Ong Shu Hwai was hopeful, passionate, hardworking, and determined to bring Glass Curtains, a Spanish brand of sliding glass panels, into the Singapore market. But, along with all that, she felt that she didn’t have what it took to start the business on her own. She eventually met a skilled business partner with experience in the industry, who she thought shared her vision and passion. Little would she have thought that this partnership would fall apart one day, leaving things in a lurch. This is her story, as told to Letty Seah.

Shu
Credit: Durablinds

“About six years ago, I brought Glass Curtains to Singapore. This particular venture was a joint partnership with a sub firm in the aluminium and glass industry. The idea was to share the company 50/50. I brought in the IP from Europe, negotiated everything with the principle of Glass Curtains, introduced it in Singapore and let homeowners understand that semi-outdoor spaces can be utilised if you give them protection. 

At that point, the industry was still very new. My business partner was a subcontractor that I’ve worked with for many years. He was my door and window supplier. I knew I wanted to bring Glass Curtains into Singapore. But as an interior designer, I didn’t have any on-the-ground knowledge of the aluminium and glass industry. I didn’t know how to hire installers and make sure they have the necessary transportation, tools and other logistics involved. I had zero knowledge. 

When we started our partnership and firm Glass Curtains LLP together, my partner was supposed to handle the backend of the business. Unfortunately, the workers he hired were not able to create or install the Glass Curtains system properly. I eventually built my own team of installers. As for my partner, he didn’t put in a lot of bandwidth in building the business with me. Despite these challenges, sales rose and the business flourished. Within a span of nine months, we were already seeing six-figures in sales. 

“Never part of the boys club” 

In the months that we were in partnership, I’ve never felt like I was part of the “boys club”. I didn’t join them partying. I didn’t join them smoking. I was always the only lady. I could never really engage in those “men’s locker room” conversations with them. 

Eventually, my partner decided that he wanted to take the brand, Glass Curtains. He approached and convinced me to sell it to another company, effectively becoming a competitor to the 50/50 LLP we shared. I obviously refused and urged him to focus on marketing the product. When I turned him down, he started to get more forceful and resorted to underhanded bullying techniques.

My partner started to pick up more job orders under a new company he had set up. He demanded to have goods supplied from our company without the intention to pay a single cent.  When he couldn’t get his way, he turned to more drastic measures. Initially, he started by sending rude text messages and hurling profanities. 

“They robbed us” 

One day he showed up at my workshop with nine men, five different cars, banged on the door and demanded to be let in. At that time, it was just my admin lady and me in the office. We had no choice but to let him in because he still owned 50% of the partnership. Using brute force, he and his men helped themselves to aluminium and other materials. They trashed the space, ransacked the drawers and basically robbed us.

They even seized our cheque books. Because it’s a 50/50 partnership, it took two signatures for cheques to pass. Since they confiscated the cheque books, we were effectively put out of business. 

Thankfully, everything was captured on my recordings and on our CCTV.  I was fortunate to be recommended to a legal firm and advised to file a police report. 

I persevered through the whole ordeal because I had installations to fulfill. My commitment was to my customers. I am also grateful to have four good installers who delivered and took pride in the product. I was encouraged by the principle of the product, Neil Ingram, whom I had met on Skype. Not only did Neil train me on the installation process, he also entrusted me with his brand and gave me the motivation I needed to start my own workshop. I’ve always thought that the Glass Curtains system was meant to tatter off another business. With this encouragement, I strived on and took my business to another location. 

Shu with her team
Shu with her team
Credit: Durablinds

“Do the right things” 

Quality control meeting with workshop workers
Quality control meeting with workshop workers
Credit: Durablinds

Through this experience, I learnt to be more discerning, especially with the way I choose my partners. 

I did not trust myself enough when I first started this venture. As the aluminium and glass industry is a male-dominated one, I thought I needed a partner or male counterparts in this industry to do well. But after this episode, I realised that’s not true. When looking for a partner or deciding whether to work with a person, it’s important to see what he or she values. My ex-partner was very much into status, having material things like expensive cars, having his “brotherhood” events and making money above all else.

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A piece of advice I can offer if you are going through a similar predicament, is to take courage in the fact that as long as what you are doing is right, and you have not done anything wrong, things will come through. My ex-partner actually took the wrong turn by doing something that was wrong to begin with. Other than the bullying, rude texts and death threats, he broke into the workshop in the middle of the night to steal the components and products. As everything was captured on CCTV, that became a second police case. His actions left damning evidence that won me the lawsuit. Therefore, as long as we stand by doing the right things, justice will prevail.

Lessons learnt

If you are a woman trying to make your mark in a traditionally male-dominated field, expect to be intimidated and scared. Expect the uncertainties. In spite of all that, be brave. It is natural to feel intimidated because it’s unfamiliar territory. There will be unfair assumptions that are made about you, but remember that those are not accurate. Take such judgements with a pinch of salt. If they are valid, learn from it. If they are not, let them go.

At the end of the day, it’s up to us to choose what to focus on. The learning curve will be steep but you can overcome it with intense curiosity. Keep accumulating knowledge because no one can take that away from you. Preserve and take heart from your own gifts – such as the capacity to empathise, to have patience and even that unique ability to negotiate and influence.”

Ong Shu Hwai is the founder and managing director of Durablinds Pte Ltd, the exclusive distributor of Ziptrak and Glass Curtains in Singapore and Malaysia.