26 June 2008
Reflecting Success(HKTDC Gifts, Premium & Stationery, Vol 03,2008)
Simon Tang illustrates yet again the old adage that an ounce of luck and a ton of hard work is always a winning formula - especially in the highly competitive gifts and premiums sector.
The proof is Honest Metal Mfy Ltd's elegant showroom positively glittering with many different kinds of ODM products, including promotional items for many leading international brand names such as L'Oreal, Elle, Victoria's Secret, Mary Kay, Maybelline, Shiseido, Revlon, Mastina, Estme Lauder, Vidal Sassoon, Hugo Boss and Esprit.
However, Mr Tang hasn't always been in the reflection business, having founded his company in 1982 with a handful of employees making parts for calculators in a small factory unit.
"I was the office manager, salesman, accountant, phone operator, designer and quality controller, and things were rather gloomy," he recalls. "Then I got a lucky break."
One of his earliest overseas customers urged Mr Tang to switch to producing ladies' compact mirrors, the result being a cute little gold-coloured compact that opened up to display two mirrors - one for close-ups and the other normal.
Measuring about 2x2 inches and only about a quarter of an inch thick, it was made of anodized aluminium and weighed just a few ounces, making it perfect for a lady's purse.
Then he got another lucky break - a Japanese buyer who was maddeningly insistent on scrutinising every step in the manufacturing process, demanding several minor improvements until he was completely satisfied.
"The first customer made me see that I should set my ambitions higher - and I did," Mr Tang recalls. "The second made me fully conscious that painstaking attention to detail will always pay off as customers appreciate the quality of your products and always keep coming back."
Having made a successful change to compact mirrors, he then contacted the Hong Kong Trade Development Council for help in locating more overseas buyers in the beauty business - and was given hundreds of pages of addresses all over the world.
He went through the lists carefully, identified likely prospects, and wrote to them all. "Nobody had email back then and we didn't have a catalogue, so I enclosed a picture of our latest compact mirror with the letter," he explains.
Mr Tang's simple marketing campaign worked wonders and he soon received a steady inflow of enquiries. "We replied to all giving our terms, and gradually the orders began flowing in."
So much so that he opened a 500-worker factory in Dongguan in 1991 that was certified ISO 9001 in 2003 and still produces ever-popular compact mirrors.
Over the years, however, Honest Metal has developed many other metal items, including cigarette cases, pillboxes, business and credit card holders, pocket ashtrays, lipstick holders, sewing kits, handbag hangers, key holders, money clips and luggage tags.
Mr Tang is still the company's Chief Designer, as well as the Managing Director. "It's good to have a nice-looking product, but in the long run the most important factors for the customer are good quality and reliability, meeting delivery dates, and following up immediately if a problem arises," he insists.
His biggest worry now is the alarming increase in costs for raw materials in the past few years - steel from Japan up nearly 40% and brass and aluminium from Korea (110% and 30% respectively).
China's new labour laws have also sharply increased operating costs. "To avoid passing on big increases to the customer, we've had to improve our moulding to minimise the production process and consumption in order to be more efficient, plus install other new equipment," Mr Tang says. "This is trimming production costs and allowing us to weed out the less-skilled workers on the payroll."
Honest Metal's current main markets are Europe - especially Germany, the UK and France - the US and Turkey, where cigarette cases are still popular.
However, Mr Tang believes Eastern Europe is Honest Metal's best bet for future growth - especially Russia, Poland and Hungary. "Their economies are booming," he notes.
He is very conscious of the potential of the Chinese mainland but echoes the concerns of many other local exporters. "It's a very difficult market to break into, but it holds an enormous amount of potential and I am sure that it will become our biggest market in the not-too-distant future," Mr Tang concludes.
TEXT BY GEOFFREY SOMERS