Entrepreneurs: The smarter glovemaker

This article first appeared in Enterprise, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December 31, 2018 - January 06, 2019.
-A +A

Foo Khon Pu has a mind that never rests. In 1992, when nitrile was mostly used in the tyre industry, the executive chairman of Smart Glove Corp Sdn Bhd recognised that it could be used to make gloves. Three years later, he managed to convince the Japanese synthetic material manufacturer to supply him with the material for that purpose. His nitrile gloves went on to sell like hotcakes in the US market.

Today, the nitrile market for disposable gloves is about 1.3 million tonnes per year. The market is saturated with large players who eventually recognised the opportunity that Foo had not only spotted but innovated and developed years earlier.

Then, there was the little problem of passing the US Food and Drug Administration’s inspections, which confounded the best of manufacturers and kept them awake at night. But Foo’s busy brain got humming and he figured out a way to reduce the defects by making the product in two layers so as to reduce the pinholes. It worked and today, everybody uses his method.

Although Foo’s nitrile glove passed the inspections, it was still not comfortable. So, the chemist by training put on his thinking cap once again and the company managed to develop soft nitrile in 2003. “We enjoyed a lot of good business and could even fix the price in the industry. The others were not even there yet. It was still early in the game and they had not gone all the way into making nitrile gloves,” he laughs.

But blue oceans, as it were, do not last very long. The others soon caught on.

Foo was unfazed. He turned his attention to an even better and more innovative product — the thinnest, the most comfortable and even reusable rather than disposable gloves.

Foo graduated from the University of Malaya in the late 1980s and his first job was in ceramics. He got into gloves because he received an offer from Sri Johani, one of the largest glove manufacturers in the country at the time.

He quickly learnt all there was to know about glove manufacturing and left the company briefly to set up his own with two of the top four business owners in the industry. Sri Johani lured him back with the promise of an equity stake if he managed to turn the loss-making company around. He did, and received a 30% stake in the company for his efforts.

Foo convinced his bosses to give him the majority stake and a free hand to run one of its two factories. And that was how he formed Smart Glove. From the outset, he knew he would emphasise R&D and the company has continued the way it started.

In 2010, when the patent infringement lawsuit instituted by the patent holder of nitrile was overturned, the nitrile glove market became  very crowded.

“So we spent more time on R&D and came up with polychloropene gloves in 2013. We noticed that they were actually available in the market, but very expensive. We also noticed that while the material was very comfortable, it was very weak,” says Foo.

So, he did what he did best. He innovated. The team reengineered the material to make it thinner, stronger, cheaper and more comfortable.

Since 2013, Smart Glove has spend RM20 million on R&D and filed patents for 12 innovations, covering up to 50 countries. “Everybody buys the same materials, but we have been putting in special formulations so that the material can be softer, stronger and thinner,” says Foo.

The market took to its products very quickly, he adds. “But our capacity is small. Currently, we are starting with those who are able to pay a premium for our products. But I really want to supply to hospitals, which is the biggest market. We have a problem here because hospitals cannot pay much for the gloves.”

“We managed to put all these innovations into an invention pool and we make use of them to develop different products. So, any product we make uses multiple patents,” says Foo.

Foo is a man to watch as he continues to innovate, figure out new products and expand into new markets. “Our strategy is to be a niche player and make use of all our patents,” he says.