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S'porean couple stamps their brand in Asia
Publication Date : 16-09-2013
Husband-wife team Peter Phang and Reene Ho-Phang intended for their business to go global from day one
A business trip to Shanghai changed Reene Ho- Phang's life.
As she walked along the famous Bund in 2003, she took in the impressive city skyline, soaked up the energy of the people and was seized by a desire to drop everything in Singapore and start a business there.
Having travelled in and out of Shanghai for about a year, setting up a spa for her then-employer Banyan Tree, Ho-Phang says she could feel the pulse of the city.
"Things were moving faster and faster. And people had such an appetite to learn and acquire new lifestyles," she enthuses, bright-eyed.
"This kind of force is so overwhelming. Your gut feel tells you that this is going to be a phenomenon," she adds.
She immediately picked up the telephone and shared this dream with her husband Peter Phang, 43, who was in Singapore at the time.
Her enthusiasm was reined in by him. "I told her to slow down, come home and talk about it. I didn't say no," he says.
And thankfully, he did not.
Ten years down the road, their company - BrandStory - is a leading Asian branding and travel representation consultancy, which markets international brands to the Chinese market.
Their most recent coup was bagging the Brand USA account to promote the United States as a tourist destination to the Hong Kong and Taiwan markets.
Other brands they have introduced to the Chinese market include The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and Yeo Hiap Seng.
Starting out in a totally foreign land was not easy for the duo.
They started their business in the first half of 2003, about the time when the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) epidemic hit the region.
"I met people, people linked me to other people and I think that was how the network began," says Ho-Phang, who admits that the first years of business were slow.
Phang had left his job in a healthcare company, while she quit hers at Banyan Tree,
and the couple risked all by investing a five-figure sum in the business.
Ho-Phang, 43, says they were basically "burning savings and funds" in that first year of operations.
"But exactly after one year, business started to trickle in," she adds.
"Then we realised the business cycle is around two years, for people to know you, to understand you and then think about engaging your firm."
They also realised their way of working was different from Chinese companies.
"When Chinese companies have a meeting, they expect you to bring a whole delegation," says Phang, highlighting that the Singaporean way would be to bring one or two people who can get the job done.
Some of their first clients were Yeo Hiap Seng, which engaged them to re-launch their non-carbonated drinks in China, and The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf which they helped to re-launch in Shanghai.
Their big break came in 2005 when they clinched the account from Australia's Northern Territory Tourism Commission to promote the Northern Territories to the Chinese market.
In 2008, they beat at least seven other companies to represent the city of Las Vegas in the Greater China market.
These days, they jet around the region, sometimes spending only six days a month in Singapore, which means leaving their nine-year-old daughter in the care of Ho-Phang's parents.
She admits that she and her husband do not spend much time with their daughter, so they make sure they spend quality time together.
They also have a private family blog.
"We share what we did for that day, our mood. We find ways to keep in touch with her. It's very important," she says.
The duo are forging ahead with their business. They have 27 staff members in Shanghai, Beijing and Singapore, and are setting up new offices in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
They hope to expand to second-tier Chinese cities, such as Chengdu, Chongqing, Hangzhou and Xiamen, within the next five to 10 years.
Ho-Phang says: "We want to make the company strong in Asia because we know that's why foreign clients are attracted to us."
Quoting her mentor and former boss at Banyan Tree, Ho Kwon Ping, she adds: "He once said you don't have to be a big company to be a global company... when we started BrandStory, I wanted it to be global from day one."