Issue 115 | Oct-Dec 2018

Going Against the Grain

Ms Jamie Lim (UCLA-NUS EMBA' 15)

From working in Hollywood to running her family's furniture business, Scanteak, Ms Jamie Lim (UCLA-NUS EMBA'15) has reached new career heights by thinking differently and being willing to learn.

Regional Marketing Director of homegrown furniture brand Scanteak, which was started by her parents in 1974 as a 400sqft shop space, and today boasts more than 100 retail outlets across the world.

While Ms Jamie Lim is best known today as the Regional Marketing Director of furniture brand Scanteak, her initial career was a world away — both literally and figuratively — from what she is doing now. As a teenager, she had set her sights on Hollywood, and enrolled in Loyola Marymount University to study film. Though also offered a place at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), Ms Lim chose the small Christian college because of its value system and the opportunities it afforded students. “Producers like Ralph Winter (Star Trek, X-Men) would come and talk to us in a small class setting,” she says of her time at Loyola.

At university, she also discovered her love for marketing, and directed her energy towards marketing films. After graduating, Ms Lim interned with Universal Studios for a year, before being hired by Walden Media. “I handled publicity, arranging press junkets and getting the word out about the films.” Films that Ms Lim marketed included Mulholland Drive, the Chronicles Of Narnia series and Ray, which won Jamie Foxx an Oscar for Best Actor. For Ms Lim, whatever she found was worth her effort to do, she would pull out all the stops to be the best at it. “At Walden, the president asked me where I saw myself in a few years — I saw myself becoming my boss, to be honest.” Indeed, things did turn out that way — only not where she expected.


In 2004, two years into her career in movie marketing, Ms Lim received a call from her father, Mr Lim Pok Chin, managing director of Scanteak, who had started the business in the 1970s with his wife, Ms Catherine Foo, Scanteak’s executive director. “He said, ‘I heard you are coming home. Come visit me in Taiwan.’” Her suspicions were aroused when her father picked her from the airport in his Mercedes, and took her to Taipei’s best Japanese restaurant. “He asked me, ‘Are you making an impact yet? Why not do your own business? You can have flexible time.’”

Even at that point, Ms Lim was no stranger to the family business. As a youngster, she was enlisted by her parents to provide “customer service” to the children of shoppers, till their parents had made the purchase. She also would draw up “press advertisements” for the latest furniture, and follow her mother to meetings.

Her father’s is suggestion came at the right point in Ms Lim’s life. She had just read Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad, Poor Dad, which proposes that a person should not work for money, but make money work for him, by way of businesses and investments. “I decided that the opportunity made sense,” says Ms Lim, who accepted the offer, so that she would also be able to spend time with her sister Julie, who was only three at the time.

However, she jokingly adds that “my father conned me. Life wasn’t as easy as he said. I lost 17kg in my first six months!” Mr Lim did not actually have a clear plan for his daughter. When Ms Lim asked him what he wanted her to do, he told her, “Go and learn sales. You’ll get out only when you have hit top sales for the month.” Ms Lim met that target easily within six months. “They didn’t know what to do with me,” she says with a laugh.

So she found her own place. “Teak is old-fashioned. Coming from Hollywood, where everything is so edgy, I thought it needed a change. I told my dad, ‘We are marketing to an old audience.’ He said, ‘But they are the ones with the money.’ I said, ‘Tell you what, I’ll go and shoot a TV commercial. Give me some money.’ He gave me $20,000! What can you do with $20,000?’”

Ms Lim went to her mother and pitched the idea of a rebranding exercise for Scanteak. Ms Foo asked for favours from friends, and Ms Lim hired a creative agency. They crafted a story about a family’s life over decades, with Scanteak’s furniture in the background. Ms Lim used the money her father gave her to buy airtime on Mediacorp TV. When the commercial “Table” was completed, Mr Lim asked, “What are you trying to say?” She replied, “That Scanteak is a lifestyle, not just a product.”

Scanteak’s first TVC was a hit with viewers. At the Viewer’s Choice Awards that year, “Table” was among the top 10 most popular TV commercials. That success helped fortify the change in branding for Scanteak. “Buying is based on passion. I have to want to buy the furniture myself. So, I redesigned some pieces. My father couldn’t see why we had to do it, but I said, ‘Try lah.’ They sold very well.”

Bit by Bit

Emboldened, Ms Lim started tweaking more designs. And more changes were to come. “I told my dad, ‘Now that the product is so nice, can we change the stores?’”. In 2012, Mr Lim agreed to let his daughter set up Scanteak Signature, a series of concept stores which carry two ranges, Holm and Prologue, created in collaboration with famed design collective Outofstock Design. Prologue, which appeals to younger buyers, scooped up a number of top awards including the prestigious President’s Design Award 2015. It was like this — step by step — that Ms Lim reckons the brand has come to where it is today. She says that steering the company into a new, young market “was a fun process”. “Fun” has taken them to145 stores across the world, and a global staff count of nearly 400.

If I’m given opportunities and talents, I have to utilise them wisely. Every breath we have is a miracle.


Learning by Doing

In 2014, Ms Lim decided to embark on her Executive MBA as part of the 10th intake of the UCLA-NUS programme. “I wanted a more hands-on approach — not all exams and memorising!” she says. NUS had a place in her heart, as she had applied to as a teen: “I was admitted to NUS but couldn’t get into Business.” The ever-ambitious Ms Lim opted for a double-degree course. She completed her UCLA degree in 2014 and started her NUS year in 2015. She had actually put her downpayment for UCLA when she discovered she was pregnant, and delayed the start of her EMBA by a year. It was a brave choice, but Ms Lim is not one to back down from a challenge, even if it meant having to study and look after a baby at the same time.

She remembers her EMBA experience with fondness: “I learned a lot from Associate Professor Prem Shamdasani (Business ’84), who taught Marketing and also from my peers. This was a regional programme so we visited companies across the region. “One memorable incident was when our Entrepreneurship Professor George Abe presented a case study about a US lawyer who went to Shanghai and started a chain of In-N-Out Burgers — he pirated the whole concept! Prof Abe asked us what we thought, and of course, we all said it was really unethical etc. And then, Prof Abe introduced the lawyer we had all just been badmouthing! He came out and told us, ‘If you want to expand your brand, watch out for people like me.’ After listening to him, I was much more careful with my trademarking,” says Ms Lim.

Given her schedule and role as wife and mother to three children under eight, it is a surprise that Ms Lim still makes time to serve on the Future Economy Council. “I’m very honoured to be a part of it. I felt I could contribute and be a good sounding board for this generation,” she says. It all ties in with Ms Lim’s outlook on life. “I’ve always tried to make a difference in all that I do,” she says. “If I’m given opportunities and talents, I have to utilise them wisely. Every breath we have is a miracle.”

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