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How innovation in production created a sustainable usage of marble

This article first appeared on Medium.

Corporation Road in Singapore is best described as a place filled with factories and industrial-like buildings. Design and aesthetics are the last thing on anyone’s mind.

So it was a stark contrast to the office I was visiting in this area. My jaw was just left wide-open and dangling as I entered the door.

Right in front of me was a showroom fully made out of marble with a length that extended to 30m. It felt like walking through a subterranean cave of wonders and jewels as different gradients and shades of marble shone and presented before me, from the floor to the walls, the furniture and even the peripherals. My eyes were just struggling to absorb the complexity that this room had to offer.

What was even more amazing were the marble-made ceiling and walls were bent into different curves and shapes! Was this an illusion?

MMG’s showroom made of bent marble with its in-house technology

To bring context, I was about to meet Hillary Tjioe, director of Marble & Meuble Galleri Singapore (MMG). This stone specialists and fabricator business had a long history of producing high-end furnishing and furniture using marble, and worked with high-end corporate clients like five-star hotels and museums across the world.

With my mouth still gaping-wide, I was unaware that Tjioe was now in front of me, greeting me with her hand raised for a handshake. “Oh my goodness, what an amazing showroom! How on earth is the ceiling bent?” were my first words to her. Obviously seen people reacting the same way as I did, Tjioe kept her composure and shared, “This is our unique strength. We can bend marble.”

Bend marble? Isn’t marble too tough to be bent? I asked her. Tjioe explained this capability was unique and built in-house by her company, credited that they were a one-stop producer of stone products, from sourcing, packing, cutting and polishing the stone. I couldn’t probe further of this unique technology as it was the company’s trade secret.

Tjioe, a 25-year old second generation who hails from the city of Surabaya in Indonesia, came to Singapore when she was 12 years old. She went through secondary school and polytechnic here in Singapore. She graduated with a finance degree at the University of British Columbia, Canada before returning to Singapore and joining her family business.

Today, her family business includes a marble processing factory and a marble quarry that totals over 1,000 workers in Surabaya and a showroom in Singapore which handles the international sales. Other than Indonesia, the company also draws its marble supplies from various countries like Italy, Greece, Russia, Turkey and Brazil. Tjioe handles the customers, and throughout this interview, her phone was buzzing non-stop with calls from clients.

Humble beginnings at the rattan and marble factory

Hillary Tjoe, Director of MMG

Even though she has only joined the company officially a few years ago, her experience extends throughout her life as she literally grew up in a rattan and marble factory in Surabaya.

Her father, whom she refers as “the President”, is the founder of MMG. He initially led a high-flying life as an IT consultant in Washington DC, where he advised US government agencies. But he didn’t feel this was his life, and returned back to his hometown of Surabaya and started a furniture business. He used rattan as raw material, which was native to Indonesia.

But soon after, her father chanced upon marble when a friend asked for his help to sell a shipment of marble. He saw marble as a natural piece of art which could be created into many different designs and feel.

In 1997, her father started his marble business in Surabaya with USD 7,500. He retained producing rattan furniture, which remains part of the business till today. Her father did all-nighters for 3 days in a row, and she usually stayed with him at the factory to keep him company.

As I asked her what did she observed from her father. She shares five sayings he has taught her: To be humble regardless of upbringing and successes in life; Stay true to your team and they will stay true to you; to have resilience during tough times; have a long-term vision and always stay positive in life’s ups and downs.

Original factory in Surabaya which handles both rattan and marble production

How a crisis was turned into an opportunity

In 1997, it was the first Asian financial crisis and the Indonesian Rupiah weakened significantly. However, this crisis turned out to be a blessing in disguise as Indonesian exports became cheaper.

Tjioe explained that her company also specialised in bespoke rattan furniture where these products were high in demand in high-end institutions like private residences and hotels.

A year before the crisis happened, her father went personally to the US to pitch his rattan furniture to furniture traders a year beforehand, and gathered substantial sales leads. This converted into export revenues during that period. It also turned out to be a long-term relationship as those buyers then have remained as customers to the company today.

Looking into sustainability

Tjioe says that sustainability is the main core consideration of how they operate their business.

In the business of marble production, as much as 50–70% of the marble produced by quarries are rejected by the purchasers, as many of the marble blocks will not be acceptable to produce into reliable products. There are further added costs considerations like labour and heavy machinery that were used to extract the marble. These rejected marble blocks are disposed of without any further purpose. This entire process caused unnecessary extraction efforts, wastage and pollution.

It became MMG’s focus to find new purposes for these rejected marble pieces. Through MMG’s unique innovation of bending marble and slicing marble, they managed to purchase rejected marble to produce marble products in thinner dimensions.

Tjioe shares, “It is industry standards to slice a marble that is 2cm thick, which a lot of wastage may happen if the marble is not of the correct dimensions. However, with our bending technology, we are able to slice it to 2mm thick and enforce the marble with another material.”

Being creative as part of the company’s process. MMG found new ways to create different furnishes for rejected marble blocks. She points out to me a furniture set near us. It was an example of a rejected marble block that has been created into a creative piece.

A rejected marble piece that was converted into a furniture

To date, Tjioe estimates that they have brought the rejection rate of marble blocks down to 30% from 70%.

Tech Challenges faced in this industry

Innovating into this industry has its limits, cites Tjioe, who explained that the marble industry is still very much one that requires specialised craftsman skills of stone masonry. She cites that there are nuances and refinements which only humans can gauge and work on, and years of training and experience will bring out the best quality that machines are unable to deliver. Furthermore, labour in Indonesia is still very much cheaper than technology innovations, which makes it difficult to incentivise the industry to evolve.

However, when it comes to Singapore, she relents and admits that manpower is costly and hard to find. She hopes for tech enablers to ease the production process of refining the marble into the completed product. Her wishlist is to find a digital measurement system that can use sensors to determine the installation measurements on site.

She recently was inspired about a virtual reality app that helped to visualise how the marble product will be seen in the proposed design. She wishes that such an app will be available in the market to ease the burden of designers during rendering of their drawings, which would save both time and money for her designer clients and her team.

She also hopes for a laser/x-ray block scanner similar to that in the James Bond movies, except that it will scan the inside of the block. This will help the stone mason to avoid crystal structures that may cause the marble block to break into pieces. She mentioned that it can be a common production issue and materials and efforts are wasted.

Advice to family businesses

Tjioe has this advice to fellow next generation business owners, “Know that taking over and running family businesses are often be harder than starting your own new business venture, as you have to adapt to an existing system that was paved by your forefathers (or in this case, your parents/grandparents).

It may be difficult for the first few years to earn the respect of your employees/staff/colleagues as you will be seen as “born with a golden spoon” in your mouth, so you must show your dedication to the company through hard work and cunning.”

This article is part of the Sustainable Future Cities Series, where I interview the next generation of family-owned businesses and thought leaders about their visions and goals for a sustainable South-East Asia by using innovation technologies.