Tapping into Melbourne’s ethnic communities, Manjit Singh expanded and revitalised his space in the telecom business. Now his ambitions go beyond telecom.
My customer comes to buy a phone but we end up with a story,” laughs Manjit Singh. Good conversations, after all, form the basis of a good relationship. Quite the affable businessman, it is a reminder that Singh connects naturally well with his customers in this business of establishing connections.
Singh’s venture into the world of telecom began 12 years ago. As students of multi-media with Swinburne University, he and his friend Raj were already fascinated by gadgets, to begin with. While Raj worked in a mobile store part time, Singh was at a fuel station but both shared the same vision to start up a business. Singh’s father had electronics business in India so the idea did not seem improbable. “The business acumen was there too,” he smiles.
One weekend over a long drive to Daylesford, the duo rekindled their conversation on the business idea and came back with a growing resolve to start their first store on partnership. “And bang we signed up a lease. I was the admin guy and he was the sales charmer,” says Singh.
So with a bit of financial help from family, Singh started his first company Talkworld which operates multiple mobile phone retail stores in Victoria. The first outlet was opened in Hawthorn in 2004. “Our main products include mobile phones, accessories and repairs,” says Singh, adding, “We join brands, sell their products and get commission, this is how the whole set up works. The basics have not changed. It will never change. I will sell something and get a commission, if I am doing a good job they will keep paying me. That’s the structure.”
Within months, Singh came to recognise the importance of demographics. Tapping into the potential of Indian clients, he admits, “I got my kick”. Soon he was not only breaking even but he was on an acquisition mode. “I broke even in 3-6 months and there was no looking back.”
The boom of arrival of Indian students and migrants at the start of 2000 proved an enormous advantage for Singh. “To buy phones, Indians had to struggle because of their weak English,” he says. But as word about him being the first Indian dealer spread, he was suddenly inundated with calls such as, “Hello, do you speak Hindi or Punjabi?” It was enough to strike a chord. Or in the words of Singh “job done!”
Indeed 2004 proved to be a good time for Singh. “I started getting calls from all over Victoria and even Australia wide. People from the country would come in a van or a bus because they had to get their phone connections together, and sometimes I would take my team there and sign them up.”
But being a sub dealer, there were restrictions. So Singh started to expand by joining hands with a brand called Mo’s Mobile, an exclusive Vodafone mobile phone dealer, and one association he cherishes to this day.
Singh opened his stores in Dandenong and few other places. “I was doing 600 connections a month as against the average 60 of others. We would open at 7 am and close 10 pm. We were young and passionate.” In all, he would acquire eight outlets spread from Dandenong to Hawthorn to Melbourne central to South Yarra, to Doncaster East to Cranbourne. “They started calling me the telecom king,” he laughs.
At the same time, Singh was keeping his eye on the market and watching it move. The acquisitions came as people struggled to carry on. “But it’s not an asset that you would buy. In my industry I was buying the liability. You have to run it to pay the rent, the staff etc.”
Thus the opportunities for acquisition came after partnering with Mo’s Mobile. But how did he profit from the role he played? “I was a kid off the streets, starting a business because I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I didn’t do my MBA or my excel sheets. So how did I do it? I guess I bought a business with my heart, maybe the mind a bit. But then I was smart. If I was acquiring a new outlet I would be in the mode of selling the other one. I was careful of acquisition,” explains Singh.
Initially, the international students were Singh’s target and he was mainly tapping into ethnic clients. But as his clientele became more broad based he started moving into the locals and once he got to that, he realised he was doing something that everyone else was doing. He felt the need to move out. “I thought maybe the market has been distributed now so I should move out unless someone pays me more. If I get paid more I am happy to stay otherwise cut down and cash it out.”
So after 12 years in the industry, Singh scaled down because of saturation. “I was watching the market grow and by then every dealer started hiring Indian staff and every second Indian and Chinese became dealers.”
Today Singh has two outlets but he seems to be thriving on a mixed clientele. He notes, with a hint of pride, that they are still the No 1 in Victoria in dealer partnerships. The criterion for this is numbers and the number of connections a store provides over a number of years, he claims. “It is a numbers game,” reflects Singh, adding, “All brands now are selling only one post- paid, which is the plan. Last year Optus and Telstra pulled out from the dealer partnership to set up their own outlets. It was Telstra who started that as more of a brand building exercise. If customers are not happy going to a dealer with poor service they will go to a company-owned store with the best service.” Singh understands the philosophy and that is why he is still sitting comfortably. His stores carry about 5-6 brands.
Would he be favouring one manufacture over the other? “That is an important question in our industry. It is almost the same as going to a restaurant and the waiter recommending a dish that he likes. So it comes to personal choice but as an owner I should not be favouring anyone. Also for instance, if you go to a Chinese dealer he will recommend, say, a Huawei phone because of patriotism perhaps and also the fact that he will get money. It is a personal thing, but if someone is logical which I try to, I look at a customer and his/her needs and then I like to recommend a brand. If it is a senior customer who is graduating from a Nokia to a smart phone for the first time, I would be a bit reluctant about selling him/her an Android because that requires a bit of technology. I would be suggesting an Apple product or something that is easy. But if he/she has already had an Android and is only coming to me for a new phone, I would sell the Android, go to its setting and change it to an easy mode. This is the logical way in which to sell a brand.”
In his business career, Singh has had some challenges along the way. There was a time when all networks made a major decision not to issue handsets to people whose visa expire in less than a year. “These measures came as a result of losses as people were taking handsets and running away, thus creating a bad reputation too. There was one more time when they said Indian students were the most troublesome clients from the insurance points of view and based on irregularity of payments. On the other hand, the Chinese and others were considered very good clients. So when that decision came in, it was a big shock. That apart, our commission has gone down to half from when we started and one big reason not to have multiple stores. The ethnic community is also completely distributing itself. From three Indians running the whole of Victoria, you now have, say, 30 Indians and 30 Chinese. So yes the market split. That’s a big challenge.”
But scaling down was also a sort of a mission for Singh as he provided a template for the new buyers of his businesses. “Of course from the emotional side once you set up a store you want to keep it but are you able to digest the cost? In Australia any business has the same thing: running cost. But you do need to do a demographic check, work with the ethnicity of that area because they are the ones who get neglected the most. There will be someone who can’t speak English or is struggling with technology and that’s when who you hire is what matters, that’s where you try to instill your values in your staff. And those values then makes the business rise. The emphasis in mystery shopping is how you are bringing your clients back. If I am being genuine to them, the job is done.”
Such statements and his company’s broader articulation of its mission: to create genuine customer value, defines Singh’s success. “Pretty much every Indian has come through me or Raj. Either they worked for us or knew us or had the influence from us. Any store that I have sold is running,” he proudly states.
Singh’s current ambitions go beyond telecom. “Properties are keeping me nicely busy but in the telco industry I think we might even cut down further or stay where I am or make a comeback again, not sure how.” But whatever the field, Singh knows that, ‘If you don’t have a passion, it’s not going to work’.
By Indira Laisram