I was relatively a very young girl when Singapore was under Japanese Occupation. I saw the poverty and the poor living condition that surrounded me and I told myself that I will better myself; I will make sure that I give my family a better life. On hindsight, World War II affected my thinking and impacted me to work hard at anything albeit cooking or work so that I can lift my head up high.
Inspired by an Astute Mother
It was my mother, Madam Nellie Poh Chwee Neo who inspired me. She was very enterprising. I come from a Peranakan family and I saw how she sold her batik sarongs to her friends and relatives at a very good rate. She was astute and resourceful and she would persuade them by telling them they were handmade and of good quality. Due to Japanese Occupation, I studied in St Hilda’s school for only six years. In order to learn more, I began to educate myself by reading romance books like Mills and Boon that were plentiful at home.
Encouraged by my Positive Mentor
In later years, I got married and became a housewife. But inside of me I felt I can better myself. I cannot sit down and take things for granted. I feel that I can do something for my family. So I started working at the age of 35 years old. My first job was working as a canvasser to solicit advertisement for magazines. My boss James Wee of Techo was my mentor. He gave me the confidence that I needed. He told me, “Laura, I am sure you can! I believe you can do it!”
That was enough to start me going. He was very encouraging and positive. Imagine what encouraging words can do to someone like me! The first book I solicit advertisement was University Year Book. I successfully sold many advertisements and I continued to solicit advertisements for more school magazines and year books. I felt happy that I am able to do something of worth.
Cold calls in the morning
If only you could visualise me making cold calls every morning in my pyjamas at home. I will sit in my kitchen with two old rotary phones on the dining table together with an old adding machine. To keep my long, manicured fingernails from chipping and because I had to make phone calls daily, I usually dialled on one of the rotary phones using a pencil. This would be my daily ritual. This is because the telephones in those days work on a “pulse dialling” system.
Dressed to the nines
I have always had nicely coiffured hair set in my bouffant style. In fact I still visit the same neighbourhood hairdresser at Tiong Bahru estate simply because I can only trust her to style my hair. I believe in dressing well when I meet my clients. I have dresses tailor-made near my estate and I usually have several pairs of very high heel sandals. I had horrendous experiences when I had to climb up the steep steps at shop houses in Arab Street to meet my customers wearing very high heel stilettos.
An Entrepreneur at 40
When I was 40 years of age, I decided to start a business. One day whilst driving, my husband and I were looking at the rear of the buses in Singapore. And we had a brainwave! At that time the main bus operator was Singapore Traction Company (STC). The Singapore Traction Company had the biggest fleet of buses in Singapore. It monopolised the whole of Singapore town area. As we watched the buses plying routes in the city area in Singapore we thought we should approach them to ask them whether we can sell advertisements for them on the rear of the bus. I felt bold enough to approach Tan Kok Eng of Singapore Traction Company. I told him I can do something for him. I can sell advertisement panels at the rear of his buses if he would agree. We made an agreement that for every bus rear panel ads that I sold, I will pay him $30. In the beginning, he was hesitant. But he finally relented and it was a done deal. I would then go out and sell the panels on the bus rears for $150 as a package deal together with production. We would also engage an artist to paint the logo and also design the advertisement.
Now that we have decided to start a business, working at home was a thing of the past. We named the advertising company 3 Aces Advertising because there were three partners. One of the partners was my husband Tan Boon Eng, Yeo H Y, our accountant became our third partner.
Go Forward motto
When I was in St Hilda’s School, the motto of the school was “Go Forward” and that was how I conducted my daily business in making cold calls to my customers. For example, as I searched through the Yellow Pages for customers, I would call someone who sold industrial shoes. I would sell them a space. My sales pitch would be, “How would you like to have your brand exposure on the rear space of a bus for only $5 a day plus production?” or I would inform him that if they buy 10 or 20 bus panels, I would give them the inside of the bus complementary. Usually the person in charge would be interested. Then I would make an appointment to see him the next day.
After clinching a deal with this company, I would then call his competitor and sell him the same pitch. I would add that his competitor is also having his brand advertised on the bus panels. Usually he would reluctantly concede. I never take “no” for an answer. If today’s sales were not up to par, I would quietly console myself that “tomorrow will be a better day!” That was how I would conduct my business. I am a down to earth person who will never ever take a “no” for an answer.
Talk shop at the dining table
The dining table at home would be the most ideal place for me to share day to day business challenges with my children. I could sense the entrepreneurial spirit runs deep in my family. My two sons, the late Dato’ Winston Tan had an entrepreneur spirit and so did my youngest son Adrian who is the chairman of Ad Planet, Singapore ‘s largest independent group comprising 10 boutique agencies. My daughter Jayne Kwek is now the CEO of Moove Media, the advertising arm of ComfortDelGro.
Our very first office
In 1973, we rented an office space from our lawyer friend Palakrishnan at People’s Park Complex. The office was relatively a small set up but I knew we were growing. Within a year, my daughter’s Filipina maid, Viven Doley helped out in the administration side. She studied business administration in Manila so she was really a great help.
From 1973 onwards, there was only one bus company, Singapore Bus Services and later in 1977, Double-deckers were put into use. One of my first customers who advertised on bus panels was Golden Phoenix. The other was King Shoe Industrial who sells industrial shoes. I was also on a lookout to meet up with factory owners to persuade them to secure factory workers by advertising on the bus panels.
Like mother like daughter
My husband and I persuaded my daughter Jayne Kwek to join us. She had no choice. She told me tongue in cheek that working for me would be like doing her National Service for the country. Jayne joined 3 Aces after her return from a three year stint in Florida where she studied Fashion Merchandising at Daytona Beach Community College. She started off in sales. Her forte was creativity. She used to brainstorm with the staff. I am very proud of her creativity. We make a good team. At that time, she engaged a freelance artist to help her put her ideas into visuals. The visuals at that time were rendered in coloured markers. Some of the visuals were beautifully illustrated. We also engaged Eric to take photographs of the product we advertised on the panels on a freelance basis. To make the working environment a friendly place to be in, I would cook Peranakan dishes for everyone at the office.
By that time we have moved to the fourth level of Thye Hong Centre at Leng Kee Road. As the Sales Director, I would still make cold calls to various would-be clients and after making the appointment to meet them, I would visit the would-be customer the next day. One of my children or my husband would drive me around. During that time, we had a receptionist to answer telephone calls, an account’s clerk and an artist. It was a cosy affair but business was brisk. Bus ad panels were really selling well.
Since bus advertisements were the most effective outdoor medium for communicating the message to the masses in terms of reach and brand recall, 3 Aces decided to design the first wholly painted super-bus. From bus rear panels to side panels and now to wholly painted super-bus was very exciting for us. Very soon many other outdoor communicators caught up with this idea.
In the early 90s, my daughter Jayne met up with the CityCab people and we started selling taxi top panels for them too. We kept the leadership going in this field by showcasing the first taxi top ad in Singapore. We then went on to sell the taxi body. But our bread and butter were buses. Business was swift and good.
A Different Beat
My daughter Jayne wanted to try her hand in publishing. She started a publishing company called Jerel & Janan (the names of two of her three sons). I was one of the directors of this company. We published two guidebooks called ‘Kid’s Guide’ and ‘Family Kids’s Guide’ and a bi-monthly magazine called ‘Family Tree’. As she had a passion for children, an idea at Canberra made her decide to promote a self-funded annual directory with a circulation of 100,000 copies. It was peppered with short articles and how-tos for parents to be positive and generous in awarding praises to their offspring. Family Guide was targeted to busy moms with useful resource directory of services available island-wide.
In 1999, my daughter Jayne decided to start her own business, City Dreams to focus on advertising space on taxis. My son Adrian Tan who heads the Ad Planet Group, Singapore’s largest independent advertising group decided to add 3 Aces into the umbrella of the Ad Planet Group.
3 Aces going places
With 3 Aces in the hands of my youngest son, I can rest assured that 3 Aces will go places. At present it has been re-invented to hold the fort in three areas mainly outdoor communication, mainstream advertising and corporate branding. Over the past ten years, 3 Aces have evolved swiftly to also become a multi-media agency. We now offer a full gamut of advertising solution which include print, outdoor and interactive web-based. We are also channelling into properties. As a specialist in outdoor communication solutions, this agency is now run by a team of young and eager professionals and I am confident that it will build a reputation for itself in all aspects of their projects.
It has been a satisfying 40 years in this industry. Chauffeured driven, I still go to the office three times a week to sign documents. The rest of the week I spend playing mah-jong with good friends, meeting old friends or watching my favourite soap operas on TV. Having a huge family with a horde of grandchildren and great grand-children, my role today is different. I motivate the young and provoke them to do their best! I remember what I went through, my determination and hard work has brought the sweet fruits of success into my life and into my family. I am still astute and sharp and a very down-to-earth person. Looking back at my achievements, I have no regrets. I am truly a happy and blessed “ad lady”.
Article contributed in 2014