26 June 2008
Boxing Clever(HKTDC Gifts, Premium & Stationery, Vol 03,2008)
Long-range thinking is working wonders for a leading packaging product manufacturer striving to make its sophisticated products better, faster and cheaper.
Universal Metal Plastic Trading Ltd has been able to cut about 1,000 semi-skilled workers from its Dongguan factory, thanks to its long-range programme to introduce state-of-the-art automated machines that make wooden, plastic, aluminium, leatherette and flocked presentation boxes for jewellery, watches and other personal items.
"We've also tightened up on production procedures for greater efficiency, but the bottom line is that the superbly designed new machines never make a mistake and don't work to fixed hours," enthuses Sales and Marketing Manager Mimi Liu, whose father started the business 33 years ago. "But we still have 2,000 staff on the payroll, plus 250 more at our second-string factory in nearby Weichow."
Such a large workforce remains a necessity when - as happened two years ago - an order might suddenly come in for nine million medal boxes for ex-soldiers in Eastern Europe.
Or when the company received a high-priority request for some of the most prestigious boxes it has ever produced - the thousands that contained the gold, silver and bronze medals for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.
Such kudos aside, Universal has long been producing tempting and irresistible product boxes for some of the world's leading brands - Cartier, Gucci, BV, Seiko and Morellato.
"Clients of these top-of-the-line companies expect expensive products like diamond bracelets, gold watches and silver necklaces to come in a beautiful box that befits the product," Ms Liu observes.
She notes that packaging for high-end products has grown into an art form.
"The first step in any jewellery sale comes when the would-be customer is attracted enough to pick up the box to examine what's inside," Ms Liu explains. "If they like the colour, shape, feel and design of the box, it helps win them over to the product."
Her opinion is backed by Universal's customers, who never stop telling the company how important the box is when it comes to the initial contact. "In fact, one told us that he sometimes suspects that the bored wives of millionaires might even make a purchase as much for the presentation box as for the highly expensive piece of jewellery it contains!"
Such compliments are fitting reward for a company that started hand making simple but prettily decorated paper and cardboard boxes at a Tsuen Wan factory in 1975.
Universal soon found a niche market overseas that has grown exponentially in the following decades, especially since moving to the first factory in Dongguan in the 1980s.
Mr Liu senior, now in his 70s and semi-retired, still checks in every day to keep an eye on everything from the production line and incoming orders to the menu in the staff canteen.
"One of the basic factors in my father's success story is his insistence from the very beginning that, whether dealing with factory staff, overseas agents or high-profile customers, everyone must be happy in their dealings with the company," Ms Liu notes. "If ever a dispute arose, he dealt with it immediately."
That's why Universal keeps in regular touch with customers to ensure that shipments arrive on time and in good order, and undertakes follow-up immediately if there's a hitch. "You don't get and keep customers the calibre of ours without taking special pains to ensure they get exactly what they want," Ms Liu adds.
Universal has a global client base, but its biggest markets are in Europe, especially Italy, Germany, Russia and other East European countries. "Looking to the future, we hope to build on our markets there, but also see expanding opportunities in India and, of course, China," Ms Liu reveals.
India is one particular market that Universal is actively penetrating; having received "nibbles" for many years, business there has grown remarkably in the past year or so as the country's economy has boomed.
"The 100% import tax was previously the biggest deterrent to growth, but now customers there are so cashed-up - and India's womenfolk so jewellery-conscious - that business continues to expand," Ms Liu says.
Ultimately, she credits Universal's success to superb product design. "We've always had creative designers working closely with talented R&D staff with a flair for designing presentation boxes that immediately catch the eye," Ms Liu maintains.
"Our boxes come in all shapes, sizes, colours, designs, patterns, but they all have one thing in common - they're so elegant and beautiful that customers can't resist picking them up."
TEXT BY GEOFFREY SOMERS