WHAT started as a hobby 40 years ago has become the biggest home-grown pet store chain in Singapore, with 22 outlets on the island and branches in Malaysia and Hong Kong.
That chain is Pet Lovers Centre, one of the oldest names in the local pet supply industry. And in the light of its achievements, it is not surprising that managing director Ng Whye Hoe sees great potential for the company to go global.
'At a young age, I always wondered how companies like Watsons or Guardian could grow to that size,' said Mr Ng, who took over the business from his father in 1998.
'My vision is for Pet Lovers to become the number one pet supply company in Asia. In the US, Pet Smart already dominates. But in Asia, I think we stand a very good chance to be the Watsons or Guardian of the pet industry.'
A store for pet supplies of any kind, Pet Lovers is known for its 'cold-storage fresh' pet food, which hits the shelves directly from factories. And like any successful retail chain, Pet Lovers has its own house brand - Burp.
'Burp is a premium food at a very affordable price,' says Mr Ng. 'With all this inflation going on, we tell our customers to buy our house brands, just like NTUC is doing. Our house doesn't compromise on quality.' Indeed, Mr Ng is so particular about the pet food he manufactures that he tastes it himself.
'We make sure the dog biscuits taste good to us - if it tasted funny we wouldn't want to risk it,' he jokes, recommending the latest egg-flavour dog snacks because 'you can taste the yolk in them'.
Besides providing a wide range of pet food and accessories, Pet Lovers offers in-store grooming and pet care services.
'If you take a look at Watsons or Guardian, they've got in-house pharmacists,' says Mr Ng. 'We want to do the same here. I think this is one of our X-factors.'
He was inspired to branch into pet services when he saw pet owners panicking when their animals experienced minor discomforts like an ear infection or diarrhoea.
Instead of rushing off to a vet, owners can now get the advice they need from 'pet care consultants' stationed at larger Pet Lovers outlets.
'We recently brought in nine trained vets from the Philippines and plan to increase the head count to about 18,' says Mr Ng. 'We also have a professor with a doctorate in veterinary science on board to train and update the other vets.'
Eight years ago, another bright idea led Mr Ng to start another brand of pet store, called The Pet Safari.
'I was in a kopitiam one day and saw everybody selling different types of food,' he says. 'So I thought, if we could pull the different pet specialists together, all of them experts in their own fields, customers can shop in just one location.'
Right now there are three Pet Safari outlets - at Eastpoint Mall and Vivocity, and in Kuala Lumpur. At 28,000 sq ft, the KL outlet is Malaysia's biggest pet store.
Besides the one-stop concept, Pet Safari stores allow customers the unique experience of shopping with their pets in tow.
Pet retail website
Pet Lovers Centre also runs the only pet retail website in Singapore that offers the convenience of pet supplies delivered to the buyer's doorstep. The website, which lists all products sold in the company's stores, plus special promotions, scores 3,500 hits a day.
Mr Ng reckons home-delivery orders account for about 30 per cent of Pet Lovers' total turnover. The number of home-delivery orders has exploded from 35,000 to 250,000 a month.
The company also employs a full-time customer service officer to handle phone calls, complaints and other feedback.
'Sometimes if you send an e-mail to a company, you have to wait for weeks or even months for a reply, but you'll get a reply from us within 24 hours,' Mr Ng says with a smile.
Commenting on the services Pet Lovers provides over and above its competitors, Mr Ng explains: 'We make sure we really understand the customer's needs and wants - and we continue to raise the bar. We don't want to be like another pet store - we are not just another pet store.'
To spread the Pet Lovers brand elsewhere in Asia and to the rest of the world, Mr Ng has been working hard to kick-start a franchising programme. 'This is our immediate plan for the future - our number one priority,' he says. 'Recently, we completed our franchising programme with Spring Singapore and are now aggressively going out for overseas expansion. Hopefully, we can eventually dominate Asia.'
Mr Ng's immediate plan is to open more stores in Malaysia, but he hopes to extend the chain's reach to China and the Philippines within the next few years.
Having just returned from a four-day tour of retail malls owned and managed by CapitaLand Retail in the Chinese cities of Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing, he is particularly upbeat about opportunities in China.
'On the Spring-CapitaLand Retail trip to China, I could see that we could get closer to where we would like to be if we move along with CapitaLand,' he says.
'As a retail chain, our stores are always located in a CapitaLand mall and near an MRT station for our shoppers' convenience.
'We have tagged along with CapitaLand in Singapore and intend to tag along with them in Asia too. I think that's the way to go.'