Pet Lover Centre: Asia’s Preferred Pet Chain
“I think we stand a very good chance to be the Watsons or Guardian of the pet industry.”
Fresh out of starting a new business with a classmate, Ng Whye Hoe recalls answering the call from his mother to run the then troubled Pet Lovers Centre. Whye Hoe recalls, “I hesitated as it was doing badly.”
But the youngest of 3 brothers eventually stepped up to the task. The reason? “I did it for my late father. He loved the business a lot and encouraged me to join him because I was never academically inclined,” Whye Hoe confesses.
Whye Hoe’s father, Robert Ng, along with his brother, David Ng started a pet supply store, Pet Lovers Centre at Shaw Centre in 1973 as a family hobby business. Raised in a farm, brothers Robert and David were fervent animal lovers. Furthermore, they were exposed to the dynamic pet culture during their studies in the West. They observed that the fast growing prosperous city-state had no pet store. So, they decided to open Singapore’s first pet shop. The concept took off, and with a first-mover advantage, Pet Lovers Centre flourished.
However, in the late 1980s to mid 1990s, the business and the family itself was struck with twin tragedies. Japanese multi-format retailer Yaohan, which accounted for a great deal of Pet Lovers Centre’s business in Singapore, declared bankruptcy, nearly paralysing the business. But there was a more pressing issue in the household. Whye Hoe’s father Robert, was struck with illness and eventually passed away. “I must give all the credit to my mother who was the main pillar of the business till I took over full time in 1995,” Whye Hoe reflects. “Without her, Pet Lovers Centre would not be here today.” Inspired by his father’s legacy, Whye Hoe, now Managing Director, took over the business, and together with his brothers Whye Tye (Chief Executive Officer) and Whye Keong (Chief Financial Officer) sought to usher in a new golden era for the brand.
Whye Hoe had prior experience in running a wholesale business dealing with sport seats and ginseng with his uncle and classmate. But he had always been fascinated by large chain stores from an early age. “I’ve always wondered how companies like McDonalds could grow to that size,” Whye Hoe remembers. As Managing Director, he set out a bold course for Pet Lovers Centre: to become the number one pet supply company in Asia. “I think we stand a very good chance to be the Watsons or Guardian of the pet industry.”
Under Whye Hoe’s guardianship, Pet Lovers Centre has become the biggest pet store chain with a large presence in Malaysia and a growing presence in Thailand. The company also owns The Pet Safari, a one-stop pet specialist’s store, and has a home delivery service.
In 1995, 22 year-old Whye Hoe and his classmate friend found the company battered with financial and operational challenges when he took over the reins of the 1 store business. Even his own lack of experience worked against him, “I drove for the first time to work and I reversed my van against the wall. What a way to start my official first day.” Still, what he lacked for in know-how Whye Hoe made up with a ferocious positive spirit.
“I was a delivery driver, store assistant, cashier and director at the same time! We were mentally and physically tired but we persevered and focused on the long-term big picture of the company.” Gradually, the company began to turn around.
Like the pets that the brand is dedicated to serving, Whye Hoe is dynamic and full of life, implementing idea after idea. Pet Lovers Centre produces its own fresh pet food, marketed under the Burp house brand, delivered directly from its factories. “We don’t compromise on quality,” declares Whye Hoe, who personally tastes the pet food himself. The Managing Director also rallied his brothers. Whye Tye stepped in as Chief Executive Officer in 2003, implementing proper corporate management and good operating IT systems while Whye Keong joined in 2011, supporting the roles of finance and human resources as the company expanded.
Over the years, Whye Hoe and his team have also initiated and implemented a comprehensive suite of products and services to meet demands. These include veterinary clinics, dog bakery, pet transport, day care service and even a do-it-youself (DIY) dog wash concept with Asia’s first DIY dog wash machine.
“I was lucky as my mother and the shareholders were always behind me. Though there was some resistance to opening up one store after another, they trusted me and my vision, and I’m grateful for that.” He launched The Pet Safari, a thematic store that brought vets, groomers, breeders, products and services under one roof where customers could shop with their pets. To ensure his frontline employees could answer any customer query, Pet Lovers Centre outlets were staffed with consultants who have veterinary experience to offer professional advice.
Remaining faithful to the brand’s vision and mission to be Asia’s preferred pet store, Pet Lovers Centre looked very naturally to Malaysia for expansion. Swedish furniture retailer IKEA invited Pet Lovers Centre to be part of its tenancy at the brand’s first owned Ikano mall in Kuala Lumpur. “It was an opportunity which we didn’t want to miss,” Whye Hoe says. With the three brothers powering the business, the decision
was taken to enter the Malaysian market. “It was tough for the first 4 to 5 years, but with hindsight, it’s definitely rewarding.”
The reason for the brand’s success in Malaysia and Thailand where other Singapore brands have not done as well, as Whye Hoe offers, is simple. “One thing we’ve learned the hard way, is to always be strong in your home ground first.”
“If you want to penetrate into another country yourself, you’ve got to put the best team forward. Anything else is a compromise,” Whye Hoe adds.
Pet Lovers Centre franchises its brand in Thailand, tapping on the expertise and know-how of partners. “They know what works best there in terms of consumer and cultural differences. Thais have different preferences in digital marketing platforms.”
Named by Whye Hoe’s father, Robert, Pet Lovers Centre retains its original logo – hand drawn by uncle and co-founder David – albeit with 3 minor refinements over the years led by Whye Hoe himself. The logo’s main colour scheme, maroon, was chosen to signify warmth and passion with a touch of strength and boldness. Like the Golden Arches, Pet Lovers Centre’s brand appears to have stood the test of time. Whye Hoe recalls meeting a man in his 70s, recounting that he knew his father and grandfather has been visiting Pet Lovers Centre stores since he was a young man. “That touched me a lot, knowing that there was a heritage aspect to the brand.”
“If you can win in branding, you not only win market share, but you also win mind share,” Whye Hoe begins. Eager to remain top-of-mind with consumers, a key strategy of Pet Lovers Centre is locating its stores in malls. With increasing consciousness on the realities of the pet breeding industry and responsible pet ownership, the brand is increasingly showing its solidarity towards corporate social responsibility. Pet Lovers Centre now has schemes to encourage Singaporeans to adopt, rather than to buy. The company even goes one step further, and is an active participant in philanthropic work through Pet Lovers Foundation.
Pet Lovers Centre is also hard at work, protecting its brands and trademarks through consistent, coherent applications and enforcement of its corporate and brand identity standards. In addition, the company is not afraid to enlist the strong arm of the law where necessary.
Behind the scenes, Whye Hoe and the team have worked hard to make Pet Lovers Centre a franchisable brand. “Our model is very scalable from 500 square feet all the way to 20,000 square feet. So we’re able to adapt to different markets and environments to compete effectively,” Whye Hoe informs. It turned out to be an advantageous move, particularly in the case of the Thailand market as Whye Hoe explains. “Thailand is a nation of dog lovers, and the market is bigger than Singapore and Malaysia combined. With the challenges in language and cultural barriers, we franchised Pet Lovers Centre there. My brother, David has good contacts there, and we managed to appoint a trustworthy franchisee.”
Ultimately, Whye Hoe suggests that good teamwork has been critical to the success of the brand, in particular, his 2 brothers. “It’s amazing how we complement and synergise each other… I always tell my mother that her 3 sons have different talents.”
The result of Whye Hoe’s seemingly ambitious expansion is evident, with a strong presence of 92 stores spread across Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. Pet Lovers Centre has also clinched multiple awards. “Being recognised as Asia’s Top Influential Brands is definitely an achievement. We are also proud of our win at the Global PETS Award 2013 in Prague. We were the first Asian retailer to win this prestigious award, which is considered the highest honour in the pet industry.”
Future of Pet Lovers Centre
“I see us being a household name, for pet products and services, not just in Singapore but in Asia as well,” Whye Hoe proclaims. Pet Lovers Centre remains steadfast to achieving its vision of being Asia’s preferred pet store, fortifying its Malaysia presence while steadily building up stores in Thailand. The company is also diversifying its brand engagement to reach out to customers and potential customers as well. “We are approaching potential customers in a multi-faceted way, from social and digital media, and more recently precision marketing, which is a way of harnessing our customer algorithms,” Whye Hoe explains.
Pet Lovers Centre is no stranger to unchartered territory, but Whye Hoe remains positive and unfazed. “Starting up is always difficult but we’ve learned to never give up if you believe in your business and vision. There’s always a way if you think hard enough, always.”