When you think of an air-conditioning repairman, what do you picture? Most might conjure up an image of a toolbox-slinging, middle-aged, rugged-looking Chinese man in their 50s.
But for regular customers of Lion City Aircon, the sight of an Albanian man, Hermes Xhika, working on their AC units is nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, he has gotten so used to the weird looks that he now proudly wears the mantle of the ‘Angmoh Aircon Guy’.
Hermes Xhika started his business in 2016, a few years after he moved to Singapore. This was out of necessity, as he was pretty much broke when he migrated from Albania, all in the name of love.
Today, not only is his schedule jam-packed with AC servicing requests, but he also owns a co-living company with his Singaporean wife Irene.
Sometime around 2010, the then-IT undergrad met with a horrific traffic accident which left him in hospital for two months. He was travelling at around 130km/h when he hit a cement structure head-on.
“I was almost dead. I spent three days in the intensive care unit as doctors suspected I had blood clots in my brain.”
After the first few days in the ICU, he spent the rest of his time convalescing in his ward. With all his broken bones, he was not able to move around or go outside.
So, he turned to the one thing he could do while bedridden — surf the Internet and browse social media. “And that was how I found Miss Lao Po (wife in Mandarin) here,” the Albanian native quipped with a chuckle, referring to Irene.
That fateful encounter on Facebook, while being hundreds of miles apart, was the start of forever for him and Irene.
After flying back and forth between Albania and Singapore to visit each other following Hermes’ recovery, the pair decided that it was better for him to move to Singapore permanently in 2014.
He explained that it would be easier for him to migrate here as he could speak English.
“Back then, in my country, not many people spoke English. So, it would have been very hard for her if she were to move to Albania.”
He also did not have much to stay in Albania for. Being away from university for months due to the accident meant that he was unable to graduate as planned.
“Because of that, I couldn’t find a job to support her. I also did not want to ask for money from my dad, so moving here was the better option. I just had to find a job when I got here.”
The move was essentially a fresh start for Hermes, who soon found a job with a pest control company. There, he worked long hours, and overtime was the norm. He even created a website for the company with what he learnt in university.
However, to his horror, he was paid S$600 for the three weeks he spent with the pest control company. “The website alone was about S$300. So they essentially paid me S$300 for three weeks of hard work.”
He eventually decided to be the bigger person — taking the meagre pay and leaving the company for good.
That decision spelt financial woes for the couple. At this point, Hermes did not have money or a job, and Irene was barely making ends meet as a sales representative. Combined, they had about S$1,200 a month to split between both of them.
During that period, they lived out of a rental bedroom in an HDB flat and survived on S$2 takeout from the Ananas Cafe near their place.
Inspiration struck when Hermes was at a coffee shop in Woodlands one day in 2016. He looked out at the surrounding HDB blocks and noticed the countless number of AC compressors lining the sides of the buildings.
After some research, he realised there was an opportunity there. “People don’t just have AC at home. They have it at their workplaces, in shopping malls, everywhere. If you count the number of units in Singapore, you can easily hit about eight to 10 million units in this country alone.”
“So, I got thinking. If I could capture just 1% of this market, you can easily make a million-dollar company.”
And so, with zero knowledge about how air-conditioning works, he incorporated his AC company the very next day.
He also sourced out potential clients from Irene’s connections, as she had just started working as a property agent.
In the beginning, he worked with a technician who was familiar with the industry, from whom Hermes learnt how to repair and service AC units.
Thanks to the novelty of an angmoh repairing AC units in Singapore, the business quickly spread by word-of-mouth. But of course, Hermes recognised that he could not rely on that as his only selling point.
“People will call you once out of curiosity, but they won’t call you a second time if you don’t do a good job.”
It took Hermes about a month to learn the ropes and catch up on the technical know-how of servicing AC units. Eventually, he decided to part ways with the technician and started taking customers on his own.
He must be doing a really good job, then, he reckoned. Lion City Aircon broke even within around three months and has been turning a profit since then.
The income from the AC business proved not only lucrative but stable as well. Since the start, they have been signing contracts with clients for long-term services. This means that Hermes and his company can make a significant sum upfront.
It took roughly another year of servicing AC units for the couple to stabilise their finances. Hermes could hence afford a new van for the business and hire more people to help him.
The couple was also able to move out of their rental HDB bedroom and upgrade to better residences.
Hermes and Irene founded Expats Coliving a few years later, in 2020. During the height of the Covid-19 lockdowns in Singapore, Hermes thought about the days when they used to live in rental rooms.
Their rental experiences were not the best. “The rooms were too small, the owners were annoying, crazy restrictions, and there were a lot of things that made us not enjoy our rental days,” he admitted.
“During the lockdown, many expats were forced to stay at home with the same kind of limitations we faced back then. So we thought we could do something to help.”
Now that they are financially more secure thanks to Lion City Aircon, they decided to rent out some properties, decorate them, and put them up for co-living.
Their first property for Expats Coliving lies in the heart of Orchard. It took a few months for the business to get on track and for the renovations to complete, but it has served them well over the last few years.
To this day, the Orchard co-living space is still bringing in good money, on top of about 10 other properties.
With two strong arms of income, one might wonder if Hermes will give one up in favour of the other anytime soon.
He admits while the rentals from Expats Coliving serve as a stable form of income, it is not as immune to external threats compared to Lion City Aircon.
“We are in Singapore, so the AC business will never die no matter what happens. If another pandemic hits or if stricter regulations are imposed, Expats Coliving might not survive. You never know what’s going to happen,” shrugged Hermes.
“Risks are present in all businesses. But no matter what happens, people still need AC. That’s my bread and butter, that’s where I started from. That’s my first baby, so I’ll never leave it.”
Looking back at the huge leap of faith he took when he moved to Singapore all those years ago, Hermes does not regret a second of the journey he calls “tough but amazing”.
“I look back at all my friends from school back home and see that they are doing fine — they got their masters and all that. But I think I am better where I am now.”
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Featured image by MS News. Photography by Iskandar Rossali.
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