Staying Sane, Even in Tough Times
10 Dec 2018
SMART, SASSY & SUCCESSFUL - ALL WITH A SMILE
Michelle Lam is a one of those people who can enter a room and the level of energy jumps up a notch. She speaks with laughter in her voice, and her enthusiasm hasn’t been dampened by hard times, only amplified. Chinese born, now living in Australia, Michelle and her husband run a successful outdoor living business, a publishing company, sit on the boards of charities, and raise two children.
I catch up with Michelle to find out what her secret is to keeping it all together … with a smile?
Tell me about your Business (es) plural?
OSMEN is an outdoor furniture business my husband, Michael, started in China. It was a business created out of fate not choice! He was working in a wooden furniture factory in Beijing. It was at the time of the Tiananmen Square protests and the fall of the Chinese Government as we knew it. My husband had a promising career one day, and the next there was a lot of uncertainty with all the changes happening in China. He was offered compensation by the Government, which he took. It was with that compensation he began Osmen, an outdoor furniture company. We met in 1998 and then immigrated to Australia in 2001.
Initially, the furniture was a lower end product, but once we came to Australia, we improved the quality and became a supplier for Harvey Norman. We started with one outdoor umbrella and evolved to supplying to some of Australia's biggest department stores including Harvey Norman, Domayne, Freedom & BBQs Galore. Today we focus on our own stores. We currently have 8 retail stores, and as you know, this is a lucky number in China (said with a laugh)!
What about your magazine, NewLand?
NewLand was a dream. It was always a dream of mine to have a magazine. In China, you are given a lot of respect if you have good literacy skills. A magazine, a bilingual magazine, earns a lot of respect.
When we arrived in Australia, I found it hard to get reliable information on schools, dentists, where to live, simple things English-speaking people may not think are difficult. I felt a responsibility for my community, as well as my country to provide information to help Chinese immigrants settle in their new land. And that’s how the magazine came to be.
The magazine aims to bridge the Chinese and Australian cultures together, and to provide a gateway for the Asian community into the Australian lifestyle, culture and customs. We’ve been publishing for 14 years now, and the magazine is in 2,000 newsagents across Australia. I like to believe we have helped a lot of people transition into a new culture with our content. And now we are moving into social media, and online. It’s bigger than I ever dreamt!
You are probably one of the most energetic entrepreneurs I have met. What’s your secret to staying energised?
I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by a great team. They are reliable and take a lot of the pressure off my plate. This allows me to do things that really make me happy. I try to do Falun Gong every day, even if only for 10 minutes in the morning. I find it helps give me clarity and definitely helps with my energy levels. If I miss a morning, I really notice how my productivity and decision-making is affected.
I’ve been practicing Falun Gong since I was at uni 1998. I’ve been doing it for over 20 years now and it has helped define me as the person I am today.
Falun Gong is a Chinese spiritual practice that combines meditation and qigong exercises with a moral philosophy centered around the pillars of truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance. It also incorporates elements drawn from Taoist and Budhist traditions. Through moral rectitude and the practice of meditation, practitioners of Falun Gong aspire to eliminate attachments, and ultimately to achieve spiritual enlightenment.
I hold myself to these beliefs every day. So, even in times of chaos and stress, I am able to stay calm and centred. It reminds me of what is truly important, and that is our family and those we love. And it teaches us to always have hope. That has been what has driven us.
We all practice Falun Gong, even the children. We try to do it as a family, but that doesn’t always happen. Particularly now that our daughter is at school in New York, USA. I feel it is really important for our children to understand compassion and the importance of giving back.
What drives you?
Success doesn’t necessarily drive me for more success. Kindness drives me. Even though we are busy, everyone is busy, I try to make time to do good things. Success has allowed us to give back and support charities, and do lots of little things that help.
I’m on the board of Lions Club, and one of the fundraisers we did was to buy a new walker for a young girl. To see her smile when we gave her that walker… it touched me. I tear up now just thinking about it. I love that, and that drives me.
Everyone can give, you can give up a holiday, or a night out to dinner, but to have true meaning, it has to come from the heart. If we all connected a little more from our heart, less from our head, we’d be in a better place.
What has been one of your biggest lessons?
I think when you come to a new country you have to learn change. And accept that there will be challenges. When Michael and I came to Australia, with our one umbrella, we worked really hard to break into the Australian market. We were lucky we could compete on price, because we had our supplier in China, yet we also had to ensure the quality was up to Australian standards. We knocked on doors and stuck to our plan. It was literally about survival.
Then, and I still remember the order coming through on the fax machine, Harvey Norman wanted us to be their key supplier of outdoor umbrellas. We worked hard on that account and made sure our standards were high. We spent a lot of time understanding the Australian market and what is important. Quality and style. We have literally just spent three years getting a cushion right.
We started out supplying umbrellas, then in the second year we added a few more products to our catalogue. By the 3rd year we were supplying 20-30 items and became one of Harvey Norman’s key accounts. We had also picked up Domayne. We were lucky to have local intel from both countries - Australia and China. We were both manufacturer and supplier, which meant we had a good grip on quality control and delivery deadlines.
Then we found out that Harvey Norman were going direct to China and didn’t need us. Overnight we all but lost our business. Thankfully we had our Osmen brand, we quickly opened our own retail store. That was tough. We went from having to fill orders, to now having to open stores, understand retail, create a brand, learn to market to consumers. It was a lot.
Jump to today, eight Osmen retail stores later and now Harvey Norman, Domayne and Freedom all stock our products again. I think we all learnt lessons from that experience. And for the Harvey Normans, it was easier and more reliable to deal with us than go direct. We have the local knowledge in China and can speak the language. That helps!
Moving to Australia, what was the biggest challenge as a non-English speaking immigrant?
Everything was different, nothing was as we knew it. I only knew one person, my husband. I found the language really tough. Even though we could speak some English, it was still really hard. We didn’t know the nuances and felt everything we were saying lacked emotion. So, we couldn’t really say what we meant with feeling. To talk to anyone outside of work was hard. We would use the wrong expression, also there would be miscommunications, and that made it hard to form friendships.
Plus, we didn’t play or watch much sport, and that is a big part of Australian culture. The majority of the people we met or had to deal with for business were really nice and very helpful, but the culture is so different. And the way Australian’s think is different. It was a real challenge. However, we persevered and today Sydney is home. Tomorrow… I don’t know?
My mum and my sister live in Macau. Maybe, if communism was no more, then maybe we would move back to China.
With my daughter in New York, and my mum and sister in China (my dad passed away), I have learnt to have quality time with family. It may not be quantity, but when we are together I make the most of it. I recently (and suddenly) lost my dad, and that was a shock. It really made me determined to make an effort to have that valuable time with my family back in China. I treasure what I have.
Losing my dad has taught me this… we only have TODAY. Everything that has passed has passed. Let it go. Tomorrow, I ignore, I do what I can to make the most of today.
You have a daughter and a son, what is one piece of advice you have given them both?
Cinderella, is one of our favourite movies. And I tell them to be like Cinderella - to be kind and to have courage. Have the courage and conviction to stand up for your own beliefs and do what you know is right in your heart. Many people don’t have the courage to say no!
What new skill are you mastering?
I’m always learning and taking courses. I’m currently learning Instagram to help grow the NewLand brand online, as well as SEO for our website.
I really want to learn photography. I want to master that, but more for fun than work.
I’m also taking golf lessons with a pro for exercise and for relaxation. Although I find it quite frustrating (laughs)!
What has been the hardest lesson you’ve learnt?
When Harvey Norman and Domayne decided to go direct to importers. We had all our eggs in one basket and wasn’t prepared if we lost those accounts. And we did. We got too proud and complacent. They constantly told us and our team how excellent we are. We were hitting all of our KPI’s. They said we were the best, and we got over confident. But when they decided to go directs, they took a large chunk of our business. We hadn’t given enough focus to our smaller retailers. Luckily, we survived but was hard. But as they say, hard lessons are tough… or something like that (laughs again).
Michelle’s Top Tips to Live By:
- Keep yourself happy
- Don’t overdo it.
- Don’t be afraid to delegate
- Enjoy what you do – so important. If you hate your job – change it.
- Important to understand it is ok say No. If you can’t or not willing to do, then say NO!
- Let your family know you love them and appreciate them
- If work with you partner, think of them as a person, not your husband (You don’t argue with people you work with, but you might your husband)
- Play to your strengths
- Spend time with your mum and dad as you don’t know when they may not be there
- Make the most of today