Migrating to Australia and building a business from scratch to become a key supplier to stores across the country, Michelle Lam's passion and dedication allowed her to rebuild her business all over a second time!
Australia is an incredibly creative place, providing a wonderful platform for resourseful women to flourish in their artist and business endeavours. Of course it is rarely an easy road to success, juggling families and overcoming adversity, but that’s what makes these women all the more special — they’ve given their hearts to their projects and continue to work exceptionally hard to make sure it’s a success.
Over the past year I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a growing number of inspiring women across Sydney, which has led us to create the Inspiring Women Series, enabling us to highlight and celebrate their achievements. We hope you enjoy the series over the coming issues of Stylish Life Magazine, and do let us know if someone has inspired you lately, who we should feature too!
To get us started we met with Michelle Lam, a local North Shore mum and business owner who’s built a strong outdoor furniture business twice over, after overcoming a dramatic turn of events in 2012 that sent her business in an entirely different direction.
Having recently graduated from university, Michelle Lam, with her husband Michael, arrived from China planning to use their Chinese furniture exporting experience to import outdoor furniture to the Australian market. It was not long before the pair discovered that importing into Australia would not be the same as they’d experienced internationally. However, with their determination, striving for excellence and by adapting to the local market, they became the number one supplier to Domayne, a key supplier to Harvey Norman, Freedom Furniture and Barbecues Galore for many years. In 2012, a turn of events meant their business changed dramatically, which they’ve overcome with good humour (Michelle’s smile and sense of humour is infectious) and an incredibly strong sense of family and support for their team. Words: Louise Hurll and Penelope Barker Photos: Osmen Furniture
I wanted to find out more about how the business has grown, so I met with Michelle and Michael to find out how they have grown the Australian business from scratch over the past 19 years.
Michelle and Michael keep abreast of international trends in outdoor furniture design and they adapt those trends to the local market requirements. Their complete understanding of their customers’ needs and an unending resolve to provide quality, beautifully designed and well-priced outdoor furniture, has led Michelle and Michael to build the successful Osmen business now with seven stores across Sydney, including in Belrose, Artarmon and Chatswood.
"Good is not good enough anymore, you have to be great. And you need to be great all the time."
How did the retail business come about? For 10 years, we were the top supplier to Domayne, and one of the top three for Harvey Norman, Freedom and Barbeques Galore. Then fate chose us and Harvey Norman and Domayne decided to import directly. At that time, they accounted for about 80% of our sales. We decided we either had to shut down in Australia or do retail, so we decided to try retail.
By that time, we really understood the market well and we had two designers to curate the Osmen brand. We were also really familiar with the shopping centres in Sydney as we’d been visiting many of them and we knew which ones were good for our product, where our products had been selling well through other retailers, so that’s how we started.
How are you finding the current market? It’s tough but we believe that even in the most prosperous times people go broke, and in the worst times, people will still spend. You will always find a way.
We always find the way to grow and to improve, we are never happy! We always want to improve. That’s why, at the end of the day, it’s only a 5% or 10% difference that sets you apart. You can’t just be good, you have to be great to survive. It’s a tough environment. Good is not good enough anymore, you have to be great. And you need to be great all the time.
We really focus on value and comfort and keep ahead of the trends. I travel to the big furniture trade fairs in Germany, Paris and Milan, Italy, to see the trends, the colours, the materials and what the leading brands in furniture are doing. Then we interpret these trends to suit the Australian market in our own designs.
When’s your busiest time of year? Summer is our peak time, but we don’t dip that much at other times of the year. We have a core range, but each store has exclusive items as well. Key to our success is that we cater to different markets and different demographics. Even between our Artarmon, Belrose and Chatswood stores we have different products for the different customer needs.
Nearer the beach, we will stock more products in blues, in Belrose we stock more light colours, for example. In Artarmon many people live in apartments so they want smaller products that will fit on their balconies and they also favour higher quality products at the premium end. In Chatswood, we find that people want more accessories and want a designer to work with them to help with their furniture selection.
We can’t offer everything in every store, so we go deep to understand the wants and needs of each niche market.
Do you have any advice for our readers? You need to look at what best fits your home. We encourage customers to bring in some photos of their backyard or outdoor entertaining space to show our salespeople.
I make sure all our furniture is comfortable, the quality is high and there is a range of prices, but the key is what suits your environment. What do you want to do with your outdoor furniture? Do you want to sit and relax, have a drink, have a chat or entertain family and friends? What is the purpose of your outdoor area? Then you can look at colours and sizes.
If you have a neutral environment, you might want some contrast colour. It depends on your personality, also. I’m a colour person, so I love lots of colour. You might prefer neutrals. It’s all about what fits you best. Our team can help you make that connection between you, your furniture and your garden.
What’s ahead for Osmen in the next five years? In the current economic environment we’re in no rush to open more retail stores. The core focus will be on online sales. But first I need to understand online selling well. I don’t like to guess. We got good performance with a test, but I don’t leave things to luck. I need to know it will be successful just like we know which settings will sell best at each store on a really detailed level.
In time, I would like to see the online business turning over the same level of sales as one retail store, but we are not there yet. Online sales will not replace the stores, but I expect it to be a growth area.
What is your business ethos and leadership style? It’s not just about skill. Skill is important but it’s also about the heart. I’m not a perfect leader — sometimes I drive my team mad — and Michael always wants everything done yesterday, but my team knows we are good people and we look after them. At the end of the day, we know we care about each other, as well as the business.
You need to be a leader, or your company will go broke. Sometimes we need to make the hard decisions to protect the company and the other families working in the company but, regardless of the decision, we need to be fair, to be open, and to look after each other.
At Christmas, we have a party, we celebrate our success and we say congratulations to each other. There’s a real team spirit and we love our Osmen family!
What is your life like outside of Osmen? I’m the very happy mum of two, a girl aged seventeen and a twelve-year-old boy. They say I’m a bit determined with my team at Osmen, but with my kids I’m really easy! At work I’m a bit of a perfectionist – I want everything to be perfect. At home, I’m much more easy-going. I love spending spend time with my kids. My daughter is currently studying classical Chinese dance in New York and will be off to university next year but when she's home we go out for high tea and doing girly things together. Sundays are my time with my son, playing golf together — it's a really relaxing time we spend together.
"My children are the best part of my life. It can be really hard to balance business and motherhood but it’s a blessing to have them in my life."
From Stylish Life Magazine Issue 4
by Stylish Life Magazine