How an Ex-Cop Ended Up Designing Homes for Over 19 Years
With his unassuming appearance and mild-mannered demeanour, it’s hard to tell that U-Home director and co-founder, Nelson Leow, was once part of Singapore’s men in blue.
(U-Home's director and co-founder, Nelson Leow)
“I was previously a police officer, and after 6 years in the force I decided to enter the interior design and renovation industry. I found this line interesting because it emphasises both creativity and technical skills,” says Nelson when asked about his career change in 1997.
Now a veteran designer with two decades worth of experience, and the leader of his own 50-person, CaseTrust-certified company, it’s safe to say that this ex-cop has succeeded in his job switch.
To get the low-down about Nelson’s story, we had a quick chat with the man himself at U-Home’s main showroom.
Qanvast: So, what was the process of making the transition to the interior design line like for you?
Nelson (N): Hmmm… I have to say that it was quite challenging. As a person who had no previous experience in home renovation and design, I felt the best way was to learn directly from people already in the line by joining a company – which I did.
Along the way, I ended up picking up the basics as well as plenty of other useful skills from my ex-bosses, and most importantly, the contractors that I worked with. They’re the ones who carry out the actual work at the sites, and I’d visit frequently them to learn about their processes.
Qanvast: What made you decide to strike out on your own?
N: There’s actually an interesting story behind that. Before leaving the force, I had a buddy, Desmond Kwa, who also decided to join the renovation industry, and he did so two months before I entered.
And even though we were working at different companies at that point, we’d always meet up to share what we learnt. These discussions eventually led to us thinking about setting up our own company and finally, in 1999, we decided to go ahead with our plans to establish U-Home.
Qanvast: In what areas has U-Home grown since its establishment?
N: Definitely in terms of manpower. When Desmond and I first started the company, we only worked with 3 salespersons, and now we are a team of 50 people.
We can also see that homeowners these days are more design-savvy and they have higher expectations of what the end result looks like. To address this, we send our designers for courses, supply them with updated software, and equip them with the skills necessary to build appealing homes.
Qanvast: On the other hand, what has remained the same?
N: As a service provider, I believe in maintaining a sincere and positive attitude when handling client relationships, that’s something that has remained the same. When a client is satisfied, we’ll be happy about ourselves too.
Qanvast: What do you feel is U-Home’s biggest achievement to date?
N: For me, the biggest achievement isn’t about the accolades or awards, it’s the reputation that we’ve built up along the way.
I feel most satisfied when we get return customers whom we’ve worked with on their first, second, and even their children’s homes. Being trusted to such a great degree is priceless.
Qanvast: Personally, out of all of U-Home’s projects, which did you find most memorable?
N: One of the most satisfying and challenging projects that I’ve ever worked on was a celebrity’s home about a decade ago. I am not going to mention his name for privacy reasons, but he was very popular in Singapore during the 90s, and he’s now a Datuk in Malaysia.
I remember this project clearly because we only had 4 weeks to complete it, and the site was also used as a filming location. The latter posed quite a bit of a challenge because it was my first time coordinating renovation works with a film crew around. It still turned out to be a satisfying experience however, because everything was completed on time despite the circumstances.
Qanvast: What do you feel sets U-Home apart from the competition?
N: Mostly the experience that we have in the market. Also, over the years, we’ve built up very healthy relationships with our contractors. This is important because our clients get to benefit as well. By being on good terms (with the contractors), it’s easier to ensure better quality and workmanship for homeowners.
We also have a coaching system that’s essentially a mentorship program. Most of the new staff are guided by the bosses, including myself. We visit job sites with the junior designers, and sit down for discussions to better understand the needs of the clients that they are working with.
Qanvast: Could you give us an example of good renovation practices that U-Home engages in?
N: Whether it’s performing technical work or creating new designs, we believe that correct methods should always be used. Do it right the first time, and you can avoid potential delays or mistakes.
Let’s say for flooring, it’s important to know which bonding agents are right for the (flooring) material being used.
Homogeneous tiles, which are really rigid, do not adhere well to regular cement resin, and they will pop up when there are temperature fluctuations. In this case, prepacked cement is a better, stronger option to use, and for extra bonding strength, a layer of chemical cement should also be applied.
Qanvast: Are there any guiding principles that you feel homeowners should follow when hiring an interior designer?
N: Look out for accreditation. The most dependable one is CaseTrust, because they inspect both the paperwork as well as worksites. Because of the need to be transparent, it’s not easy to get accredited with them, but it’s also why CaseTrust is reliable.
Also, reading user reviews on trustworthy renovation platforms like Qanvast is a useful way to get genuine homeowner opinions.
Qanvast: If there’s one quality that summarises what U-Home does, what would it be?
N: Definitely honesty. It’s the most basic aspect of doing business.