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Charles & Keith Opens in Pavilion, Malaysia

IF THERE’S a man who truly understands a woman’s love affair with shoes, it has to be Charles Wong or his brother, Keith.

Theirs is not a personal shoe fetish but a deep and intimate understanding of what a woman wants when it comes to dressing up her feet.

For shoe-crazy women, particularly those who make it a point to cross the Causeway for their shoe-shopping pilgrimage, the name is probably familiar. Founders of the international shoe and accessories label Charles & Keith, the brothers would be the first to confess that their eponymous label had humble beginnings.

The label started out in a modest 46.5sqm shop in Amara Shopping Centre, Singapore, 12 years ago with only five staff members. Thanks to sheer dedication, farsightedness and a profound belief in their product, the company now has 1,280 staff members in 130 stores in 20 countries spanning South-East Asia, Australia, Asia and the Middle East, as well as manufacturing plants in Malaysia and China.

Singaporean publication Contact reported in 2007 that Charles & Keith reaped S$55mil (RM120mil) in revenue in 2006 and targeted S$80mil (RM192mil) in 2007.

Such monumental success from a first-time business venture is inspiring, to say the least.

“In the initial stages, we were young and inexperienced, without any prominent retail background, and not many people had confidence in us, ” recalls Charles, the label’s managing director.

Charles & Keith
Metallic handheld purse and heels add flair to a dramatic dress.

“When we started our first store, we didn’t have any bargaining power with the factories as our orders were really small. However, we were fortunate that the orders have grown tremendously since that first year, and the factories have become more receptive.”

With such brand presence and dizzying profits, it is ironic that the brothers are known as “accidental entrepreneurs”.

Perhaps being “mediocre in their studies” had something to do with the brothers’ success.

“I always wanted to do well in business to make up for my lack of academic performance,” Charles, 34, reasons. “We established Charles & Keith, not because we wanted to be seen as entrepreneurs but because we hoped to develop ranges of products that were unique to the consumers.

“We realised that shoes from foreign wholesalers were expensive and unsuitable for smaller Asian feet. It was the perfect opportunity to introduce our own line of contemporary footwear through Charles & Keith.”

It all began with noble intent. The boys started by helping out at the apparel shop which their mother managed, to lighten her workload.

Charles remembers that when he started, he was paid a basic salary for the first four to five years.

The experience planted the seed for Charles & Keith as, from there, the brothers noticed the potential in women’s shoes.

“My brother Keith and I went through basic training in the shoe business, which gave us extensive knowledge in operations and customer service,” says Charles, the eldest of three brothers and also the most outspoken. As expected, there were challenges in the beginning, especially when a fledging homegrown brand like theirs had to compete with other, more established, brands in the market. But small visions morphed into bigger goals along the way.

Charles & Keith
Charles & Keith
Charles & Keith has a range of sunglasses and belts.

Having Keith, 32, as his comrade-in-arms has been vital to the growth of the business. Aside from the inherent connection between the brothers, both share the same vision and drive in making their enterprise a success.

“Keith is a business partner, brother and a companion. He plays an important part not only in my business but also in my life,” says Charles of his younger brother, who is also the chief designer at Charles & Keith.

Unlike many business partnerships that have turned relationships sour, the venture has only served to cement the closeness between the two men.

Charles puts it down to prioritising and being able to compartmentalise.

“I admit that we have our disagreements but this doesn’t affect our relationship at all. Being together in the business, and facing the risks and challenges time after time has only made our bond even stronger,” he says candidly.

The brothers believe in hard work, teamwork and constant improvement, as well as investing in training, research and development.

At Charles & Keith, “our people are our greatest asset”, and going the extra mile where customer service is concerned is a big deal.

Charles & Keith
Look like a princess in these satin slippers and clutch bag.

Today, Charles & Keith annually churns out 750 designs for women’s footwear, and 300 designs for women’s handbags and accessories, with customised designs for each regional market, thanks to an able R&D team of 70 people, and a production capacity of over five million units.

The brand is targeting a growth of 500 stores and an increase of over 200 new staff members by 2012. By 2009, they hope to conquer the market in more than 10 countries, including Romania, Switzerland, Israel, South Korea, South Africa and Mexico.

Incidentally, the brothers launched their range of men’s shoes, Pedro, in 2005.

Last week, Charles & Keith opened its first store at Pavilion Kuala Lumpur. This is their second store in the country. Their first opened in Sabah in 2005.

Charles explains why they held back from penetrating the KL market for so long.

“Being in the right place at the right time is crucial in this business. We have been studying the market in Malaysia for some time and we feel that now’s the best time. Charles & Keith opened its first Malaysian store in Sabah because it believed that the store environment was the biggest determining factor in delivering shopper satisfaction. Therefore, we strategically position our outlets in the best shopping malls globally to maximise brand exposure. It took us quite a while to source for the best location in a busy capital like KL.”

On the brand’s success in Malaysia, Charles and Keith are optimistic.

“There is still a lot of potential for growth and, so far, the results have been rewarding,” he quips.

Small steps to big dreams, indeed.