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On the Talent Hunt: Craftsmen are hard to find, so we upskilled the ones we have to boost our 84-year-old leather goods business

As a retailer of luxury products, Kwanpen’s sales revenue came solely from physical stores. With most of our customers coming from overseas, our sales suffered a 90 per cent drop due to the lack of travellers during the pandemic.

Mr Jonathan Kwan, 39, is the director of special projects at Kwanpen.

Mr Jonathan Kwan, 39, is the director of special projects at Kwanpen.

As companies across a wide range of sectors in Singapore are grappling with a manpower crunch in a tight labour market, TODAY’s Voices section is publishing first-hand accounts from business owners.

In this instalment, Mr Jonathan Kwan, 39, describes how his family-run luxury leather goods business has struggled to hire craftsmen due to the niche skills required. Training its craftsmen and other staff in multiple skillsets has helped alleviate some of these challenges.

As a retailer of luxury products, Kwanpen’s sales revenue came solely from physical stores. With most of our customers coming from overseas, our sales suffered a 90 per cent drop due to the lack of travellers during the pandemic.

Our products are made in Singapore, and it is labour-intensive work. It can take up to 50 man-hours to produce one bag and no more than 400 pieces are shipped in any given month.

More than 90 per cent of our craftsmen are Singaporeans, and over half of them have worked with us for more than 10 years. They have grown with the company, and we have stuck together through many different crises.

Even before the pandemic, it was a struggle to hire staff due our niche business and the specialised skillset needed to be leather craftsmen.

Sometimes, we had to turn down orders to maintain our production standards as there were areas where only one to two staff possessed the skillset, and we couldn’t fulfil mass orders.

We tried increasing our new hires through online job portals, and on average it takes us about three months to hire someone.

Given the constant manpower crunch, we saw the need during the downturn to redesign our craftsmen’s jobs and tapped Workforce Singapore’s Career Conversion Programme to reskill our employees.

Our craftsmen are now proficient in two or three skillsets, compared to just one before. For example, production staff were taught intricate techniques such as hand stitching on crocodile leather. They also learnt to use a skiving machine to craft prototype leather handbags.

We also trained our design and logistics teams in data analytics using Qlik Sense — a data visualisation platform — so that we could be agile and make data-driven business decisions.

The pandemic also accelerated our need to drive sales online, and we started our first e-commerce website in December 2020 with dedicated staff overseeing the site and handling digital marketing.

We initially thought that we would face resistance from some staff, but to our pleasant surprise, everyone welcomed the idea. 

We are now revisiting our earlier plan of expanding into Japan and China. Placing various staff into redesigned job roles has alleviated some of our manpower challenges, but we continue to look out for new talents to join our team.

We currently have two vacancies in marketing and data analytics.

Retention is also another business priority given the hiring challenges. Since our inception, we have instilled a strong family-centric culture, one passed down by our founder Kwan Pen Sing himself.

When Kwanpen was still a home-based workshop, this meant sharing home-cooked meals after work. All staff are also encouraged to end work no later than 7pm so they can spend time with their families.

Our people are an asset whom we treasure and value. While the reopening of our borders has given us some respite, retaining our workforce and complementing them with new hires remain our priorities to take the company forward.

 

ABOUT THE WRITER:

Mr Jonathan Kwan, 39, is the director of special projects at Kwanpen. Founded in 1938, Kwanpen is a local manufacturer and retailer of crocodile and alligator leather handbags and accessories. Starting out as a home-based workshop, the company has grown to operate nine retail outlets globally. It has over 80 employees.

If you are a business owner with an experience to share or know someone who wishes to contribute to this series, write to voices [at] mediacorp.com.sg with your full name, address and phone number.

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