31 May 2005
A Good Head For Business(HKTDC Enterprise, Vol 06,2005)
When Lau Lap Fat set up a small factory to make hats and caps in Hong Kong about 35 years ago, he never dreamed of the coming fashion revolution that would see a dramatic increase in worldwide demand in headwear - especially trendy hats and caps for females and baseball, yachting, tennis, golf and Ivy League caps for males.
Lau kept pace with the relentless demand for hats and caps as a medium-sized manufacturer, and twice moved his factory: first within Hong Kong and later to his native Boluo County near Dongguan on the Chinese mainland.
At age 14, Lau had left the mainland for Hong Kong to seek his fortune. He was soon working in a hat factory, where he quickly developed a remarkable knack for the hardest job in the trade: perfectly shaping hats to fit neatly and comfortably on the head.
Thrifty and hard-working, Lau eventually set up shop under the Hop Hing Hat Fty Ltd name, and he says he hasn't looked back since, especially now that daughter Mavis and sons Tim and Ken are deeply involved in the business as directors.
"My father started with about 20 workers, while now we employ 200 in our own factory," says Mavis Lau. She oversees marketing and helps her father with the design work, noting any developing trends in styles and colours and quickly incorporating them into Hop Hing's brand-name collection, Woodmask.
"Those trends are mainly in women's headgear and, however outrageous the result, Hop Hing doesn't hesitate to produce whatever we believe will fetch business," she says. "That includes anything from sparkling bright hats in shocking pink, apple green and other fresh colours at the edge of the spectrum."
Mavis and Tim are veterans at doing business at international trade fairs, travelling to London, Las Vegas, Frankfurt and Warsaw (their latest addition) with hundreds of samples made of cotton, wool, light canvas, PVC, polyester and super-soft lambskin (imported from Italy).
"Our best sales are in countries where the weather gets very cold," she says. "In Northern Europe, the US and Canada, for example, most families have four caps or hats per person to keep their heads warm in winter."
She says that Hop Hing's bestseller in hats is the fedora, "although it's also the hardest to shape and requires expert workmanship. We stick to standard sizes, 58cm inside circumference for men and 57cm for women, while bigger sizes are special orders."
However, Hop Hing headgear for hot weather is also found across Southeast Asia and Australia/New Zealand, where its lightweight Wild Country bush hats of light cotton canvas are highly popular.
Mavis Lau rates the company's biggest assets as the consistently high quality of its products, its reliability concerning service follow-up, and its punctuality (30-45 days from receiving order to delivery).
"Because of our emphasis on quality, our products aren't the cheapest but, rather, slot into the mid- to mid-high bracket. While that makes us vulnerable to competitors on the mainland, we rely on our reputation for consistency."
Mavis Lau is quietly optimistic about the future, saying that business is on a "slow but steady" upward climb. While understandably cagey about exactly where and to whom Hop Hing has made its biggest sales, she proudly reveals that one order for 300,000 hats/caps took more than two months to fill.
A few of the major clients on Hop Hing's books include Germany's Karstadt and Sweden's Ahlens. The Esprit Group, long at the cutting edge of global style, is another regular buyer.
She says Hop Hing's busiest periods are during the Hong Kong summer and a month or so before Chinese New Year, when orders must be filled and shipped before the factory closes down for the holidays. Materials come from Hong Kong or the mainland, but particular patterns are bought from France, Italy and Korea.
As subsidiary lines, Hop Hing also produces matching hat-and-scarf sets for women (sometimes also with gloves), and dinky little miniature hats for dolls as playthings for kids or for key chains. Some years back it also turned out army-style "Mao" hats, then in vogue among visitors to the mainland.
Meanwhile, still very much a hands-on hat maker, Lau senior spends all his weekdays at the mainland factory with son Ken, and only returns to Hong Kong at weekends.
"Since we are as dedicated as our father to the hats and caps business, the sole topic of conversation at the dining table is frequently headwear, the latest designs and how to boost sales," laughs Mavis Lau.
In a family business like Hop Hing, providing full cover is obviously the way to get ahead.
WRITTEN BY GEOFFREY SOMERS
Hop Hing Hat Fty Ltd
Flat B1 10/F, Block 2,