In Focus: Terry O'Connor, CEO, Courts Asia

With over 20 years’ experience in Asia, Terry O’Connor has overseen the complete overhaul of Courts Asia into the empire it is today. Along the way he has been a key figure in many British organisations, including serving as President of the British Chamber. We talked to Terry about his journey, his community work and future retail trends in Singapore.

Interview by Lucy Haydon, Editor, Orient Magazine

 

 

What initially brought you to Singapore, and what led you to stay?

 

I started out in the consumer electronics industry with Colourvision in the UK. During that period I met and married my wife and had two ties to the Far East - one through business and purchasing, and one through my wife. After a few years I realised I needed to go out and be someone else’s imported, experienced talent. I started looking for work in Hong Kong, and was introduced to Courts who were looking for talent in Singapore.

 

Courts was a furniture retailer at the time, trying to spearhead a more serious push into the electric retail space. I arrived as Buying Director for Electricals in 1993 with the intention of only staying for 3 years. I was promoted to Commercial Director at the end of this period, eventually becoming Managing Director in 2000. I expected again to leave after a few years, but fate took a turn when the UK business went into administration in 2004.

 

On the day when you find out you have no parent company, only one thing is going to hold the company together. I needed to look my team in the eye and say - I’m going nowhere, this is an opportunity. Let’s stick together, we will find a new owner, and we will make it work. 

 

How has the business evolved since you first arrived?

 

There have been dramatic changes, with most of the competitors from 1993 no longer in business. As the Singaporean Government improved the infrastructure around the island, we capitalised on this regionalisation by closing smaller stores and opening new, better ones in areas with improved surrounding infrastructure.

 

In the late 1990s I took the risk of introducing computers into our retail plans, and by the early 2000s we were the largest IT retailer in the country. Digital cameras also became a lucrative opportunity for us around this time.

 

After we became independent in 2004, we decided to take the risk of leading with consumer electronics rather than our traditional furniture focus. Every store that we changed quickly put an extra 15% on their turnover, and we rolled it out over a 2 year period across all stores. Concurrently we signed up for the Tampines flagship big-box store under the Government’s Warehouse Retail Scheme in collaboration with Giant and Ikea, opening the store in time for Christmas 2006.

 

The opening of this flagship store and corporate offices gave us a good position for negotiations with potential investors. Barings and TII came on board in 2007 acquiring the majority stake in Courts Singapore, Courts Malaysia and a smaller legacy business in Indonesia, which was ultimately closed. From here we rebranded and rebuilt Courts Malaysia, closing 26 of 72 stores but reinvigorating the remaining stores to much higher margins and lower costs, ensuring the staff were taken care of. We worked on regional supplier contracts for equalisation of terms, and as a result by 2010 we went from heavy losses to reasonable profitability, giving us the basis for a listing of Courts Asia. We tested the market in 2010 and realised we needed to show some stronger numbers. By 2012 we had improved profitability by another 50% and were able to secure listing on the Singapore Exchange. Since then we have used the capital to have a second iteration in Indonesia.

 

Courts Singapore has been on an extensive multichannel journey and we will push out those learnings to the region soon, although the regional ecommerce industry is still in its infancy. Even in Singapore, online retail represents less than 6% of total spend (less than 2% in the other markets). It will always be a smaller market than in Western countries, as shopping is less of an irritant here and more of an experience. The natural trend of ecommerce will settle in time and we have the ecosystem to support this.

 

We also monitor engagement. How people hover over certain items online and whether this results in an order, what behavioural cues occur in the store, etc. The current retail landscape is tough, so our current policy is to set ourselves up for the next growth phase by improving our supply chain management and solution selling. Along with strong customer service levels these efforts have ensured our net promoter score is high, relative even to the largest multinational companies.

 

With turnover just short of $800m, the next milestone is the $1bn mark. That will be a personal milestone, as the business I came into was around $50m at the time.

 

 

How important has your local community work been to your success, personally and for Courts?

 

I have always had three aspects to my life – business, family and community. I realised after a couple of years of working here that I had not built a social life beyond the office, and decided to make this a priority. I quickly became a regular at the British Club and expanded my circle. After a while I was asked to get involved in their Committees, and by 1999 I was President of the Club.

 

In 2001 we sadly lost a family friend to breast cancer. We had a Christmas party planned that year at the house, and had initially thought to cancel, but decided to turn it into a fundraiser in her honour. We raised $22k that first year, and our Courts Chairman asked us to do another event for a local charity, followed by others. In the third year of the fundraiser event we raised $63k. So far we had deliberately not been seeking publicity, but over the years we expanded and gave media access post-event, and it has grown from there into a hybrid of corporate and personal contacts. Millions of dollars have been raised over the years, benefiting around 15 different charities.

 

I was invited to get involved with the British Chamber as a Board Member and to Chair the 50th Anniversary committee for 2003/4. From there I chaired the Events Committee and eventually became President. Since my term ended I have focused on leadership programs and committees, both locally and regionally.

 

I believe the only way you can stay fresh and serve one company for 23 years is if you are involved in voluntary and leadership learning for NGOs. Exposure to multiple industries and CEOs leads to lifelong learning opportunities and makes you a better leader.

 

 

Where do you see the future retail trends, and what can your customers look forward to?

 

I think we have to be open to a combination of stores being retail fronts and some fulfilment centres. Rapid fulfilment will be important. Omni-channel is going to be a prerequisite. If retailers don’t acquire strong digital skills they will not survive, but physical positioning for retail will remain critical.

 

We must shape our activity around customer behaviour and be customer obsessed. Your management team needs a combination of scientists and artists. People who are really good with analytics, really good with being driven by this data and also people who can dream up the new and the different. Use rapid testing and failure until you find things that delight people.

 

What words of advice and encouragement would you like to share with our readers?

 

Fundamentally, dream big. It may be a cliché but think about your 3-5 year goals. That will set the tone for what learnings, what exposure, what development you will need to achieve these goals. If you are only ever thinking about the next 12 months, you will limit your options.

 

Scaling your career is important, but so is making sure that you are operating at a level that is above your pay grade. I always say to people - be knowingly underpaid or knowingly be over delivering so that you get noticed as someone who is a differential. Think differently, offer more.

 

To build your career you need three things - ability, knowledge and commitment. Eventually you want to move from being the star striker to the head coach, and your source of pride should not be from what you do, but how you influence others.

 

For more information on Terry and Courts Asia visit www.courts.com.sg 

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