Last year was an eventful one for W. Atelier. Managing director Gani Atmadiredja talks about the evolution of the home furnishing retailer and its plans for the future. 

It has been a big year for W. Atelier. In July 2017, the home furnishing and sanitaryware retailer opened a new flagship showroom in Henderson. Four months later, the doors to the previous flagship in Bukit Timah re-opened after downsizing and remodelling.

At 1,858 sq m (20,000 sq ft), the Henderson showroom is more than four times the size of its Bukit Timah counterpart. It is spread out across two floors and a mezzanine level, and houses brands such as TOTO, Zanotta, Lema, Dyson, Santa & Cole and Lasvit.

Meanwhile, in its new guise, the Bukit Timah showroom replicates the layout of a house. There are living, dining, kitchen and bedroom areas,  furnished with brands such as Danish furniture label Fritz Hansen and German kitchen maker -SieMatic. Fittingly, the showroom is dubbed “The House of W. Atelier”.

It is here that I meet managing director Gani Atmadiredja. The youthful-looking, Indonesian-born businessman says that the company spent about $500,000 for the renovation. Over at Henderson, $7 million was spent on retrofitting the previously bare shell in Apex @ Henderson, a freehold commercial building. The firm installed a lift, put in new floors made of natural stone, built a ceiling to conceal exposed ducts and cables and remodelled the staircase.

Even for a big player such as W. Atelier, $7.5 million is no small investment. But the company has grown by leaps and bounds over the last decade. Today, it is a far cry from the W. Atelier of yesteryear. Prior to 2009, the company was called Inhwa Marketing. An arm of Atmadiredja’s Jakarta-based family business, it had been the sole distributor of TOTO in Singapore since 1980.

“We were previously in River Valley, in the row of shophouses opposite Valley Point,” recalls Atmadiredja. “We had two tiny units there. I was shocked when I first saw the shop [in 2004]. In 1980, we were one of the first companies to offer imported sanitaryware in Singapore. But the shop was more like a mom-and-pop -set-up, a far cry from what we had in Indonesia.”

Bukit Timah was perfect for showcasing furniture and kitchens. And since the floor space is smaller than at Henderson, Atmadiredja decided to give it a more homely touch — hence ‘The House of W. Atelier’ concept. Image: W. Atelier

Wake-up call
More worryingly, Atmadiredja discovered that the company had been bleeding for over 10 years. Hitherto, he had never given the business much thought. “When I was a kid, I knew we had a company in Singapore, but I didn’t even care or look into it,” he admits.

Atmadiredja had lived in Singapore since the age of 11. After completing his degree in Boston in 2001, he went to help the family business, Surya Toto Indonesia, in Jakarta. Three years later, on a visit to Singapore, he learnt the truth. It compelled him to take more interest in the business, and eventually he moved back here.

“It took me a while to study the operations,” says the 40-year-old. “Finally we decided to give the business one last push, instead of closing it down.” Atmadiredja knew that a new showroom was desperately needed, because the existing showroom was not representative of TOTO.

In 2005, Inhwa Marketing moved to its present location along Bukit Timah Road. Its prominent location, with a wide shopfront along a busy thoroughfare, proved successful at attracting customers. At the back end, Atmadiredja busied himself redoing prices and fine-tuning the product specification sheets. “We didn’t want to waste money engaging an outsider, so I did it myself, from scratch. It helped me to familiarise [myself] with the products!”

Business began to improve, helped along by the booming property market. TOTO’s reputation grew and the firm won many new projects. “That was the beginning of our recovery. In less than six years, we made back the losses sustained over the more than 10-year period.”

Spreading its wings
In 2009, on the cusp of the company’s 30th anniversary, Atmadiredja rebranded the business as W. Atelier Pte Ltd to reflect a more contemporary outlook.

With the firm on a more solid financial footing, Atmadiredja turned to expansion. Kitchens were top of mind. “We have a factory in Indonesia, producing OEM [original equipment manufacturer] kitchens for TOTO Japan. That operation was a bit weak — OEM businesses don’t make a lot of money. Also, Japanese kitchens have such a unique configuration that you can’t sell them anywhere else. So, we decided to look to European kitchen [configurations], which are more widely accepted.”

At first, the TOTO principals were unsure about the viability of TOTO-branded kitchens not made to Japanese specifications. They were concerned about having the product measure up to the brand’s high standards. Seeking to ease their doubts, Atmadiredja and his team spent over a year creating and perfecting prototypes that would pass muster with the principals. They used quality imported materials and fittings, but employed local labour as a way to reduce cost.

Eventually Atmadiredja received the seal of approval. It was a coup of sorts, being allowed to sell TOTO-branded kitchens for the first time outside Japan. In the years since, a few more (mostly German) kitchen brands were added to W. Atelier’s portfolio. These days, three brands make up the company’s kitchen universe: TOTO at the mid-range; Schuller Next125 one rung up, and SieMatic at the very top.

“We’re trying to capture the mid- to high-end of the market,” explains Atmadiredja. “At the low end are the kitchens built by carpenters. There’s no point competing in that market because we can’t compete with [the cost of] local materials. [The kitchen business] has been challenging because it’s new to me. In the first few years, the learning curve was very steep. Finding the right people was key to [overcoming] this. We’re lucky that we have Daniel [Magg, general manager of W. Atelier] helping us grow the kitchen operations. He’s been in the business for 20 years now.”

New frontiers
From kitchens, it was a natural progression to furniture and lighting. This, in fact, occurred organically. While shopping for their kitchens, customers would ask for recommendations on dining tables, dining chairs and lighting. This, says Atmadiredja, paralleled the process of designing a home.

“When people design their homes, they do up their toilets first because of all the plumbing and M&E [mechanical and electrical] involved. Then come kitchens, which also involve a lot of M&E. And beyond that, they’ll furnish and light the house.”

In 2012, W. Atelier entered the home furnishing business with Italian wardrobe specialist Novamobili. Soon after, other furnishing and lifestyle brands such as Portuguese artisanal lighting brand DelightFULL and Italian audio firm en&is followed.

The Henderson showroom might be the firm’s flagship, with most of the operations consolidated there. But Bukit Timah still serves an important function. Having established the business there for the past 12 years, Atmadiredja can’t help but feel nostalgic about it. Moreover, customers accustomed to the location still visit the showroom. “People still come here to look for us,” he says. “So we don’t want to just disappear; we want to maintain a presence. It’s a good area.”

Prior to 2017, furniture, kitchens and sanitaryware were all showcased together, an arrangement that Atmadiredja admits was not optimal. Now, with two showrooms, it is possible to segregate the product mix. The decision was to consolidate all TOTO products in Henderson. “It’s a well-known brand in Singapore, so the location doesn’t matter as much, whereas our furniture operation is still new and needs more exposure.”

Bukit Timah was perfect for showcasing furniture and kitchens. And since the floor space is smaller than at Henderson, Atmadiredja decided to give it a more homely touch — hence ‘The House of W. Atelier’ concept. This also enables customers to envision a real-life setting for their furniture.

Holistic approach
To complete this domestic ideal, Atmadiredja transformed the kitchens into live kitchens. There are three in total: one in Bukit Timah and two in Henderson. “These kitchens are not for show,” maintains Atmadiredja. “We spent a lot of money and effort designing them. We now want to showcase the space as well as organise events for architects and designers.”

As for customers, they get to participate in culinary workshops by MYTH (My Turn To Host), a new initiative set up by Atmadiredja and run by his wife Katherine.

“MYTH has been an idea that my wife and I have been toying with for a while. But I don’t have time to take care of [such an initiative], so I put her to work!” he says with a laugh. “She loves to cook and has the passion for it, so why not. She finds good chefs, puts together a small group — say, 15 to 20 people — have them come here, and experience a full-service cooking class, complete with table set-ups. All that takes a lot of coordination.”

So far, there have been two workshops. They were taught by Joycelyn Shu, a former pastry chef at Shermay’s Cooking School. Come February, there will be a dumpling-making workshop taught by the chef of a well-known Chinese restaurant group. “We encourage our customers to take up the classes, and we also sponsor some classes. For example, if customers buy from us, we can work out a package deal. We’re trying to create a more holistic approach to The House of W. Atelier,” says Atmadiredja.

Atmadiredja and his wife are quite the foodies. On weekends, they can often be found cooking at home, or gathering with friends for meals in each other’s homes. The couple enjoy whipping up Chinese, Japanese and Indonesian dishes for themselves and their two children. Atmadiredja says he misses authentic Indonesian food, which is hard to come by in Singapore. Dishes such as rawon, a beef soup; sayur asem, vegetables cooked in tamarind soup; and rendang are his specialities.

Home for him is a four-bedroom apartment in Newton, which, not surprisingly, is furnished with his own brands. There is a TOTO kitchen, TOTO sanitaryware and Novamobili wardrobes. “It’s an occupational hazard,” he says with a laugh.

Cautious optimism
The last few years were challenging for the retail industry, and the home furnishing market was no exception. Its fate is inextricably tied to that of the residential property market. Compared with the boom years, fewer new residential developments were launched. Developers also took their business overseas because of better prospects. The uncertain economy also meant that consumers were less willing to splurge on big-ticket items such as designer furniture and kitchens.

When Atmadiredja first relaunched the business, a lion’s share of the business came from the contract sector. “In the good years,” he says, “80% of our sanitary business was derived from projects. Now, it’s about 60%. And developers are not spending on new projects. We saw this coming, so we decided to ramp up our retail segment.”

This involved investing in the two showrooms. And the efforts have paid off. “We’re doing very well with retail. We sell about two to four kitchens a month. That’s 80% of our kitchen business.” The remaining 20% comes from outfitting condos such as The Boutiq @ Killiney, Aura 83, 91 Marshall and Hilbre 28. The figures are the same for furniture, about 80/20. It has done contract furniture fit-outs for hotels such as Sheraton Towers and the offices of Apple, Google and Twitter.

Given the recent buzz in the market, is Atmadiredja positive about the future? “Definitely. But then again, there’s a lapse in our industry. We may secure the project now, but [delivery] will only take place one or two years down the road. We are securing some projects right now. Going forward, it should be much better. During the down cycle, we’ve been ramping up and getting ready for the upswing.”

With 14 brands in W. Atelier’s stable, Atmadiredja says he has his hands full and is not looking to take on any more distributorships. He is also happy with the current product mix and lineup of brands, all of which have historical significance. “We don’t want to be one of those companies that just hoard brands. We want to market our brands properly. That takes a lot of effort and money.”

In any case, his focus for 2018 is Indonesia. There, Surya Toto Indonesia is building a 15-storey tower that will house the company’s offices and a six-storey showroom dedicated to Fritz Hansen and TOTO, the two brands that they distribute. Located near the Menara Peninsula Hotel in Jakarta, the building is scheduled for completion by October.

“We want to build a one-stop shop, similar to Henderson. That’s lacking in Indonesia, especially in the mid- to high-end segment. And we hope to have complementary business operations, such as floor coverings, wallcoverings, building materials. We might not do everything ourselves though; we might work with other parties.” Sounds like Atmadiredja has got his work cut out for him.

Timothy Chiang is a design junkie through and through, believing that everything from a doorknob to the entire building needs to display thoughtful design. He lives for meeting design luminaries.