Business Smarts

They are young, enterprising and have already found their niche. Hotelier Himanshu Pandit is eager to spread his Sandpiper Hotels further afield after making good in Singapore and KL while shoemaker Cherre Hermogena’s ingenious innovations are absolutely unique – unlike anything from Jimmy Choo or Louboutin 

5/8/2018 6:37:40 PM
written By : Nithya Subramanian Print

Taking risk is no longer considered a risky business. The advantage the present generation of youngsters have is the fact that they have the freedom to chase their dreams. Unlike the past, when most parents worried about the security of their children when it came to jobs, today attitudes have changed. Parents not just support their children in their entrepreneurial journeys but are proud of what they do.

Cherre Hermogena and Himanshu Pandit are two young entrepreneurs who are dreaming of making it big in the fashion and hospitality business. While Hermogena’s GENA is high on concept, she is selling smart shoes with adjustable heels, Pandit is trying to carve out a space in the aggressively competitive hospitality business through Sandpiper Hotels. And what is common between the two is that while both are independent individuals with high goals, their families are firmly behind them. 

Kicking Up a Storm

Young shoemaker Cherre Hermogena’s clever creations can help a girl walk tall painlessly with heels that can be adjusted with a click of a button.

Walking on high heels painlessly is every girl’s dream, and Singaporean entrepreneur Cherre Hermogena Eng has just the solution. She makes shoes with adjustable heels. With a click of a button, you can shorten or lengthen the heels to suit your feet.

The young entrepreneur, who makes each pair of shoes all by herself in the balcony of her home, hopes to expand the business in the near future. “On a good day, I can make four shoes, but it is a very tedious process. I can never have long nails and my hands turn rough due to the glue,” she says.  

But now that she has all the necessary patents and intellectual property rights, the 27-year-old is ready to take her business to the next level. She says that all her shoes are made with lamb skin, a material used by top French and Italian design houses, and they come with a warranty on the clip that adjusts the heels. “The shoes can take weight up to 150 kg and is quite durable” she said.

In an exclusive interview, Hermogena Eng talks about her business and future plans.

India Se: Tell us a little about yourself - your background, education and upbringing.

Cherre Hermogena: I went to a girls’ school in Singapore, CHIJ Toa Payoh, where I was a netball player. Once I graduated, I proceeded to earn three diplomas in Counselling, Marketing Organisations and Footwear and Production. I carried on to get my degree in Psychology in Murdoch University. After that, I went on to learn accounting at Jetstar and become an assistant manager accountant. I was later approached by the CEO of Zingshot, a movie company that helped produced Ah Boys To Men, IP Man and many more films. I became both the marketing manager and the accountant manager for the company for three years. The CEO then posted me to Hong Kong for a year where I became the head of accounts. During my time in Hong Kong, I spent my free time sourcing for leather and other goods as I have always wanted to create my own shoe company. Travelling to Thailand and China was extremely convenient as they were neighbouring countries. I later left the job to focus on my research for GENA. 

India Se: What prompted you to get into the shoe business, especially the concept of adjustable heels? Even the well-known shoe brands have not ventured into this space.

Cherre Hermogena: I have always loved wearing heels! I love how they look, how tall they make me feel and how they boost my confidence (before they start to hurt).

When I was young, on several occasions, I witnessed girls walking barefoot after a night out when the heels became too unbearable to keep on. They often carried an extra pair of shoes, which was indeed a hassle. Similarly, when my friends and I were painting the town red in our younger days, we always struggled to walk in them after a few hours. This led me to constantly wonder when adjustable heels would be available on the market as I believed they would be very much in demand. After pondering over this idea for a long time, I decided that I could not wait any longer and took it upon myself to create adjustable heels!

India Se: How did you find your project? And who are your partners?

Cherre Hermogena: The idea of GENA first came to me when I was 15 years old.  When I started wearing heels a few years later, I got a comprehensive understanding of how brutal heels can be - blisters, bunions forming and what not. But it wasn’t until 2012 that I started to research on the mechanism and 2014 for the perfect leather to make the shoes - the leather we use for our heels is 100 per cent lambskin leather. Our heels have undoubtedly one of the softest leathers for footwear and we are so glad to have received a lot of good feedback from customers on how buttery they are and that they do not bite. Part of the delay was caused by the difficulty and many rejections I faced sourcing the right mechanism for the heel.   

As for partners, I do not have any at the moment. I am the sole founder of the company. Darren, my boyfriend, helps me with the legal documents. We currently have a few staff who work on marketing (photography and videography), advertising and customer service.

Regarding funding, I have spent a few hundred thousand dollars of my own to create GENA. The only external funding I’ve received was from Kickstarter, a platform that helps artists, musicians, designers and other creators to find the resources and support they need to make ideas a reality. I was fortunate enough to have landed a high- paying position in Hong Kong and was able to fund GENA. 

India Se: It has been a year since you started this business, how has the response been so far? 

Cherre Hermogena: The launch was on November 2017, so it is not even a full year since we started.

We are tremendously grateful for the overwhelming support and love from all our customers and supporters. GENA is doing well and we hope to bring in more designs and colours for our customers. 

We were on Kickstarter for a month – mid-July to mid-August 2017. Our goal was S$20,000 and we managed to get 205 per cent funding (S$41,166). However, it was far from breaking even. We wanted to use Kickstarter as it is a great platform to see if there was a demand for adjustable heels, plus it provided international marketing.

After Kickstarter, we have received enquiries from many interested companies and individuals who want to distribute the shoes in their country. We are also very fortunate to have received media coverage from all over the world. 

India Se: What have been some of the challenges being a woman entrepreneur and how did you overcome them?

Cherre Hermogena: While failure is an inevitable journey to success, I was not born with buckets of confidence - having an unconventional product did not help.

I remember so vividly that when I was meeting potential engineers as a young woman in her early twenties, setting up meetings to bring my idea to life, I was rejected countless times, mocked (I was told numerous times that it would not work) and threatened. What made it more challenging was that I was attending these meetings all by myself and also that I was often underestimated and belittled because of my youth. However, every rejection further steeled my will to make GENA a success, and thankfully after going through the rejections I finally made a breakthrough and found someone who believed in my idea to help bring it to life.

India Se: Where do you see your business in the next five years? What are your expansion plans?

Cherre Hermogena: Retail is unfortunately dying. However, I still believe and hope that GENA will be able to find its way into stores in Singapore for our customers to touch and feel them. Shoes are very personal and every pair of feet is different in shape and size. Getting the perfect fit is very important.

Since February 2018, GENA is located at We The People at Millenia Walk level 1 and 2, Metrojaya in Kuala Lumpur and Tsim Sha Tsui in Hong Kong. We are currently negotiating with a few more countries, including Western countries. We hope to be able to open retail counters in those countries as well.  

India Se: Could you tell us a little about the footwear market and the latest trends among women? 

Cherre Hermogena: In Singapore, we have seen the emergence of a sizeable mid-range segment as consumers have begun to look for more refined designs and higher quality footwear that does not burn a hole in the pocket.

Trends do vary among different countries and age groups. In general, we are seeing more young consumers participating in the “athleisure” trend, increasingly seeking designer sneakers and shoes that include elements of sports design. Women in their late 20s to late 30s are seen wearing more formal shoes such as our classic pumps. 

India Se: Share a little about your family?

Cherre Hermogena: I come from a family that has owned a business for nearly four generations now, so they are extremely supportive and understanding. I grew up in a very traditional yet liberal household. I am very fortunate to have a tight-knit family which includes my relatives. We were all living under one big roof until a few years ago. Although we do not live together anymore, we still have dinner every Sunday. 

My brother and cousins have ventured out and have also incorporated a business for themselves. 

I am extremely close to my mother. She is my rock and my confidante.

India Se: What are your other interests, hobbies?

Cherre Hermogena: I enjoy travelling for leisure and work immensely! I do trips with my mother and/or Darren several times a year. Trying different cuisines and exotic foods is always on the top of our list. Having my mother in the airline business does help with last-minute and affordable bookings. I am known to take planes like others take the bus!

I have a huge hunger for adventure and trying new things. I am game for anything -- be it skydiving, dirt biking, diving, etc. 

Small Steps, Big Dreams

Young hotelier Himanshu Pandit has found his niche in Sandpiper Hotels, doing good business in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, and is eager to spread his wings further

Hotelier Himanshu Pandit is a man who believes that action speaks louder than words. In a short span of seven years,  his entrepreneurial venture Sandpiper Hotels has already opened two hotels – one each in Singapore and Malaysia -- and is looking to open a few more in the Asean region in the near future.

Both the hotels are not only conveniently located but also offer good value for money to all their guests. A firm believer of Atitithi devo bhava – the old Indian adage ‘guest is equivalent to god’, he works with his team to maintain high service standards.

Indians are not new in the hotel business, with the Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA), claiming that its 11,000 members together own 22,000 hotels and motels in the US worth around $128 billion in property value. Hence it would be no surprise if entrepreneurs like Pandit make a mark in the hospitality business in this region too.

In an extensive interview, Pandit talks about his foray into this competitive business, his management style and vision for the future.

India Se: Tell us a little about yourself – your childhood and upbringing?

Himanshu Pandit: I was born in Delhi in September 1986 in a North Indian Brahmin family. Within a few months of my birth, my father Pankaj Pandit,  an engineer by qualification, got posted to Kathmandu, Nepal. There started my worldwide tour. Three years later, in 1989, my father got posted to Havana, Cuba, then in 1991 to Moscow, Qatar, and in 1996 to Yangon, Myanmar, and finally to Singapore in 2004. My mother, Preeti Pandit, always reminded me that it is because of my destiny that we travelled around the world. 

India Se: Where did you study and what prompted you to get into hotel business?

Himanshu Pandit: My education started in an international school in Havana and continued in the countries of my father’s posting. Looking back, I think it was not a great idea to shift schools. On one hand, I got international exposure and knowledge, but on the other hand, I could not have lifelong friends, which could have been possible had I studied in one school all the way. I finished my schooling at the American International School at Yangon in 2004. I did quite well at the SAT exams and the American College Board exams. I was awarded the AP scholar title having scored A’s in five subjects which was something of a record.

As a result of my good score, I got admitted to a few American universities and I chose Rochester University in upstate New York to start my undergraduate programme. It was a very cold place, so in 2005 I decided to return to Singapore, where my parents had just settled. I applied to NUS and, luckily, I was admitted to the business school on merit as a foreign student. I also won a scholarship and my education was practically free for the entire duration of the undergraduate programme.

I did a few internships with Citibank and shipping companies but I always wanted to do something on my own. My parents seeing my inclination proposed getting into hotels as around 2008 the Singapore government launched strong initiatives on promoting inbound tourism. In the space of two years, two casinos were launched, F1 racing arrived here, and the world’s biggest Ferris wheel was commisioned. 

My parents decided to rehash their investments and buy our first hotel at Dunlop Street. It was a new property, built in 2005, and this became my business playground for the next few years. It is a small 31-room boutique property ,extremely well located  at the corner of Little India with Rochor and Jalan Besar MRT stations at the doorstep. The choicest international food is available all around. My parents  always told me that this was a gift for me to do something worthwhile in life.

India Se: Did you take the investment decisions yourself ?

Himanshu Pandit: Setting up hotels is a very capital-intensive business. The hotel purchase at Dunlop Street was a pure entrepreneurial decision taken in 2011. My parents had no background in the hospitality business and I was a fresh business school graduate specialised in marketing. It was a joint decision of my family as the money came from them. But the desire came from me. We hired a key manager from a five-star hotel who had the fire to run a small hotel. I worked with him at the pre-opening stage for six months and learnt a lot. There is a lot of technology behind a hotel. We set up all the hotel operating systems and the distribution channels for selling the rooms and services. Such was our planning that in the first month of our operation we had 85 per cent occupancy. 

The second entrepreneurial decision came in 2013 with the successful launch of Sandpiper Kuala Lumpur. With financial support from my parents in 2013 we took over an old medical centre on Jalan Pudu in the Malaysian capital. The old building was torn down and a new hotel was constructed. Thus Sandpiper KL was launched in September 2014 – a 103-room property. I was actively involved with the construction and interior design. Here again the experience gained in setting up Sandpiper Singapore came in handy. The hotel has been running smoothly ever since.  

India Se: Tell us a little about Sandpiper Hotels?

Himanshu Pandit: Upon purchase of our first hotel in Singapore in 2011, the question arose as to what it should be branded as. I did research for a meaningful name and finally zeroed down to Sandpiper Hotels. Sandpiper is a bird that flies far and beyond across continents and stops at Singapore and Malaysia. It can be found in the Sungei Buloh Reserve in Singapore. My mother, Preeti Pandit, who is a psychotherapist and an accomplished artist, drew the attractive logo which we registered as our brand. 

We likened our guests to these travelling birds and named the rooms in our hotel as the nest, in line with our brand bird Sandpiper.

Once the Sandpiper Hotel at Dunlop Street was launched in 2011, I decided to go in for a Master’s programme in hotel management to Montreux Switzerland. But my thoughts were on expanding the hotel business. In consultation with my parents, we decided to expand the Sandpiper brand to three destinations in the next five years. 

India Se: Hotels is a very competitive business. So, what been some of the challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?

Himanshu Pandit: It is true that hotels are a very cometitive business. It can be more so with bigger properties of 200 rooms and more. I guess for small and mid-size hotels like ours , because of our focus on city locations, there is always demand at the right price. We operate our Singapore hotel above 80 per cent occupancy round the year and our KL hotel at above 70 per cent. 

Staying up to date with technology, digital marketing and online promotions are the challenges we face always. 

Satisfying all guests’ needs is a constant challenge. We cannot afford to displease any guest, however awkward his demand. The location of our hotels is the biggest strength. Also, the great diversity of food available around our two hotels. 

India Se: How would you describe your style of management?

Himanshu Pandit: My style is delegation of authority and responsibility. In both hotels we have an operations manager for smooth daily running. I along with my father maintain a separate office on High Street and manage the hotels by remote control. We have CCTV access in office, the hotel operating system is cloud-based and can be accessed from my office laptop. The rate and inventory control are also on my laptop and my smartphone. 

For communication we have Whatsapp groups for marketing, accounting, maintenance and housekeeping staff to exchange information and update the status of rooms.

The operations manager and his front office and housekeeping team are focussed on customer service and there are too many variables every day ranging from different customer requests to room cleanliness.

India Se: Do you mostly get Indian guests? How are you able to cater to the needs of different nationalities?

Himashu Pandit: Our Sandpiper Singapore is located at the cusp of Little India, Arab Street and Bugis. It gets about 30 per cent Indians and is very popular with Indonesians, Japanese, Koreans and lately the Chinese.  The Indians and Indonesians choose our hotel for the food. Others choose our hotel to experience Little India.

Sandpiper KL, being a bigger hotel, we take in groups from the Middle East. Our hotel is very popular in Iran and nearly 30 per cent of our guests come from the Middle East. Next come Malaysians as domestic tourism in Malaysia is big. Indians are a small number. In this hotel we have an inhouse dining restaurant serving North Indian cuisine. On the eighth floor we have a rooftop bar where outsiders and inhouse guests can chill out in the evenings over drinks and snacks and music. It offers a fantastic view of the well-lighted KL tower and KLCC at night. 

In both hotels our major customers are tourists who spend the day time visiting attractions. We have a travel desk at Sandpiper KL to cater to the guests’ local travel and attraction tickets.

India Se: What are your future plans for Sandpiper Hotels? Where do you see it in the next five years?

Himanshu Pandit: As I said, setting up hotels is a very capital- intensive business and that is the biggest stumbling block for further expansion. I am proposing to leverage on the branding route to expand further. In this direction I have registered the Sandpiper brand and the logo with the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) and likewise with MYPO in Malaysia.  With our documented expertise in running mid-sized hotels in these two countries, I am looking forward to expanding the Sandpiper brand hotels by taking on management contracts with other standalone hotel property owners who don’t have the expertise to run and market a hotel themselves. 

I plan to add two more mid-sized hotels in the ASEAN region and in India in the next five years.

India Se: Are other members of your family also involved in the business? If yes, how do you handle the differences?

Himanshu Pandit: My father takes care of administrative and accounting matters and my mother helps in digital marketing. On room rates and relationship with online travel agents, I have a free hand and my focus is always on maximising revenue. 

There are not much differences among the family members and we work quite closely.

India Se: Tell us a little about your personal life? How do you spend your free time?

Himanshu Pandit: I am a member of Singapore Recreation Club at Padang and regularly go bowling and swimming and also play badminton. The club is near my office. I just walk up in the evenings. I visit Kinokunya bookshop on weekends and pick up a book or two to read. I watch detective serials.

I make it a point to go on holiday trips. In the past 12 months I have been to Jerusalem, Colombo, Adelaide, Perth and Bali. 

I prefer home food over eating outside and normally carry packed lunch from home every day.

 

 

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