Options celebrates National Day by speaking to the founders of homegrown company The Rug Maker about its coming of age and how their son has brought a new wave of change to the business.
The Khong family’s entrepreneurial journey can be summed up in three stages, the first being TC Carpets & Rugs, a contract floor covering company that was founded in 1983 by Lee Foong Yoke and Freddy Khong a few years after they got married.

Specialising in machine-tufted and woven carpets for commercial spaces, the company, headed by Khong and a business partner, gradually went on to service major hospitality names, including the Shangri-la, Mandarin Oriental and Traders chains of hotels in both Singapore and the region. Such was life for the couple at TC Carpets & Rugs for over two decades, with Lee helping out as an employee, until Khong decided to slow down and semi-retire in 2004.

Lee, however, had other ideas. Instead of taking a back seat to enjoy the golden years with Khong, she saw this as a window of opportunity to start a new passion project, one that focused on hand-tufted, made-to-order rugs.

There is a world of difference between a rug and a carpet that, in Khong’s opinion, is not fully understood by many. He goes on to explain that while the task of carpeting is usually accomplished with standard wall-to-wall work, rugs are individual pieces of unique artwork that are “an art to walk on”.

Lee recalls: “We handled a lot of contract work for commercial and residential spaces back then in TC Carpets & Rugs, which was all very ‘behind-the-scenes’, as we only had to ensure that the carpets were manufactured according to the designers’ and architects’ specifications. I wanted a business where we could truly express ourselves.”

The Rug Maker was thus conceived as a niche establishment offering bespoke rug-making services — this time with Lee at the helm of business operations, which Khong supported in terms of handling residential projects, among others.

It was their younger son’s induction into The Rug Maker, however, that propelled the company into its third, and perhaps most drastic, phase of growth to become the name it is today.

Kith and kin
Lee, 63, and Khong, 70, have two sons, Marcus and Melvyn — aged 35 and 30, respectively. The older Khongs say they had never really discussed or decided on the issue of who they would pass the baton to. Marcus moved out after marriage and joined his father-in-law’s shipping company. Melvyn began helping out full-time at The Rug Maker just two weeks after completing his National Service in 2010 — which, to his parents’ surprise, marked the beginning of his rapidly growing involvement as a cornerstone of the business.

“Khong had a partner at TC Carpets & Rugs to take over after he decided to step down. A lot of times, people would ask me what we were planning to do with this ‘retirement business’ [The Rug Maker], and whether I was going to have a successor. I wasn’t sure whether Melvyn would be interested in helping out with the business, as he had just gotten out of the army right after graduating from polytechnic… He must have somehow developed an interest in our business, for him to stay this long,” says Lee with a chuckle. “I guess that’s how it goes. You may not become a multi-millionaire in this line of business, but you must have passion in order to stay in it.”

Stepping up
After six months of working at The Rug Maker’s office, Melvyn grew tired of the administrative tasks he was assigned to. That was when he began to show an interest in sales, gradually blossoming into the role of sales manager, and beyond. Cold-calling and closing deals are now but a fraction of what a typical “sales person” at The Rug Maker is expected to be well-versed in, shares Melvyn; having an eye for detail and creativity to a certain degree, as well as digital skills, is imperative.

Lee says, “I’m a very ‘old school’ person. To me, sales, marketing and design were all very specific and the roles were kept separate, but all that changed when Melvyn came on board. He felt that this should be a combined effort, as the salesperson should also be able to articulate the product’s features to the client, not just in terms of material but also design, and guide the client throughout the process of personalising their custom- made rug.”

Armed with a diploma in Business IT from Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Melvyn ventured into unknown territory to expand his field of knowledge in graphic art, first by gleaning graphic design skills from his colleagues at The Rug Maker. “I was curious about the way the professional designers used programmes such as Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator to come up with the design of the rugs. After observing them for a while, I decided to try out some simple geometric designs myself; it was nothing too fancy. I also picked up a few tips from watching online tutorials on YouTube,” he explains. “

One of the aspects of this job that gives me great satisfaction is the process of meeting clients and providing them with suggestions on how we can customise their products. Their rugs are usually designed based on their preferences combined with my input; the process requires a lot of collaboration.

“Many of my clients have thanked me for my suggestions, and it makes me glad to know my input has resulted in their receiving a product that they like. Recently, one of them was so happy with a rug I had designed for her home in the US that she came back asking for another to be used as a wall-hanging [decoration]. It’s this kind of reaction from satisfied customers that makes the job all the more exciting for me.”

Into the rabbit hole
As her son grew more involved in The Rug Maker’s sales and marketing operations over the years, Lee noticed that he had begun to steer the business in an entirely different direction. It was on his insistence that the company launched its showroom in 2013 and showcased its first retail collection in conjunction with the grand opening, she says. Entitled Into the Rabbit Hole, the debut collection also symbolised a turning point for both the company and its co-founders, with Melvyn now a part of the equation.

“Melvyn spent the first couple of years trying to grasp what we had been doing over the past decades in the rug-making business. We visited many factories together so that he could learn what could and could not be accomplished, and how to tell the materials apart. Into the Rabbit Hole was very much Melvyn’s idea. For us, experimenting with new business strategies [such as launching our own collection] was just like Alice tumbling into the rabbit hole. It was entirely a leap of faith; we did not know what was in store for us or where it would lead,” says Lee, referring to Lewis Carroll’s literary classic, Alice in Wonderland. “In fact, I’d never had experience handling a Facebook or Instagram account until Melvyn came along!”

“We were so green back then. It took about a year for us to launch Into the Rabbit Hole. There were so many things to do — the printing of our first catalogue, conducting our first product shoot… Because we wanted to keep the cost as low as possible, we did everything ourselves instead of outsourcing the tasks. Melvyn carried the rugs out with the help of his friends and brought them to Marina Barrage for the photo shoot. He styled and took the photos himself.”

Since then, The Rug Maker has grown its portfolio into three distinct collections, which includes Into the Rabbit Hole. The Straits Collection is a nod to Khong’s Peranakan heritage, while a nature-inspired range, The Tropicals, was done in collaboration with local design studio Outofstock and unveiled last year at the Maison&Objet trade fair in Paris.

Strength that binds
There is no doubt that this year has been an eventful one, says the Khong family, which earlier this year produced a collection of rugs featuring a complex tessellated design exclusive to Singapore-based WOHA Architects.

Melvyn discloses that The Rug Maker is in the midst of producing its fourth collection, Super Textures, in collaboration with local textile designer Tiffany Loy. Unlike most of the rugs that have been produced by the company, Super Textures will be created by applying Loy’s unique loom-weaving technique to natural fibres such as paper, wool and cotton. Its rugs will be manufactured by a Finnish company and unveiled in Paris this September, he adds.

“People often think paper is very fragile as a material and easily disintegrates when it comes into contact with water,” says Melvyn. “Through Super Textures, we want to demonstrate how durable a material it actually is. The [paper] rugs that we are producing are very durable, easy to maintain and still look appealing with their colours and design.”

Among the rugs that the family has on display at home is a 100% paper rug manufactured by the factory in Finland, says Melvyn. It is used in the kitchen. “It comes with a non-slip backing and is practical and safe. My father has spilt sauces on it — all you have to do is wipe it down after washing it with water and it still looks good.” Khong maintains a supportive silence throughout most of the interview, nodding in agreement to his wife’s and son’s words.

“I come in to the office quite regularly, but most of the time, I do nothing here,” he says with a laugh. Asked about his role in the company, he quips: “I don’t have much of a role to play, actually. I still have my own clients who have been there since TC Carpets & Rugs, and who call me up once in a while and ask me to work on their projects, but the majority of my clients have already retired.”

Lee, on the other hand, is not as ready to retire or “slow down” as her husband already has — but should the day come, she says she will rest easy, knowing that her passion project will be in the good hands of her son.

“The business climate has certainly changed a lot over the years; it definitely has become more transparent and open. But that’s not to say that Melvyn had it much easier, as he still has to juggle sales, design and logistics to a certain degree,” she says. “One day, if I have to retire, I will feel very comfortable doing so because Melvyn has learnt everything in the business from the bottom up.”

Melvyn, who is married, says his successor has yet to be determined.

“I think I will follow my parents’ example and just see how things go. They never forced the idea [of inheriting the business] on me. It’s not like what you see in the movies, where the older generation tells their children things like, ‘One day, you will take over my business.’ If my children [develop] an interest in rug-making, then we will see how and where they intend to take it,” says Melvyn optimistically. “And, if not, I guess that will be it for The Rug Maker.”

This article appeared in Issue 791 (Aug 7) of The Edge Singapore.