A high-school dropout and the son of a tiler, CC Ngei got involved in the tile retailing business from the age of 15. Almost three decades later, he has since moved up the value chain to selling his own brand of tiles, and is set to transform the industry with his vision.
When Ngei Chee Chau, who preferred to be known as CC Ngei, established upmarket tiles and ceramics chain Feruni Ceramiche in 2010, he already had 20 years of solid experience up his sleeves. The son of a tiler, Ngei has been helping out his father ever since he was 10 years old to earn his own pocket money.
Subsequently dropping out from high school for failing his qualifying examinations to enter upper secondary, Ngei had no choice but to get involved with the family business at the young age of 15.
“By that time my father has already opened a tiling shop, so I went on to help my father for about 11 years. The first two years I helped my father in his shop, and then when he opened another shop in Seri Kembangan, I was involved in the running of the tile retailing business for another nine years,” Ngei told KINIBIZ in an exclusive interview.
Moving up the value chain
After spending slightly more than a decade being involved in the family enterprise, Ngei then decided that it’s about time he set out on his own. He decided to move up the industry value chain by going into tile trading business. With a mere RM40,000 in start-up capital, the then 29-year-old Ngei started Sixny Ceramics with a business partner in 2001.
“We imported our tiles from China and Indonesia, and distributed to all the dealers in Malaysia. (With RM40,000) we just managed to bring in one container from China including the flight tickets to go over there to make the purchase. And then slowly from there we roll over our capital. That was our business model then,” he explained.
The business went on for a good nine years, before Ngei thought that the time was ripe for him to embrace change again. It was also at this juncture in which he split up with his business partner to go their separate ways. A group of staff also left to join his former business partner during the split.
“Together with my business partner we worked for about nine years until end of 2009. By the time the split happened we realised all the while we have been in the industry, we have been doing the same thing. We made some good money, but after a while we found that it was so competitive where everyone can also import from China.
“There is nothing to shout about – it can be very dull. So we came to a point where we got very demotivated, and that got us thinking: Can we continue our business for the next five to 10 years if I were to get another partner to come in? Do I want to continue running the business with the same model again? Can we survive in the end?” he related.
Injecting style into tiles
Realising that selling tiles ought not to be a dull affair, Ngei started having the idea of injecting styles into his tiles, and to invigorate a stagnant, conventional industry which he has been previously involved with for the past two decades.
After taking over his former business partner’s shares and injecting new capital with new shareholders coming aboard, Ngei decided to completely change the direction that the company is heading by looking beyond conventional tile shapes and designs, and to refurbish its showrooms to improve customers’ experience.
“All of us agreed that running a traditional tiling business will neither get us excited, nor will it be sustainable. When we finally decided to change the way of doing our business in 2010, that was the point where Feruni Ceramiche was started,” recalled Ngei.
Feruni Ceramiche opened its doors to business in February the same year, coming up with its own in-house, proprietary designs while commissioning factories to manufacture the products for them. But change did not come easy for Ngei, as Feruni struggled with its own identity from the onset of its business.
Change did not come easy
Moreover, Ngei’s move was ridiculed by peers in the industry for refusing to distribute tiles of established brands which promised higher margins and better sales. Selling one’s own brand of tiles was something that was previously unheard of in the industry, but Ngei ignored objections and went on to sell only one brand of tiles.
The first seven months after revamping its business model, however, saw sales revenue falling 30% compared to the previous year, which cast doubts on Ngei’s transformation plan, in what he described as possibly the lowest point of the business where he felt like giving up.
“That was a big challenge for us because then people started worrying. In this transformation process we have chopped off many things just to sell our own brand, so some customers left. We did so many changes but the sales plummeted.
“It even became a challenge for us as we started worrying if we would be able to pay salaries and continue with the business,” recounted Ngei.