They managed to overcome both the first and second World Wars, the Great Depression, a fire, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) and the global financial crisis of the 1990s.
Yet even a giant megastore like the 160-year-old Robinsons could not withstand the devastating effects of the global Covid-19 pandemic .
Prominent chartered accountant, Datuk Robert Teo Keng Tuan, expressed his shocking sentiments at the recent closure of Robinsons in Malaysia and Singapore, which was a sought-after shopping store for aristocrats, sultans and even King Mongkut of Siam, who was then the most powerful ruler in Southeast Asia.
Teo, who acted as liquidator for Robinsons pursuant to a Creditor’s Voluntary Liquidation, told the New Straits Times that never could one have expected such a large entity to shut down for good, given the fact that they had managed to weather the storm during previous recessions and financial crises.
“I recall how Robinsons opened up in 1928 in Kuala Lumpur and was THE place to shop and be seen.
“Malaysians would travel from far and wide, just to shop at the iconic outlet at the then Mountbatten Road (now Jalan Tun Perak).
“It was said that Robinsons was to Malaysians then, what Harrods was to Londoners before,” said Teo, who is the chairman of RSM Malaysia which he founded in 1978.
Teo has had more than 40 years of experience in corporate taxation, corporate restructuring exercise and all facets of insolvency administration.
He expressed his sentiments to NST on how he felt acting as a liquidator to oversee Robinsons’ closure: “Closing any business is not a pleasant task, especially having to shut down a business with such a colourful and illustrious history as Robinsons, which was all the more disheartening.
“Many customers rushed to the stores in droves upon hearing the news of Robinsons’ closure, hoping to snap up last minute bargains causing massive lines outside the stores.
“This presented physical distancing, crowd control issues, which, thankfully we were able to manage by putting various measures in place,” said Teo.
He added in spite of the overwhelming crowd, customers were still willing to wait in line in the queue, insistent on getting to the stores to shop for any remaining items.
“And shop they certainly did. We had to talk to customers waiting in line.
“Many still fondly recalled their joy at shopping at Robinsons for years and expressed their regret on the closure.
“Others even recalled their parents and older generations who regarded Robinsons very highly among the retail outlets,” said Teo, who himself was an ardent shopper there during his earlier years.
He further shared his experience on how, apart from the throngs of customers, he and his team also had to deal with various consignment holders and vendors, all in a frenzy with the announcement of the liquidation of Robinsons.
“We were very fortunate to have the support and assistance of the Robinsons staff who, despite their anguish in knowing that their employment was going to end, assisted with the sales, eventual packing and relocation of the stock out of the two stores,” he said.
With the closure of both stores and relocation of the balance stocks to Starling Mall for a bazaar sale until Dec 27, Teo said it was also necessary to retrench a lot of staff, many of whom had been with the company for over 10 years.
While Teo commended the concerted efforts of the government in managing Covid-19, with financial relief to companies in terms of salary subsidies, he said the quantum perhaps was too low to effectively stave off impending insolvency for many businesses.
“Another large expenditure element for any large retail business apart from the salary cost, is rental for the space it occupies.
“Unfortunately, the incentives offered to landlords by the authorities to allow them to in-turn offer more favourable rates during the Movement Control Order or Conditional Movement Control Order periods, were not sufficient.
“This may have also, to an extent, reduced the financial burden of businesses in any sector in general to assist with their cashflow and prevent closures and the resultant retrenchment and unemployment.”
Teoh added with such closures, many employees were left with little or no means to support their families.
“And those, especially from the retail, and food and beverage industries are finding it impossible to gain alternative employment in the short term.
“The lucky ones who had some foresight to put away some savings for a rainy day, have had to dip into this rainy-day fund to bridge them through this difficult period.
“Unfortunately, there are those who also have little or no savings and were living from one paycheck to the next,” he said.
He welcomed the government’s various initiatives to provide loan repayment moratoriums and monthly withdrawal from the Employees Provident Fund accounts, which was certainly a boon to these unfortunate employees as a short-term measure.
For the record, Robinsons’ story began in 1858 when Australian immigrant Philip Robinson and Singapore jailkeeper James Gaborian Spicer initially established the family warehouse as Spicer and Robinson in Singapore.
The outfit was renamed Robinsons & Co less than two years later when Spicier pulled out of the partnership.
In 1881, Phillip Robinson died and his son Stamford Raffles Robinson took over the business in 1886.
Soon, it became popular, selling musical instruments like pianos, horns and gramophones, and was among the first agents for Raleigh bicycles globally by 1907.
After World War 2, the Raffles Place store in Singapore reopened in April 1946 and by 1955, Robinsons became the first store in the Far East to be fully air-conditioned.
In Nov 1972, the Raffles Place outlet was razed by a fire, resulting in nine deaths, forcing the store to move to the Specialist’s Shopping Centre on Orchard Road.
Following the 1973 oil crisis, the Kuala Lumpur branch on Jalan Tun Perak closed down in 1975.
A year later in 1976, the premises were acquired by United Asian Bank, which demolished the store to make way for the bank’s headquarters, Menara UAB.
Robinsons made a comeback in Kuala Lumpur in 2007 after 32 years, when its new store opened at The Gardens, Mid Valley Megamall.
A second store opened at Four Seasons Place, located next to the Petronas Twin Towers in Jalan Ampang, two years ago. Nst