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Playgrounds ‘R’ Us
The Straits Times, SME Spotlight
January 13, 2010

Building a successful business has been child’s play for Mr Jason Sim and his buddies Wayne Chua and Charles Tay.

The trio have taken the fun and games of water slides, see-saws and monkey bars and turned them into a thriving enterprise that is making serious money.

Their game plan seems simple in the extreme: Playpoint, the company they started in 2001, designs and sells playgrounds, mainly to property developers.

A resilient construction and property sector meant business largely being shielded from the economic downturn.

Mr Sim, the firm’s managing director, said Playpoint posted record sales of $6 million between 2008 and last year. Not a bad return for a business that the three friends say they stumbled on “by chance” nine years ago.

“Designing playgrounds was the last thing we thought about when we were looking for jobs,” said Mr Sim, 34.

“But we did have some experience in marketing them when we were working at a company that supplied playgrounds.”

Mr Sim and Mr Tay, 34, met as students at Bedok View Secondary School and became friends with Mr Chua when they were working at local trading firm Gimexpo.

Gimexpo traded in a variety of goods, including playground products made by Kompan, a Danish playground developer and manufacturer.

The former schoolmates were in sales while Mr Chua, 35, worked in the administrative and logistics department.

They eventually went their separate ways but kept in touch. Mr Sim moved on because he had just completed a part-time degree course, while the others wanted to explore other career opportunities.

Mr Sim had excelled at Gimexpo, having secured a number of large projects for Kompan.

“Mr Carsten Dan Madsen, the regional director of Kompan at the time, approached me and asked if I was interested in running the brand here,” said Mr Sim. “The brand is the No. 1 playground manufacturer in the world and their products are marketed in Europe and the United States, so I saw its potential and roped in Wayne and Charles to help.”

The chance to run their own business was not without risk, especially when wood-based products by Kompan had yet to take off here because developers were still keener on sticking with traditional brick-and-mortar playgrounds.

They also had to cough up $200,000 – not a small sum for three out-of-work twenty-somethings – to procure the first batch of products.

But they decided to take the leap because they saw the new range of metal- and plastic-based Kompan products were more suitable for Singapore’s humid environment.

Yet it was still a risk, given that the economy had just taken a hit from the crisis and the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the US. But that did not deter the three young men.

“We had no commitments, unlike now when we’re all married,” said Mr Tay, the company’s projects director.

“We were young and had nothing to lose,” added Mr Chua, although he admitted that business was slow to take off.

“Although the Kompan brand had already been around since 1985, people were worried because we were such a young company.

“Customers were thinking, ‘These guys taking over the brand are so young. If I buy from them, what if they are closed two years down the road when I need them to service the playgrounds?’

” There were no short cuts to convincing clients they were indeed here to stay. Mr Chua, the operations director, said it all came down to hard work: “We visited every old Kompan playground site in Singapore that we took over as part of the deal with Kompan and did maintenance work on them, repairing whatever defects there were.”

Refurbishing the older Kompan playgrounds not only revived the brand among developers but helped Playpoint establish a reputation for customer service that differentiated them from other players in the market.

Their proactive approach helped Playpoint secure more projects in high-profile developments. They include playgrounds in various new Housing Board estates like The Pinnacle@Duxton, high-end condominiums such as The Sail@Marina Bay and other projects including the Alexandra Canal Park Connector, Ion Orchard and the Rainforest Kidzworld at the Singapore Zoo.

The firm now supplies a wider range of playground options that include products from Kompan and other big global names in the business such as Bigtoys, Watertoys and Rhino Skatepark Systems.

The quality of products and design means Playpoint playgrounds do not come cheap, ranging from about $20,000 for a small site to almost $2 million for a large project. “For example, the recently completed project for Safra’s Boon Lay clubhouse cost over $1.6 million – that’s one of our biggest projects so far,” said Mr Tay.

Playpoint has delivered more than 1,000 playgrounds to clients both here and increasingly overseas, where its focus is now being directed.

In 2006, Playpoint was awarded the rights to supply playgrounds in Vietnam under a sponsorship deal by Unilever, and a year later set up a branch in Manila, the Philippines.

The three partners are now raring to go big across the Causeway, where they hope to tap into the high-end market. “We have been selling to Malaysia over the last two years and sales there have doubled,” said Mr Sim.

“And that was achieved without us really pushing into that market.” Staff strength has also increased, from just a team of three to one of 15, including those working out of its offices in the Philippines and Vietnam.

The three friends remain optimistic about Playpoint’s prospects for the year ahead as the Singapore economy recovers. “I think we should at least be able to maintain last year’s performance in 2010,” said Mr Sim.

In the longer term, they may move into developing their own line of products.

However, Mr Sim said Playpoint would be mindful not to go into a price war with European manufacturers or to sacrifice quality.

He said: “We’ll roll out products that are totally different… complementary to the current line we supply, but perhaps more artistic.”