SINGAPORE – When Mr Russell Chin started as a salesman selling aluminium gates and window frames in 2001, there were times when he had “zero salary” because his job was wholly commission-based.
The business diploma holder from Temasek Polytechnic knocked on hundreds of doors every month, trying to convince home owners to upgrade their fittings. He also helped with the hard labour of ferrying materials whenever there was a shortage of workers.
Today, the 46-year-old managing director of Inspire ID Group sits in the company’s showroom in Jurong East, surrounded by eye-catching interior finishings.
On the second level of the Housing Board shop unit, a big poster announces that the company is one of two preferred interior design partners chosen by the SP Group for Tengah, the first integrated smart energy town in Singapore.
It is recognition of how far his company has come in 11 years and how much Mr Chin has overcome.
Growing up as a latchkey middle child of three siblings, he knew his divorced parents could not afford to send him to university. He started working part-time when he was in secondary school, at fast-food joints and factories.
“Life was very hard. That’s why I don’t spend anyhow,” he says.
His circumstances also forced him to be independent and resourceful. “Since I was young, I’ve been the type of person who tries to do things out of the box,” he says.
Looking for better prospects, he joined a wood flooring company in 2009 as a sales manager. He serviced interior design companies and found their scope of work exciting.
Two years later, he made the jump into one as a sales designer and found his calling.
“Every design is different and the problems are different. That’s why I think I still have the passion to do it, because that’s who I am. I cannot do the same thing over and over,” says Mr Chin, whose spouse is a stay-at-home mother. They have a five-year-old son and live in a condominium, although he declined to reveal further details.
“There’s no copy-and-paste formula. And what comes after? The warranty, the relationship, the referrals – this is where you build trust.”
In 2012, he made the bold move to set up Inspire ID Group with two employees and one showroom. He worked past midnight every day to close deals.
“I remember the first home that I handed over. The owner said, ‘Thank you very much, Russell’, and it felt good that I had created a home for them.”
When working at a wood flooring company, Mr Chin (right) received a Best Sales Manager award from his then boss at the company’s sports-themed dinner and dance event. PHOTO: COURTESY OF RUSSELL CHIN
The company grew fast. By 2018, it had three showrooms and more than 50 sales designers, chalking up a seven-figure revenue.
In 2019, Mr Chin was blindsided by an embezzlement case. Before he could recover from it, Covid-19 decimated the economy over the next year. Business dropped by 80 per cent
and he had to downsize to one showroom and about 10 sales designers.
Prospective clients were wary of face-to-face meetings, which were crucial in the high-contact industry. Also, Mr Chin’s days were spent trying to find accommodation and food for his subcontractors’ foreign workers, whom he could not afford to lose. Luckily, “strong referrals” kept the company afloat, he adds.
Unlike some firms which chose to close and then reopen under a new name months later, Mr Chin and his team decided to hold on. It turned out to be the right move because the economy bounced back enough for him to open the Jurong showroom in June 2023. He hopes to open a third one next year.
Through it all, he knows he could not have persevered without his long-time subcontractors.
“Before Covid-19, we motivated them by giving them an annual dinner. We had awards for best partner, best contractor, and we give them mobile phones,” he says. He also rewarded his staff with overseas trips pre-pandemic, and plans to take his 40-strong team on a retreat later this year, although the destination has not been decided on yet.
Mr Chin, who is secretary of the Singapore Renovation Contractors And Material Suppliers Association, an industry body, says blue-collar workers may be hesitant to upskill as many of them are not academically inclined, but there are lots of options they can choose from now.
“They can take a technical course because once they do, they are a bit different from the rest. From there, they can move up, step by step.”
He has not stopped learning, either. He obtained a professional diploma in leadership and people management from Kaplan in 2017, and is constantly thinking of ways to differentiate his company from others. He handles its marketing strategies himself and has taken a course on digital marketing too.
“Competition is very intense, so you have to do something different. When you have the passion, the home owners will feel it,” he says.