Ronnie Chong grew up playing badminton but gave little thought to running a business that rides on Malaysia’s most popular sport.
In fact, Chong, the managing director of Absolute Protech Sports (M) Sdn Bhd, was in a completely different line of work prior to founding Absolute Protech. He was working in sales for a copier machine company.
After some years in sales, Chong thought it was time to venture out to start his own business.
However, he had yet to decide on what to pursue and went about researching opportunities that were available.
In his quest to find a business model, Chong discovered that Malaysia was one of the largest importers of shuttlecocks in the world. He realised there was an opportunity to be exploited as almost all of the shuttlecocks came from big foreign brands.
He pulled together some RM500,000 in initial capital and started importing shuttlecocks from China under the Protech brand.
But it wasn’t an easy start for Protech as the company started its distribution business during the financial crisis in the late 1990s and struggled to find its footing amid weak consumer spending. Additionally, Chong noted that it was not easy to market a new brand of shuttlecock as the local market was dominated by the long established players.
“But we had invested quite a sum of money and failure wasn’t an option,” he said.
Not long after, Protech’s business hit another unexpected setback.
The deadly bird flu outbreak in China in 2002 caused a severe shortage of duck and goose feathers, which sent prices of feathers soaring.
Good quality feathers for shuttlecocks were pricey and hard to come by, noted Chong. To add to all this, high-quality feathers were priced per feather.
This made it difficult for Protech to source for good raw materials and the company eventually decided to produce its own shuttlecocks to gain more control over the quality of its products.
As a result, Protech formed a joint venture with a Chinese partner to set up a manufacturing factory in Xiamen, China in 2004.
According to Chong, China is the largest supplier of shuttlecocks, making about 95% of the world’s supply. This made the country an ideal manufacturing base for Protech.
“What other country consumes so many geese?” Chong said with a laugh.
However, he acknowledges that the company’s early years in manufacturing were a struggle. The shortage of feathers continued and Chong says that the price of feathers never fully recovered after the outbreak.
Although higher sales of shuttlecocks would benefit Protech, Chong regularly advises badminton enthusiasts to be prudent with their use of shuttlecocks.
He soon saw a need to branch out into other products as running a business that depended on shuttlecocks alone would put it in a precarious position.
“We learnt from the lessons after the bird flu. We realised we couldn’t rely on just one product so we started thinking of other products that we could produce that fell under the umbrella of badminton,” Chong explained.
Subsequently, Protech diversified its product range to include everything that a badminton player would need including rackets, apparel and accessories.
The company also looked at marketing its products overseas in countries such as Indonesia, India, Canada, Thailand and South Korea.
Today, some of its equipment is certified by the Badminton World Federation for use in international tournaments, an achievement that Chong speaks of proudly.
Protech also the became the first Malaysian sports brand to sponsor the Macau Open last year.
“We are proud of how far we have come as a Malaysian brand, and now moving out into the international market and growing from just a brand holder to producing everything for the sport of badminton,” he says.
Protech currently generates average sales of RM30mil a year, of which 16% is derived from sales in foreign markets.
The company is aggressively expanding overseas as Chong hopes to support more tournaments to gain brand exposure.
Locally, Protech will be expanding its business with more boutiques.
There are six Protech outlets in the Klang Valley and one in Ipoh at the moment. Chong is looking at opening three more this year.
According to Chong, badminton is still a good business to be in as the sport creates a market of about RM150mil to RM200mil a year in Malaysia alone.
“We have to be competitive to grow our market. We have about 20% share of the market at the moment and we are leaders in the shuttlecock segment.
“We will try to capture a bigger slice of the market by catering our products to various demographics such as, gender, age and price segments,” he said.
Protech is also studying its options to expand into other sports.
But Chong says it will take some time for the company to establish new product ranges as the company needs to study the market for each sport.
Looking back, Chong says the hardships experienced in the early part of the business have been worthwhile as the company is on a much stronger footing today and he is optimistic that Protech will enjoy good growth in the future.