract projects office-furniture supplier to a high-end furniture retailer. Yet Yung Ong has transformed more than just the company that his father, Ong Kok Thai, started: The accidental retailer and now executive director of Proof Living and Suitsupply has also changed the high-end furnishing landscape.
From heritage brands like century-old Italian leather specialist Poltrona Frau – the first brand he brought to Singapore as a 24-year-old greenhorn in the furniture business – to contemporary American names like Ralph Lauren Home and Barbara Barry by Baker, the brands Ong chooses to represent through the company’s retail arm, Proof Living, might seem disparate.
However, look closer and you will find the shared characteristics of quality, elegance and a richness in offerings that allow each brand to deliver complete looks for the entire home. Where one would have had to visit various specialists for individual statement pieces, be it a chandelier or a chaise, Ong offers one-stop show galleries that present the various collections of the brands in a holistic manner.
“When picking new furniture brands to introduce to Singapore, I look at two things: The line needs to be large enough so that we are not just selling a product, but a whole look,” he says. Proof Living now has over 15 international labels in its portfolio.
“People often fall in love with one thing in a store, but have no idea where to put it once they take it home. I am interested in making sure that they don’t just fall in love with one thing, but a whole look – or at least offer them the option of simply purchasing all that they need from us, so that they won’t run the risk of buying something that doesn’t fit with the rest of their house.”
This ethos rings true also in the other portfolios he manages. Apart from Proof Living, he holds the franchise rights for Danish furniture label Bo Concept, and houseware retail giant Crate and Barrel. This passion for delivering full looks has also led Ong, a fastidious sharp-dresser himself, to expand into fashion retail, bringing in Dutch brand Suitsupply in 2015.
Known for its accessibly priced tailored pieces that use high-quality European fabrics, the brand has an Ion Orchard boutique, a 5,500 sq ft playground that stocks head-to-toe essentials for the sartorially inclined gentleman.
Ong did not come into the business with the vision he has today. In fact, it took a decade for him to realise the difference between selling brands with a cohesive look and selling just products. The law-trained 39-year-old, who followed his father to furniture fairs and meetings around the world as a child, certainly had a head start in the foundations of business, but he confesses to surviving the early stages through luck and foolhardiness. “I had no idea what I was doing,” he says. “And the scariest thing is that you don’t know what you don’t know.”
The closure of every store is a lesson for him and, by his count, six have closed in Singapore and Malaysia over the last 15 years. Still, each has sharpened his business acumen to steady the existing portfolio (despite the soft economy last year, Poltrona Frau enjoyed the highest sales since it was launched here – a feat for a luxury brand in a difficult climate) and ready for the expansion plans that lie ahead.
In the pipeline: the launch of the largest Crate&Kids store in the region, which will take up an entire floor in Orchard Gateway, showcasing everything from furniture to toys and apparel; and bringing in a new European lighting concept that Ong opines is the “Apple of the lighting world”.
“I wouldn’t dare say that I have a role in changing how consumers see luxury furniture – they make their own decisions. We just show them design trends. But, if I could contribute one thing – and that mission has been consistent from the beginning – it is for people to shop better, live better, and more comfortably.”