A self-made formula became a growing venture for Keong Chun Chieh
SOME say that laziness is the father of innovation. And that, it seems, was how Keong Chun Chieh, 35, found his product niche.
“I travelled a lot for my work and wanted something to protect my car in the rain. But the only product in the market at that time was Rain-X, which you have to apply quite regularly. I was lazy. So I wanted to create a product for myself that could last longer,” he says.
Keong, an electrical engineer, researched formulations that could potentially be developed into a longer-lasting coat for his windshield. Whatever he couldn’t learn from Google, he referred to his network of chemists, whom he meets on the job, to help him refine his formulation.
Keong managed to create his own coating formula. And because he didn’t need to use it as often, he started selling his product online.
Others who bought it liked his coating product, which earned him some decent side income.
Over time, car workshops also started buying Keong’s coating formula and asked if he had other products. Coating for paint works, for example.
This encouraged Keong to consider selling his products as a full-time venture.
He quit his job at the end of 2013 to set up Ominent Sdn Bhd, which carries a range of vehicle detailing chemicals under its IGL Coatings brand.
However, Keong realised it wasn’t that easy to make a decent full-time income from a business.
“Customers like the products but they are Malaysian-made products. So it was hard to get new customers apart from the ones who are already using them,” he says.
His struggle to get new business locally went on for almost a year until Keong decided to participate in an auto show in the US at end-2014.
“The auto market in the US is much bigger and they are more passionate about their vehicles,” he notes.
They made use of grants from Matrade to fund their participation in the exhibition. But trying to penetrate into a matured market with already established players was no piece of cake. Keong made an effort to connect with distributors there prior to the auto show and maximised his trip to the US with meetings to convince coating installers there to try his product.
“They probably thought we are a scam – these Chinese people coming to the US to sell us some products of an unknown brand,” laughs Keong.
He tried to provide the installers with as much technical knowledge as possible about his formulations and about their applications so that “they would gain more confidence in me and in the brand”.
Although Keong is not trained in chemistry, he claims to be a fast learner. After all, he says, it’s really about doing a lot of research and learning through trial and error.
Ominent got a boost when Keong participated in Cradle Fund’s Coach and Grow Programme in 2015.
“It changed the way we think about the business. We learned how to scale up, pitch to investors, look for grants, integrate technology into our operations and leverage on peer feedback. And contrary to assumptions, we weren’t the only non-tech company in the programme,” he shares.
IGL eventually found acceptance in the US market.
Today, it has some 1,200 installers in the US under its network. Keong regards this as an achievement considering the company has only been around for three years. As a comparison, some of the largest players in the market, which have been around for more than 10 years, have about 9,000 installers in their networks.
“One of the advantages that our products have is that they are easy to use and they are green products,” he says, adding that IGL has become quite a formidable brand in the US.
Its presence in the US market enabled IGL to expand into other markets, including Europe, the Middle East and Taiwan. In fact, Keong notes that in some countries, distributors seek them out to obtain distribution rights in the respective countries. It currently has a presence in 40 countries.
Once IGL made a name for itself in the international arena, it became easier to market its products on the home front. Rather than call it a Malaysian brand, they pushed it as a global brand in the local market.
“They no longer see it as a Malaysian brand. It became easier for them to accept us,” he says.
Business has been going well for Ominent. The company currently employs 12 people and sales have been doubling every year. For 2017, the company turned in revenue of RM3.5mil.
With things getting busy, Keong’s wife Fiona Chin – a lawyer by training – came on board early this year to help the company cope with growing demand and its expansion plans. The duo is hopeful of growing the business 10-fold in about three years’ time and to be IPO-ready by 2020.
At the moment, the bulk of its business comes from the consumer segment, but Chin is looking at efforts to shore up its corporate business to help the company grow faster.
“When we started, I already knew that I wanted to use our coating products across many industries. But we were told to focus before we grow into the other industries, so we stuck to automotive. But our coating products can be applied to other things like yachts and boats and manufacturing equipment.
“So now, we want to expand our other business verticals such as the marine and industrial sectors,” Keong explains.
He notes that the company is also trying to automate as much of its operations as possible to maintain a lean team.
Keong approached Platcom Ventures earlier on and obtained a matching grant for its automation plans. With the grant, he purchased a customised machine for some RM300,000 that would enable Ominent to carry out the production of its various products on a single line.
“We don’t need one production line to make one product. We can produce more than 20 products on our single line,” he says.
Its new facility in Shah Alam has the capacity to produce up to five tonnes of products a month. But it is only doing about 30%-40% of its capacity at the moment.
Keong says they will explore the prospects of bringing in strategic partners who can help them scale up and grow into new markets when they are a little bigger. Perhaps when they are making sales of RM6mil and above, he says.
“We are also trying to get more talent on board. Our job loads have increased because we are now supporting a global market. And because we are international, we work 24 hours to meet the different time zones,” adds Chin.
Although Keong started off trying to find an easy fix to coat his car, he found himself “falling in love with functional coating and in building brands” throughout his journey with Ominent. He wants to continue to improve on his formulations to grow his market and the IGL brand.
Up till now, Keong has yet to apply for any patent for his products. He has only been making changes to his formulas based on customer feedback.
However, Ominent is in the midst of redeveloping its formulas with a new material. Should the new formulations be successful, he will look into getting them patented.
Keong has been mulling over a bigger plan for his company. And it is no longer just about coating cars and boats.
According to Keong, the top 20 auto detailing products companies in the world were estimated to have combined revenues of US$4bil in 2017 and projected to grow to US$20bil by 2022.
“We want to compete with the big coating players in the world like the Kansai Paints and the DuPonts. We want to be the first South-East Asian coating company to be in the top 100 list. Of course, we will need to gather funds for R&D and to scale. So we are trying to run as fast as we can,” he says.
Solving the locally-made conundrum