Duty-free kitchenware shop making it big in Langkawi
IT IS a rare occasion to come across a company called “Langkawi’s Housewives’ Desires”, or translated to its official name, Langkawi Idaman Suri Sdn Bhd.
While it may allude to taboo thoughts, these desires innocently refer to household products and kitchenware like cutlery, pans and crockery.
When there is such an extensive range of such items sold at inexpensive prices, there would indeed be a deluge of customers coming to buy in bulk.
This is the usual daily bustle at Idaman Suri in Taman Berlian, Langkawi, with customers who include Langkawi residents as well as local tourists from other states.
The company thrives on its success that stems from importing quality goods in bulk to sell at low prices, providing its customers value for money.
The business is the brainchild of director Sunil Maniar who, years before, knew that life would be better if he started his own company.
And so, what started as a small and humble business has today become a leading kitchen and household small and medium enterprise (SME) in Malaysia.
From accounts to the kitchen
While 49-year-old Sunil administers all of Idaman’s operations, his wife and his sister help to oversee the business from the ground up.
Sunil, formerly an auditor with PriceWaterhouse Coopers in Singapore, comes from a family of entrepreneurs and took heed of his father’s advice to venture into starting a business in the 1980s.
“As my parents were entrepreneurs, my father encouraged me to start a business of my own because he believed that it would give me more work satisfaction.
“So, with guidance and help from my parents, we decided to start a retail business in Pulau Langkawi in 1987,” said Sunil, who originally went to school in Kuala Lumpur and graduated in accountancy from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia in 1983.
It appeared that 1987 was a golden year of opportunities as it was then that Langkawi was declared a duty-free port and presented Sunil and his family the chance to develop a duty-free business there.
“At that time, there wasn’t anyone else here who understood the duty-free business, especially when it came to household and kitchenware products.
“There was an untapped market for more affordable and good quality products as other traders were selling these goods at very high prices at that time, compared to the mainland.
“So we were able to grab the opportunity and were also the first to start a duty-free business on the island,” said Sunil, adding that Idaman’s success spurred others to emulate its business model.
Idaman commenced operations as a small shop at 400sq ft in Pokok Asam and continued to trade there for 12 years.
In 1999, the business moved to Langkawi Mall, occupying four shoplots and in 2006, shifted to its current premises.
“We did not expect to hit a profit on our first day but we did, and until today, we are amazed at such an early accomplishment.
“It boiled down to our small space and low overheads which made it easier for us to achieve this,” he said.
Overcoming the odds
While his profit before hand was unexpected, Sunil also encountered several hurdles that he had not anticipated in the beginning, especially where logistics were concerned.
“In 1987, Langkawi did not have much infrastructure. There were not many telephone lines, not many buildings and no proper port, so setting up the business in such a place was tough.
“There were no ships to bring in and import goods. We had to persuade ships plying between Singapore and Thailand’s southern province, Satun, to make a stopover in Langkawi to ship in our goods,” said Sunil.
The obstacles did not stop there as he had to tackle more predicaments after Idaman Suri commenced operations.
“As you know, financing is required to start a business and it took a number of years for us to win the banks’ confidence.
“Then there was also the issue of hiring the right employees. Initially, there was no one who could perform management tasks so we had to train the staff to man the shop while we did all the handling ourselves.
“The problem here was that the locals were not accustomed to working in retail shops.
“For example, if it rained, they would not come to work and we had to convince them to do so by going to their homes and picking them up!” said Sunil, who now employs 80 employees.
In 1997, the Asian financial crisis caused several businesses to cease operations permanently and it also marked one of the lowest points in Sunil’s journey as an entrepreneur.
“Business performance fell substantially and we had to reduce overhead expenses by controlling our expenses.
“We were also able to take advantage of our suppliers who were offering goods at discounted prices during the crisis.
“We purchased them at discounts and sold with very nominal profit margins in order to keep the business going,” he said.
As this made Sunil and his business partners learn a painful lesson, he also understood that when nothing is ventured, nothing can be gained.
“One of the biggest risks we took was when we constructed our present premises, which took two years — from 2004 to 2006 — and finally moving here because it is approximately 5km out of town.
“As we were moving away from Kuah town, it was risky as we were unsure if our customers would follow us,” explained Sunil.
But the risk paid off as the business and traffic improved.
“We were able to import and stock more, while providing a larger variety of products to customers.
“So despite being a little far away from the main town of Kuah, we did well,” said Sunil.
A businessman will always want to improve his strategies in order to see it rise to greater heights.
In this regard, Sunil believes that he would constantly have to keep up with his customers and their ever-evolving demands in order to provide for their needs.
“One would also need to have patience and persistence to develop their business as it can take years before you break-even and even longer before you make profit,” he said.
While he said there were abundant opportunities for duty-free goods in Langkawi, the next planned accomplishment for Sunil is to venture into property.
“We have already invested in property development in Langkawi as the island is developing at a progressive rate and the population is increasing, thus the rising demand for property.
“So this would be a good move for the near future,” said Sunil.