Made For It – Interview with Steil Tan/Founder of Trika

Steil Tan founded Trika, a Singapore company specialising in the design and customising of museum-grade showcases in 2002, and the journey in this highlight specialised trade has its ups and downs. He shares with us his obsession with details and discourages anyone from coming into this trade, not because he fears a competitor, but he fears that you will be diving into a sea of hardship and suffering, without knowing.

You have come a long way since your first job with Esprit, maybe you want to share with us how you started Trika almost 20 years ago?

Yes, I started Trika on a whim almost 20 years ago, in 2002. It was out of accident. Back in 1985, I joined Esprit as a Senior Sales Staff, fresh from an Ad Agency, I discovered a lot of new things at Esprit. It was quite a refreshing brand then, when its huge flagship store was next to Crown Prince. Designed by Shiro Kuramata, It was quite exceptional at that time, everything was very beautifully designed – the fixtures, the system, how the structure of the building was built. Of course, he imported a lot of the Memphis Movement, even everything that is the total construct of the retail center. I was very much inspired by that. Being in charge of sales, I had to make sure that things were displayed in an attractive manner so that people will buy them, hence I became very much involved with visual merchandising. So, that’s when I started to look at the fixtures, and how to set up different things in a retail store. very often, we had to move merchandise and shelves here and there – we use the gondola, we have to change the wall fixtures and the wall paneling, etc. So, that’s where I got really interested in designing fixtures. Then later, I started to work with some of the Uchida system, the Antonio Citterio fixture system. That’s what got me really interested in wanting to do more of the mechanical engineering things. That was probably what led me to starting the business Trika,

But before Trika, I actually wanted to be a jeweller, so my first company was actually a jewellery company. But, of course, in a jewelry company, you need deep pockets So, Trika actually was a name, a company conspiring to create a jewellery brand that is more architectural – the pieces were conceived to be small miniature sculptures, and to be designed-focused. But, in Singapore, product retail is very difficult. If you consign your goods to say, Robinsons, if you sell a hundred percent (100%), fifty percent (50%) goes to Robinsons. So, I said no, this is not a business, not an equal business opportunity, and I was losing money like mad.

I went back to my initial interest, which is in designing fixtures – so instead of designing jewellery, I started designing jewellery counters. Then one day, I got a call from my friend who is a glass specialist. He was in charge of Schott Glass, a German company which specialised in coated glass, pharmaceutical-grade glass – a glass that is anti-reflective and very high-performance. In the breaking index of a glass, normally the amount of reflection is about 8 to 9 percent, but this glass is able to cut the reflection down to less than 1 percent, and that makes it a very good glass for retail showcases. As I was carving my own niche in designing showcases, I became the first person to bring in this anti-reflective glass into Singapore. My first big job was to design a showcase for the King of Thailand. At that time, he was building a textile museum. This textile museum has this big piece of textile that belonged to King Chulalongkorn 600 years ago. As the textile was very fragile, and with all the embroidery, gold, and embellishments that weighs it down, they cannot hang it on the wall, so the only way is to put it flat, in a horizontal position so that the fibre will not break. So, I had to design a big showcase of about almost 2.5 m wide, 2.5 m depth, and just a short 300 mm height. That was challenging enough and the other challenge was – I have never done this and I was wondering how to price it!

NHM Singapore

So after I constructed the showcase, I was at a loss how to price it. So, I started to Google for “museums” hoping to find some clues, and I found this company called Click Netherfield, a British company that specialises in museum showcases. We got acquainted since then, and this company started to contact me to collaborate, and we got to know each other quite well eventually. At that time, the chairman of the company was this big-sized guy, and his name is John French. He has since passed away. We became very close and we enjoyed a good relationship in collaborating in projects. So one day he said to me, “Why don’t you just be part of our company?” That led me to set up a separate company in Singapore, and I became Click Netherfield Southeast Asia. So, that’s where I started the business officially. After about 5-6 years, the business started to pick up, and we created business opportunities around the region. Unfortunately, John got cancer, and he passed away. The business was passed on to 2 Scottish guys and they were very hard on me. They decided to give me very disadvantageous terms and conditions. They made me buy systems from them at the same price they were selling in Europe; hence I said no, it doesn’t work, it’s just not possible. To break away from Click Netherfield, I started Trika. That’s the long story of how I started.

Because I was doing research on you and I saw that you also work with this other German company, is it called Pro Glass or something?

It’s called GroGlass. They do also the low reflective light. They are these two different companies. GroGlass is from, I believe it’s from Croatia. They do coating of glass but they don’t manufacture the glass whereas Schott Glass manufacture their own glass. They’re different but, of course, GroGlass is advantageous in a sense that their cost is lower than Schott Glass. That’s the only other reason. But of course there are differences.

What were some of the initial difficulties when you started Trika?

It was difficult at first because I was totally not in the cultural heritage and museum business. I’m basically a design person. I love engineering, I love mechanical things and all that. So working on museums was completely new to me. Suddenly I had to talk to people who are in curatorial, conservation, people who talk about museums in a different light, I was being thrust into this new environment. So, I had to pick up things very fast and that was very difficult because as a local company and as a small company, you don’t have that much going for you, especially when I was just one person at that time. I tried to tender for museum projects and tried to get tender interviews. It was very daunting for me because I had to face the architects, designers, conservators, curators, museum directors, you name it. One of them will just throw you a question, and you have to respond to it. You have to be very articulate in the subject matter because you will be entrusted with a very important relic, and there is no room for mistakes. So that was very tough. Sometimes when you need to explain things, you need to draw on the spot. so I have to learn to draw quickly – I have to sketch, design, estimate sizes, etc. I have to describe certain details, sketch them out and explain in a way that they understand; as you know, it is difficult because a lot of people are not able to visualise what you say. So, I needed to communicate effectively and quickly to convince potential clients, those skills that I had to pick up.

NHM Taiwan

Is there a project that you would consider a turning point? Something that makes your business fly.

Yes, the turning point was when we were appointed by the Natural History Museum of London, to construct all the showcases for all their prehistoric artefacts. It was a very important project for Trika as a company because we are not a very well-known company and most of our jobs are basically for local venues and neighboring countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand. It was the first time we got an important European client coming to us to design showcases for them. The project was an eye-opener for me – I got to learn how the Europeans treat their artefacts so meticulously and the details they go through before deciding how the showcase should be. It is very different from the local context. That was a very good project for me in many ways, and the best part was that it expanded my network, because from then, we got more jobs; as  potential clients started to view us in a different light after they saw what we did for the Natural History Museum of London. That was just about 3-4 years ago, it was quite recent. We proved that we are as good as any foreign companies – we are able to deliver, and deliver well. In fact, today we still have a good relationship with the Natural History Museum of London. They continue to invite us to tender for new projects, it’s a great endorsement, and it helped to open our doors to the European market.

Since the Natural History Museum project, are you getting more jobs from Europe?

Unfortunately while there have been interests, there are details we need to sort out before we can take on more projects. Most importantly, we need to find a local partner to represent us, as I see that it is really important that there is someone who is able to relate to the local context well. With a local partner in Europe or in the UK, we can have a closer relationship with the clients there. And with European tenders, the way they word them is very different from us. Hence it is important to have a local representative to represent you and to go through the process with you. It’s very difficult to operate without that support as the business is quite multi-layered.

How big is your team right now?

We have about 15 people. We are more engineering-centric. We have 3 engineers, 2 technicians – normally these 2 technicians are the ones doing the assembly on site; but we also have installers – installers are the ones who will fly to countries to do the installation, they have to work seamlessly with the engineers and the technicians and understand the whole installation process. Most of my staff are actually engineers, and design-based. I don’t really have anyone to do business development, as we tend to get our business through word-of-mouth, and from open-call tenders because most are government tenders. But word-of-mouth is very important in a specialised trade like that.

I guess we can safely say, in Singapore you the only company doing this?

Yes, the only company crazy enough to do this!

Actually, even regionally, there are not so many people doing what you are doing, right?

Yes, the truth is that this business is very tough. You have to be either half mad or fully mad to do this. First, you need to invest so much into the infrastructure of getting the business up. You need to have your own factory – you have to design, you have to understand locking and security systems, you have to understand glass technology, you have to understand cold-lighting or temperature free lighting, UV, (no IR?), you have to understand structural and mechanical engineering, such as how to open a door that is about 300 kg, and you have to understand architecture, interior, colours, everything. So, who wants to be in this business? Firstly, barriers to entry are very high, secondly, it doesn’t really make money, especially when overheads in Singapore are killing. Every year, if I do make a profit, I will replough the money back in the company to get in-step with the best. So, don’t come into this business – It may look glamorous from the outside but it’s tough,

Onto brighter things – what were some of the highlights of your journey?

The satisfaction is that I am doing something that challenges me everyday, and people are very appreciative when the job is done well. Sometimes a good pat on the back is all you need. In terms of those accolades that come in, of course, we are very happy about it. But that comes with challenges that are actually crazy, you wouldn’t believe it. Some customers may ask for a showcase to be crafted differently. Like, for example, we have a showcase that is free-standing, with 8 doors. And normally, when a door opens, you’re actually pulling out almost a hundred kilograms. So, you cannot have all the doors on one side because if you have all the doors on one side, when you open the door, all the weight load from about half a ton of glass will be on the right side. And how are you going to anchor the other side? So those are some of the difficult engineering challenges that we have to tackle.

In our work, the challenges keep coming in everyday, almost every project is different. Sometimes it is because of the site conditions, the requirements of the architect, the requirements of the museum curator. Sometimes they want to suspend certain things that are almost impossible. A lot of them are technical issues, trying to make sure that you hit above the client’s expectation, and at the same time, making sure that you deliver the final product with public safety in mind, all the engineering requirements are necessary to safeguard the people, and safeguard the artefact. Sometimes we even have to address issues like earthquakes. Sometimes the budget is very low, yet we are expected to deliver a high quality design – how are going to address that? Those are sudden challenges that we never expected. Another issue we have to often address is high humidity. For example, we had a customer, a private collector who commissioned us to build showcases for his private collection but he did not tell us that it’s going to be near his garden outside. We’re like, oh goodness! The fluctuations of humidity are very difficult to address when you are in an outdoor situation with no air-conditioning. The sun is just above and you have only a patio covering the top. Those are the difficult “surprises” that we have to deal with and come up with a solution for the client.

Was there a point in your journey that you almost wanted to give up?

Giving up was never on my mind, whenever I am nearing a point of having to “give up”, it means that I have to rethink and reconstruct the business to go forward. Most of the time, it is more like, “Oh my! Why am I in this business? It’s so tough!” In those moments, I would ask myself why didn’t I just work in a bank, have a cushy job, and go home at 6-7 o’ clock in the evening. I have given the best 20 years of my youthful life to this business, and I have put so much effort into building this. The satisfaction is that I have created a brand, a craft, a niche that nobody can rival.

Being highly specialised, and you being on this journey; do you think it is a good thing or bad thing for any trade – in general – to be highly specialised?

I think unless you are a MNC or a big company with established businesses and specific formulas to execute things, then it makes sense to do more generic things as you will not need so many points of control. But for me, it is the realisation that as a small company, how can I define myself differently from the rest of the competitors. If I have a big factory, and I have carpenters, I have people who sell floor tiles, people who sell motorbikes, just all the normal ways of making money – this will be boring for me. Normal is not in my blood, I want to do things differently. I have to break my head in order to feel the accomplishment. To answer your question – as a small company – I think the impetus is to be different, to be really brave, because if you are not, then you cannot survive. For me, there’s also no meaning in doing something generic, then I might as well just open a cake shop, or a hair salon; but I don’t see that as being satisfying. I’ve done predictable things in my past, so it is time for me to craft a different route for myself.

It’s not a journey for everyone, right?

It’s not, it’s really not. As I said, you really need to be half crazy because when you take a bite of this pie, suddenly you realised that there a huge monster behind it. It’s bigger than you know. Once, I was tendering for a big project in Bihar, in India, and there were only 2 companies that were invited and I was the David there challenging the Goliath – there I was, from Trika Singapore, up against the biggest showcase manufacturer in the world, Glasbau Hahn from Germany. Their team came in suits, and a big bag of their portfolio. There I thought to myself, “Oh shit! This is tough, this is tough! How can I be at that level to compete with them?” In my head, I was always thinking how I can compete with the best, not just regionally or locally, because Singapore is simply too small a market, and I have to venture into other countries. If I have to compete in other countries, then I have to benchmark against the best. So, every day, every second, I’m always thinking about how to innovate, how to design, how to create, and how to reinvest my money to make sure that the business is able to go forward. These are the things that are always keeping me up at night.

National Gallery Singapore

You have provided all the showcases at our very own National Gallery, right? How was the experience? Was it difficult, was there any challenges?

National Gallery Singapore was challenging because when I was brought it, they were still tweaking the air-conditioning system. Some bigger showcases have to be bonded on site. And the troublesome part is that – the bonding process requires a certain level of humidity and heat. The air-con guys were coming in everyday to bring the temperature down to 15-16 degrees, I went mad because we were unable to get the bonding done. Eventually, we had to bring some of the big heavy showcases outside to the balcony under the direct hot sun to bond. Those were the physical challenges we had at the National Gallery Singapore. But, overall, it was very pleasant because I think National Gallery Singapore gave us a good reference point working with some of Singapore’s best curators and conservators. They were very encouraging and they also helped to promote us. As local boys, we really needed that kind of support, that is important.

What do you think is lacking in the museum gallery display industries here and globally? Are there any gaps that need to be plugged?

In the Singapore context, as a local museum showcase manufacturer, we are specialists but unfortunately, we are also being benchmarked – fairly or unfairly – with all the other international museum showcase manufacturers from Belgium, UK, and Germany, etc, and these companies have been around way longer than us and obviously have much more experience. We find that it is very difficult as a local entrepreneur and as a specialist to try to meet up with the tender requirements as stipulated by the government. In most tender KPI, they look for the best and the cheapest. Our portfolio is only restricted within this region, how can we compare ourselves to people who have done The Rijksmuseum, V & A, or British Museum? So it is really hard to compete based on portfolio.

And regarding the tender system here in Singapore, I do feel that there are areas that can be improved. Our tender system usually gives the whole project to one big contractor. The big contractor will take the whole contract and they will split out the scope and farm out the work to smaller suppliers, and you have to work with their terms. As a sub-contractor, if you accept the deal, you will have to work with the understanding that they’ll do a big mark-up on your product. So, they’ll squeeze you to the floor. But on the other hand, I have to make sure that my quality maintains; but if I’m given such a low budget, I simply do not have enough margins to work with, and such tight budgets do not allow for too many mock-ups, but what I do usually requires some level of testing. So, it’s very tough. But if the museum appoints us directly, it will be much easier for us to work with them because firstly we can deal with their needs directly without having to go through a middleman and secondly, there will be more margin for us to work with, without a huge chunk of our fee being taken away by the main contractor.

We are specialists, we are able to deliver quality products with the right budget. Whereas if we have an intermediary, a big contractor coming in to take 50-60% of commission off our services, what sacrifices do we have to make? Either you compromise on your profits or your quality. Worse still, they’ll hold up our payment, and we don’t get paid on time, and yet we need to pay our suppliers and our staff. And very often, the last retention payment of 10-15%, it is always dragged until the last minute. We cannot survive like that. So, to me, the Singapore tender system needs to be better than that. I have a true tragic story to share about a mounter. He specialised in mounting. Whenever there are artefacts, they will bring him in to do the mounting, because he’s one of the few mounters in Singapore. He actually suffered a stroke and a heart attack at a QS (Quality Survey) meeting with the main contractor. He was practically begging to be paid and when he was refused, he collapsed. You know, sometimes, I really think it’s not worth it.

Unfortunately, I think it is the tender system that contributes to this problem. In a way, it’s not the main contractors’ fault, if anybody is in their shoes, they’ll do the same. Like, so what, you queue up, if I cannot get it from you then I’ll get from somebody else. There’s no loyalty, they will just engage the cheapest supplier to maximise profits. That’s the problem we are facing. So, a lot of times, I try to cultivate a good relationship with my customers. I have customers who go back as far as the time I started the business. One of them is the Pahang State Museum. The people there are very friendly. They are in a township in Pekan, which is 45 kms away from Kuantan. They’re my biggest customer, you wouldn’t believe it! Year in year out, they’re always commissioning me to make new showcases for them, expanding their museum. We have become so close that every year, they will invite me to celebrate Ramadhan with them, and I’m the only Chinese that they will allow to touch their Qur’an!

Singapore being a really tiny market, and you being in a highly specialised trade, how do you do your business development? Do you have a business strategy or you just go with the flow?

I had to just go with the flow because, as we are a small company, and with me being the main guy and the face of the company, my time is spread very thin. So, in terms of business development, it’s always based on my track record and my portfolio and our projects always come through word-of-mouth.

For example, in India, it is actually a new market for us. We completed one major project in India last year, just before COVID-19. It was for a guy who has the most extensive collection of Indian paper money. The collector’s name is called Rezwan Razack. One day we received an email from an architect who asked if we would like to participate in a tender to make showcases for Rezwan Razack, he is based in Bangalore and owns the 4th biggest property development company in the whole of India. The company is called Prestige. When I was approached for this tender, I thought it looked quite interesting. India is a big country and I thought this job might be able to open doors in the future. Since I happened to be free at that time, I thought I’d just fly over and meet this guy. That’s when it all started. I went over, brought my brochures, did a presentation and talked to them, and the big man himself was there. He said, “I like you. I want to do business with you.” And then, he extended his hand and shook mine, and concluded the deal with, “Okay, you’re on, now we talk about money.”

After that, we went for lunch. It’s the way Indians do things, they’re very clannish, they’re somewhat like us Chinese. If they find that you’re sincere, and you make the effort to go meet them, and you are able to go the extra mile for them, they will embrace you. Bangalore is not exactly an easy journey. He confessed to me much later that the reason why he appointed me is because all the other “ang-moh” (translates literally as “red hair’ in the Hokkien dialect, a colloquial in Singapore used to mean “white men”) companies don’t want to go there. Apparently, the “ang-moh” companies told him, “You pay 50,000 dollars upfront for our trip and expenses first, then we will consider to go to India to visit you.” Needless to say, he got fed up. Then here comes a Chinese guy from Singapore who went all the way there without asking a single question, nor asking for a single cent. The relationship comes first, and money is always the last thing we talked about.

So, I always feel that it’s always important to extend yourself, to show that you’re there for a diplomatic purpose, and you’re there to build a relationship with a client. That’s the belief in everything that I do. Sometimes, for example, my Pahang client, they’ll call me and say, “I really need you to be here tomorrow.” And I will reply, “Okay. I think I can make time.” So, first thing in the morning I’ll drive 360 kms up the east coast of Malaysia and I’ll reach there about 2 o’clock in the afternoon. From morning I drive in at about 7:30-8 o’clock. I would reach there around 2pm and have a meeting with him until 5pm. By the time I reached home, it would be almost midnight. He knows that I really treasure our relationship and when he really needs me, I’ll put everything down and bring myself there to help him solve the problem. Those are the sacrifices you have to make as a small business owner.

Which project that you have done so far would you consider the most challenging and interesting for yourself?

I would say that the India project for Rezwan Razack in Bangalore was very challenging. This guy is so rich, his office building consists of 7 buildings. And these 7 buildings, he consolidated them into 1 single building. Unfortunately, I’m sad to say, the architect who designed the building didn’t do a good job – for such a huge building, he included only one small cargo lift. And I tell you, it was ridiculous! Because we had to bring in 2 full 40-ft containers of glass up to the 4th floor, and you do need a lift for that kind of weight. Each floor is designed as a double-volume space, so the 4th floor is actually the 7th floor in terms of the flights of stairs you have to climb. So we had to queue up with literally hundreds and hundreds of Indians, everyday we queue up just to use the lift to get the panels of glass up. Usually, we will take at the most 2 days to move that amount of things up, but for this, it took us 2 weeks! It was hell! Then, to our horror, when we uncrate the panels, we found that out of about 170 panels of glass, about 7 of them were broken, even though we put in all the special cushioning to protect the glass. The breakages happened with the long 3-metre glass panels. We underestimated the Indian roads, they have a lot of potholes. So, when the big container travels on the uneven road, it must have unsettled the crates and caused the glass to break. We scrambled, and there was so much fire-fighting we had to do to rectify the situation. In the end, the installation took longer than we expected.

This building is his new office building, it is not a residential building. Because he started collecting paper money at a very early age, he has amassed the biggest collections of Indian paper money in the world, so he wanted to build his own museum in the building.

What are some of the fun facts about museum display that the laymen are not aware of?

Fun? Oh my goodness! Coming face-to-face with a 20-million-year-old brown sloth or saber-tooth tiger is quite fun! Those are the very interesting moments. There were also some eye-opening moments – like when I worked with the Natural History Museum, they took 3 days to orchestrate just to install one artefact. They had to find a lot of methods – very interesting methods – of how they push a huge artefact into a showcase. Right now I’m also working with the Sarawak Museum people, and a part of their collection is to display the animals they are having taxidermied. There’s one whole gallery of reptiles, there are a lot of snakes. The person who is in charge is actually a very short girl and she said proudly, “I catch all these snakes!” She’s good!

Dealing with the artefacts is very interesting. For the showcases, we tend to work with different installers, sometimes we transfer our knowledge of installation to the locals. The locals sometimes like to have fun with us, so, sometimes we lock them inside the showcase. Yes, if they are too naughty, we will lock them inside and we’ll go for lunch, and we ask them to stay inside.. just kidding! Those are high-security showcases, so once someone is inside, they cannot get out.

We have a lot of situations where people fail to notice the glass on the showcase, because the glass is so clean and they thought that there’s nothing, because the lighting is so well calibrated that the glass looks almost invisible; especially when we use anti-reflective glass, it can be very dangerous. But in a museum, it is unavoidable that we’ll have a lot of showcases, hence the curators have no choice but to put stickers on the glass stating “THIS IS GLASS.” This has to be done because people keep hitting their head into the glass, and yes, it can be very dangerous!

What are some of the patents and innovations that Trika has invented?

I tend to invent mostly the locking devices, these are special locking devices that allow for double locking the showcases, and they are totally hidden and invisible to the visitor. There is a way to enter the showcase but unless you know the secret, then you’ll be able to open the showcase. These are designed for security reasons. Then there are also innovations with the lighting. We invested quite a lot in innovative lighting because while you need the light, most of the time you don’t want to see the fixtures as they visually clutter up the showcase. Or you can see fiber optic lighting being delivered but you can’t really see the end-light fixtures. Those are details that are important. When we throw a light, it has to be able to focus and deliver a light with a beam angle from 8 degrees all the way to 60 degrees. So those are important components in museum showcases, and these are the inventions that people are not aware of – in terms of lighting control, especially for cold-lighting. So a lot of architects ask us, or designers ask us about cold-lighting, we say fiber optic. They’ll say, “oh those are old hats right?”, but we still use them but for a different purpose because conservators need this, it’s not what we want.

Have you ever been approached by some other companies to buy your patent? 

No, because we are not that famous yet.

Trika Studuo

Your products are designed to be more or less modular and is the assembly difficult? Do you need a skilled staff to do it? When the museum abroad is set up, can the local staff maintain the showcases on their own or do you have to fly in if something goes wrong?

Actually, a lot of times, we always tell our buyers or the museum directors that we can train their local staff to dismantle and assemble the showcase by themselves; but a lot of them are not so keen because they feel that is too technical, they saw the way we handled the glass and how we assembled the structures, and they got intimidated; even though, I assured them that it is very easy. So for example, during this COVID-19 situation, the Pahang Museum  wanted to move a couple of showcases from one gallery to another. So, I told them I cannot go over due to the travel restrictions. So, I advised them to get those guys whom we have trained to do the move, and in the end, they were successful! When push comes to shove. they just have to be hands-on and try it. We usually give our clients a manual; the manual is very clear – from how to assemble and disassemble the panels of glass onsite, how to use the hand tools, to what precautions you’d need to take when handling the showcases. Our showcases are designed to be easily dismantled and assembled, without that much technical skills required, so the local boys can actually do it.

Having always competed against global companies who are in this area, what do you think are the key selling points of Trika products?

I think my competitors are good, I mean, they have at least 60 to 120 years of experience with them whereas Trika is only less than 20 years old; but I feel that the advantage we have is that we always try to be more innovative, we try to be more flexible. When we are competing locally, the advantage is that we understand the conservation conditions better than most of those who just fly in, give you a showcase and fly out. They aren’t there to guide the clients through in terms of using the showcases.

A showcase is not just five pieces of glass put together, it is also the idea that this showcase is like a machine – it is able to regulate the humidity, it is able to be airtight, it is so secure that you can actually prevent people from getting in, a thief or burglar with a hammer or with a knife. As a small company, we always have to work so much harder – innovation will have to be based on your ability to see things that other people can’t see.

In a lot of situations, we are always anticipating what are the possible problems and we’ll always try to have a solution for them even before they think about it. A lot of customers don’t think of these things. A lot of designers, when they draw a showcase on a sketchbook, they just draw a line and say “This is the size.” Then I will ask them, “Do you know how big this showcase is? It is 6 meters across! How are you going to bring a piece of glass that big and that high into your gallery when you have a door that is less than 2.4 m height? It’s not possible!” Sometimes, we usually have to go through the drawings with them, and then they have to rescale and resize; but then they don’t understand the weight-load. For example, they always think that glass is finite – the higher your showcase is, like from 2.4 m to 2.8 m to 3.2 m, the glass will have to change in terms of thickness and in terms of the density. We need to understand that the weight-load will shift and change. If the showcase is too tall, how do you make sure that when you open the door, the showcase does not twist? Weight-load is issue we always have to solve, so we are always doing that. But, most of the time, we have to ensure that our system, our profile is able to take the weight-load, in terms of height, in terms of width, in terms of the technical challenges. Those are the things we have to go through.

How would you describe the philosophy and vision of Trika?

I would say that we are always on our toes to understand what is required for a showcase, to be able to deliver for the future – in terms of what the museum would require, to engage the community, especially the kids, the children, the people who come to the museum. Our product is very much part of the design flow that moves with the trend of the museums. So today I may be doing showcases for a money museum, tomorrow I may be doing something for natural history for the animals, plants, and birds. And, then another day I may be doing something for a private collector who keeps some precious watches and all that. The diversity of the artefacts is always challenging us, so we always look at how to innovate and to try to anticipate how the business can grow in tandem with the museum business or the collaborative collectors’ ideas. That is very important.

Our showcases are not generic, they are purpose-built. They can be for watches or they can be for a Buddha, and they have to be designed differently. Recently I just got a commission to house a big bell. The bell is almost 3 m high and 2 m wide, in Korea. I looked at it, and I asked them where they going to put the bell? They wanted to put it outside the temple. So, I had to build a huge showcase for the outdoors, which calls for very different details. So our company’s vision is that we are able to deliver the impossible. Yes, it is always about delivering the impossible, at all times. We never say no to a customer; but we always highlight to them the challenges and we’ll try to see how best we can overcome those challenges. It’s also designing something that fits their vision. Architects may have one vision, the museum directors may have another vision, but as the maker of the product, we still have to pull them together and say that this is the best resolution that we can come up with, to incorporate all of their ideas.

Trika products call for a lot of very highly specialised parts, such as the glass, the lighting, the internal structures supporting the lights, etc. Where do you source these products? Or do you actually design and make them all here in Singapore?

We go down the line. A lot of the parts are actually world sourced. Nowadays, a lot of companies along the supply chain, seldom do you get one company that can deliver all the products you need to the required specifications.

For example, for lighting. We use glass fiber optic. We get our glass fiber optic from Schott Glass, Germany. For anti-reflective glass, we go to Gro Glass or Schott Glass, either one. Then for a locking device, sometimes we go to Japan because they have the best actuators. So, we have to choose and test each and every part. For high security locks, we only work with Abloy, Finland. We have to work closely with Abloy, study their product and understand how we can integrate their products into ours.

Sometimes, we have to modify their products slightly to accommodate our profile and our system. So the innovation and the inventiveness have to be always aligned, then we can match their product to ours to deliver showcase requirements. We always try to achieve the smallest profile. And making things small is actually very demanding on our design. Because in a small profile like 50 mm, we have to put in a lock, a hinge, a roller ring, and the stopping devices. We have to put in even a sealing device to make sure the showcase can be sealed tight. On top of those, we have to put in an alarm, sensors, and also the opening devices. Sometimes, the opening devices call for special hidden latches, and all that. Within a very small profile, we have to ensure that everything is there. Whereas in the European context, their showcase profile is about 125 mm. When I look at that, I thought, “Oh my! This is a big truck!” And i don’t like how that looks, so I’m always going against the grain of innovation to try to bring down all the elements to the smallest signature.

When you talk about bringing in specialised parts, like from Japan, sometimes we have to work with their sizes, as they come in fixed sizes, and it will be too expensive to ask for special customisation. And for us to try to reinvent the wheel and make our own parts will be too expensive, then we cannot sell. We always try to get the best sourced materials at a reasonable price, and be able to innovate and integrate it into our own design. The final product has to strike a balance between the mechanical requirements and the visual aesthetics, so that the overall design looks elegant. I always tell my staff we should never design something that looks like a big huge piece of machine tool. Those are the things that we are very particular about.

So, it’s really about customising from existing sources?

I would say, 1/3 of that, yes, it is customising certain standard parts sourced from other countries. But then, of course, the other 2/3 is really about innovating and designing within the context of all these specialised parts.

You had a lot of overseas projects. Do the transport of these display cases often pose a problem?

Not really, because I think the world supply chain, and how logistics is being done nowadays is actually quite easy. Normally, the most important things are the packing and the crating because we need to protect glass. As we are specialists in glass, we always put in a lot more effort to make sure that the glass is well-protected. And so to move our products across different countries actually is quite easy, it’s just managing the timeline, that’s all.

Was there a situation where you realised on site that there are parts or glass that you were unable to fit into the lift or that you have to crane them up?

There was a situation in Indonesia whereby there was no lift so we had to hand carry the whole showcase up and it weighs about 250 kg. It’s very heavy even though it’s not that big, maybe just 2 m by 2 m. Luckily, we had 20 people to help bring it up the spiral staircase into the gallery space. So far, we’re quite lucky because our showcases are mostly modular and demountable so we can move them in panel by panel. Most of the time, we do a site recce before we bring our showcases in so that we can plan the move in advance.

I noticed that you have also started TrikaModern which is a supply of showcases for homes. Can you tell us why you started that and how is that doing?

TrikaModern was actually started because I had the idea that the museum part of the business would be good to create a new platform to collaborate with other craft people – people who are very proud of their crafted products but have no place to sell. It could be a person who just loves to make stools, beautiful handmade stools, and he doesn’t have a platform to sell. So I wanted TrikaModern to marry both – that is to promote and bring together a collective of people who are going through the same journey as me. People who have a dream, and are trying to make a business out of it.

At this point in time, I will be looking at about half a year’s time to actually put that together because of the COVID-19 situation. We’re still sourcing  for collaborators who can actually come in and populate this TrikaModern online platform, where they can also talk about their products, their journeys, how they started in the business, why they craft their products, and the reasons why they do it.

Along the lines of e-commerce, are there any plans to digitalised your business, Trika, to bring it to a bigger audience?

Yes, very much. Now, I’m actually collaborating with this company called Webnatics. They are actually also helping us to expand our online business. The whole idea is that we need to reach out, we need to provide that digitalised platform to create a sort of a community. I see the online avenue as a place to provide a common source of information, education, it can also be a platform for developing ideas, and opening up new forums so that people can exchange ideas about the museum business. Digitalising for Trika means that if you are interested in our products, you can download all the information – you can understand how the products perform, sizes and dimensions of these products, assembling and dismantling information, and 3D visualisations, etc. So, there’s a lot to do and of course that takes a lot of resources, time, and effort.

How has COVID-19 affected your business? Has it triggered you to think of some disruption for your business?

Very much so. Human resources are actually very critical for us. So we find that trying to pull our logistics together and still deliver promptly during this period of time is very stressful because we cannot visit our factories, I cannot travel overseas to supervise and ensure the quality that I want. In terms of on-site installation, some of our installers too are unable to travel and they cannot make it to the installation site. There was a lot of stress on trying to transfer knowledge and information across different countries in such a short time. We have this Sarawak Museum project that is ongoing, and I cannot bring all my staff there. Some of them refused to travel due to the quarantine needed, they said to me, “14 days here, 14 days there, I’d rather die”. Leaving me alone to panic, “Oh my!” I’m short on staff, how am I going to finish on time?” The Sarawak Museum is supposed to be open in April 2021, and, we are rushing like mad to get 175 showcases completed. We are almost there, thank goodness. I have been here doing the installation, and I hope to be back home soon.

COVID-19, I would say, is a good time to reflect on what you really want to do with the business. I think a lot of businessmen out there are also thinking that once the vaccine comes in, what are you going to do? Are you going to go back to the same way of how things have been done all the while or are you going to change? Are you going to be a lot more appreciative of what you have or are you just going to blindly “cheong and cheong” (a Singaporean colloquial that translates from the Hokkien dialect as “to charge on and on”)? For me, the answer is no – I think that one has to take a rest.

As with everyone, my time during COVID-19 has passed too quickly and so I had to be a lot more astute on how I carve my time to deliver. It is very important that we realise that as human beings, that this is a warning from up there that we need to do something about our lives, it is not just about looking at your business all the time; but more so, of what you want to do in this life? How do you want to do it better? And also how to help others more. Those are the things that I have been thinking of during the COVID-19 period.

Do you have any conclusions? Are there any plans you have concretised for Trika or for yourself?

I think the most important thing is while I’m still able, for Trika, I would like to groom the next generation of people to look after the business. So I’m on the healthy lookout for people whom I can train to take care of the business. And for me, to take a backseat in the day-to-day running of the business, and to spend more time on the design and innovation of our products. It is important for me that to pull back and look at the business in a more holistic manner rather than just everyday grinding away.

It’s very tough looking for successors, especially when I have too high a standard. Sometimes I think it’s unrealistic. Getting the right people, you need to look at their attitude, and what’s their passion? For example, if I interview somebody, they come in, they are not even interested to touch the product, then I’ll say, “Oh I’m sorry, this is not the place for you.” It’s because you need to like what you do. If you don’t like what you do, you can be the most intelligent and most informed person but you don’t have the passion to love what you do, then I think you’re asking for failure. Because we are competing with the big boys, they have already 60 to 100 years in front of them, and for you a newbie, it’s not just about getting the job done, it’s to do way, way, way beyond that. So, you need to have the ability to see things that other people can’t see. This business is very demanding, and I need to feel that this person is made for it.

[By Kelley Cheng, Photos: Trika]

30 January 2021