WHEN your brand becomes synonymous with a product, you know you have hit jackpot. And Datuk Lee Ngai Mun knows he has hit one with his safety helmets.
“If you go to a hardware store, people don’t say ‘give me a safety helmet’. They say, ‘give me a Proguard helmet’,” he said with a smile.
Proguard Technologies (M) Sdn Bhd chief operation officer has every right to be proud. He knew nothing about building a brand, or about making safety helmets for that matter when he first started business with his wife, Datin Cindy Choh.
The duo founded their hardware trading business in 1988 after the arrival of their first child.
It was a simple operation run out of their little kitchen. They took orders for hardware products and had them promptly delivered.
Eventually, they decided to manufacture their own safety products like helmets, eyewear, safety vest and signages.
But the safety market is huge. Lee noted there are a lot of manufac-turers for such products globally.
To differentiate itself, Proguard focused on building its brand proposition.
“We brand ourselves as a quality manufacturer. We don’t discuss prices, we discuss quality. And we benchmark ourselves as a premium manufacturer,” he said.
Naturally, that means its products are priced on the higher side. But Lee is undeterred. Customers come to them anyway.
In fact, he said, their products were well known among the other producers, too.
Apart from making its own branded products, Proguard also does original equipment manufacturing (OEM) works for other brands. These include established European safety product brands. And when clients come over to audit their factory, they are “always impressed by our quality and systems”, said Lee.
“At first, when they came to us, most of them like to bring up the lower prices in China and Taiwan. They like to compare our prices.
“But China companies don’t have testing laboratories and things like that. They emphasise more on profit but we emphasise on technology. We are always upgrading and improving our quality.
“So, whenever our overseas customers audit us, they end up giving us a good review,” said Choh, its chief executive officer and chief financial officer.
However, Lee acknowledged quality was not always his priority.
“When we started to export in 2000, I did not emphasise much on quality and I learned my lesson.
“Back then, my entire container of products had to be shipped back from our Australian customer (because they were not up to par). I encountered heavy losses. I had to rework our products and ship them back to the customer at my own cost,” he shared.
Since then, Lee has taken measures to ensure their “made in Malaysia” products were never put down again.
Proguard has invested heavily, about RM2mil, in machinery, tools and manpower to boost its research and development work to continuously improve the quality of its safety products.
“We have six quality assurance staff. We run the lab 24 hours. If our machines need to be upgraded, we will spend the money,” said Lee.
Over the last two years, the company spent about 10% of its turnover on research and development (R&D) efforts to make sure it moves faster than its competitors.
“That’s how our brand was built,” said Lee. “We’ve put in a lot of hard work and passion.”
These days, when the pair frequent trade exhibitions, they can see their products everywhere.
“When people proudly show us their products at overseas exhibitions, I know those are actually our OEM products but I cannot say,” laughed Choh.
While Lee has learned the importance of taking responsibility for any mistakes he makes on his production, he added it is just as important to ensure you are not taken for granted. Proguard had a complaint from a French customer about its product quality once. The products were then sent to a lab for testing and were found to have met the requirements.
“(Although the results came out fine) they threatened to stop buying from us. We are alright with that. We know our quality and we’ve already done what we could for them,” he said.
They stood their ground and the customer “continued to order from us after that anyway”, Lee said.
Choh said demand for its products continued to pour in and the company has been adding to its headcount to cope with the growth. But adding more people alone will not help the company much in the long run, she noted. They hope to automate more of its processes for a faster and more consistent production.
Automation has helped increase its efficiency by 20% and Proguard will continue to put in more tools and machinery to increase its capacity.
“We’ve been travelling to Europe quite frequently. And we can see their logistics and warehousing are fantastic. Everything is computerised. The stocks are in their proper areas and any new person will know where to go to pick things up.
“It’s a system that we need. We want to be the first Malaysian company to be able to do that in safety hardware. We must move a few levels up so that our competitors will be left behind,” Lee said.
Lee is looking at raising funds through an initial public offering (IPO), possibly in the next two years, to help finance its automation goals.
In the meantime, Lee wants to continue its brand building efforts to grow the company bigger.
For 2017, the group turned in a revenue of RM56mil and expected to close RM60mil-RM65mil in 2018.
To grow, it will be putting more focus on the export market as that will boost the Proguard brand on the international front.
“We will probably try to come up with more products to compete with the branded products overseas. We might do a large production on our core products. We may not make big money during this period. But we want to make our brand more outstanding,” said Lee.
One of the measures taken by the company to draw more interest in its products is to enhance its product design and packaging. First impressions count, said Lee, and packaging can make good branding. Smart packaging designs can also double up as display tools, which make it easier for customers to identify the brand in a sea of product displays.
The company does its own design and printing works and has even invested in an in-house photo studio to control the quality of its products’ presentation.
Lee believes if you build the brand, the brand will eventually sell itself, ultimately bringing in the sales.
He stressed innovation and affordable pricing will be key in its brand building efforts.
“I believe my quality is there. It’s as good as some of the big names out there. But they are 50% more expensive (than my products). I think I will be able to make inroads and capture a bit of their market share overseas,” he said.
Proguard is looking at renovation plans for its showroom to ensure it is designed to fit into its regional ambitions. Lee wants to give big brands a run for their money.
Proguard won the Gold award for Best Brand at The Star Outstanding Business Awards (SOBA) 2017.
It also won the prestigious Malaysian Business of the Year award for the above RM25mil revenue category at The Star Outstanding Business Awards (SOBA) 2018 while Choh won the Female Entrepreneur of the Year title. The company also took home the Best Employer (Platinum) and Best in CSR (Silver) awards.