Small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which form 99 per cent of businesses in Singapore, have felt the impact of Covid-19 keenly. TODAY’s Voices section is publishing first-hand accounts from SME owners and managers on the highs and lows of running a business in the pandemic.
In this installation, Mr Gaurang Khemka, 48, recalls how his design firm’s projects dried up drastically when Covid-19 struck as most of his clients are in the hospitality sector which were badly hit. He and his staff he took pay cuts to stay in business, and tried to find work in other sectors. Although several employees left along the way, Mr Khemka remains confident that the firm will emerge stronger as travel opens up.
I run a design consultancy that provides architecture, master planning and interior design services. We specialize in hospitality projects in the region.
Given the drastic impact of Covid-19 on the hospitality industry, our ongoing projects went on hold and the pipeline dried up quicker than expected.
We managed to collect some revenue for work already performed prior to the pandemic but by June 2020, things started looking quite bleak.
From six ongoing projects and two that were about to be signed, we were left only with two nearly completed projects in Maldives that had little leftover revenue to be realised.
The lack of work and inability to collaborate affected staff morale in no time (design requires a lot of on-the-spot sketching, brainstorming and collaboration). Around July 2020, I discussed with our 14 staff members the lack of revenue and asked them to think of creative ways to market ourselves. Thankfully, the entire team agreed to a pay cut. I asked them to indicate what they would be comfortable with and took that into consideration rather than implement an across-the-board pay cut. I led by example in taking a 75 per cent pay cut.
We dug into our reserves and continued to service some ongoing non-revenue generating projects. Unfortunately we did not benefit from government support initiatives for the hospitality sector, as we were not considered part of this sector.
We then tried to tap other markets that were not so heavily impacted by Covid-19 but most clients preferred a local consultant due to travel restrictions.
While I knew we had to enter the Singapore market, this has been hard for me since I did not grow up here and have a limited network in Singapore, even though I am a naturalized Singaporean since 2010 and our firm has done a couple of projects here.
We did secure a bungalow project through word of mouth and hope that will lead to more. We also changed course by taking up smaller interior design projects for homes, offices and retails outlets to survive.
This kept the team on their toes, and we learned new typologies along the way. We have also ventured into furniture design with a partner and hope to start marketing this in early 2023.
The pandemic has allowed us to reflect on our work processes, sharpen our focus on sustainability, expand our repertoire and most importantly taught us to adapt in a number of ways that I would not have anticipated.
While I would like to see more silver linings and remain positive — the truth is that it has been very hard for us, with six staff members leaving on their own accord in the last two years.
While we lost money in 2021, we have persevered and managed to go on.
I remain confident that we will come out stronger — as travel opens up, hospitality bounces back and we manage to enter new market segments based on our learnings.
ABOUT THE WRITER:
Gaurang Khemka, 48, is an architect and urban designer with over 25 years of global experience, who founded design consultancy URBNarc in Singapore in 2011.
If you are an SME owner or manager 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.