In 1996, three months after Valerie Tan set up her automobile retail company Pinnacle International with her husband, all four of her salesmen walked out on her to join a competitor. “Why are you in this business? You’re too small — no match for your competition. Go home,” they told her.
With a maximum of four cars in their inventory as compared to the industry average of 30, there was some truth to their ex-staff’s words. Tan realized at that point that one of the biggest obstacles for a start-up was to get the right people who believed in the same values and visions as she and her husband did. Hiring from outside the industry where people had no preconceived notions about how things should be run became her strategy of circumventing the problem; it also made it easier for her to share her dreams with her employees.
“It’s so important to share your vision with your employees, so that everyone moves in the same direction. You cannot succeed unless the people under you want you to succeed.”
Giving her first public speech during the Women’s Entrepreneurship Forum 2009 at Novotel Clarke Quay on 13 November 2009, Tan shared personal stories about a dysfunctional childhood where her parents divorced when she was 12, leaving her without a proper roof over her head. It forced her to grow up fast as she was the eldest of three siblings, and had to help her mother bring home the “dough.”
At 19, she had the opportunity to work as a receptionist in a car company, which was to be the stepping stone that would lead her to where she is today. She was promoted to salesperson within three months by virtue of her keen product knowledge, and Tan has not looked back since. “Grab every opportunity, you never know where it will lead you.”
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On leadership, Tan says, “You need to build trust by being open with your employees such that they will not second-guess you when things get tough. Even when things are hazy and you can’t really see what’s ahead, they need to believe that you can, otherwise they will jump ship.”
Being a woman in a male-dominated industry, she is used to getting no’s, despite having grown the company into the global brand it is today. To sift out the real advice-givers from the naysayers, “Ask for justification every time someone says no,” she says. Also, being a woman entrepreneur does have its advantages: “Your perceived weakness can be your strength, if you know how to use it correctly.”