Producing children's fun outfits for Christmas and Halloween is an international business worth US$5 billion a year.
Hong Kong is at the forefront of this profitable trade thanks to Fawn Eye Ltd, a global leader in costume production. Its clients include Disney, Wal-Mart and Target, and comprise a virtual who's who of the world's leading mass marketers.
Fawn Eye is a subsidiary of Cesar SA, a publicly-listed French company. According to managing director Edward Bock, over the past 10 years, Fawn Eye has established itself as a company that can add value to a product.
Today, about 70 per cent of the company's products go to the US, with 30 per cent being sold in Europe. "Our competitive advantage is in product design, which is done in the US, and which we are very good at," says Mr Bock. "We know the market and the customers, and we have also developed a very progressive supply chain management, which is the main role of the Hong Kong office. It's a niche market that places us between the toy and the apparel industry with one foot in each."
The industry must also cater to the whims of both parent buyers and child users in a mix of international societies, so it has seven catalogues of products to show picky buyers, with as many as 2,568 items listed in a single catalogue.
The company's core products are seasonal costumes and accessories for Christmas and Halloween. "Costume purchases are driven by video games, TV shows and movies," says Mr Bock. "For example, so far this year we have sold 2.5 million Spiderman costumes, and the number is certain to grow with the recent release of the third blockbuster movie in the series."
Licensing, generally renewed yearly, is a big part of the business and can help increase turnover by 20 to 30 per cent. However, the purchase and renewal of a license require careful executive analysis and management to be successful, Mr Bock points out.
Merchandisers are critical to the business, says Mr Bock, and Fawn Eye is now looking for the best talent it can find. "The market is very competitive and will remain so well into 2008", he adds.
The company currently has 14 merchandisers, and strives to develop talent in-house. The career path is from junior to assistant to merchandiser followed by senior merchandiser and managerial roles. "There is no formula for success in this field. Candidates must possess basic merchandising skills, proficiency in English and Mandarin, communication prowess and an understanding of the trading environment. But to be outstanding they need the ability to produce solutions, because 12 hours a day the role is to provide solutions." Mr Bock says. "You can have the best design in the world but if you cannot produce it in the quality, price and time you want then it doesn't matter."
Turning to the qualities that distinguish a go-getting merchandiser from a plodder, Mr Bock says, "For example, if you are required to attend sales meetings a few times a year, your knowledge, overall contribution and the credibility colleagues afford you really separates the average merchandiser from the very talented. You must have the ability to move outside of your primary space and continue to contribute. That's the arena where the challenges emerge, and where the successful ones show their true potential."
Managing the supply chain requires merchandisers to carefully coordinate their activities. At the one end they play an important role in the actual production of an item; at the other they must serve as the contact man with the client. "They are very much in the middle between the factory and the client," says Mr Bock. "They must be able to decipher the messages from the factory and answer 80 per cent of them without going back to the client overseas."
In any given year the company may contract out work to 50 or 60 factories, and the merchandiser will be working with 20 to 40 of them. That puts a lot of pressure onto the merchandising professional but as Mr Bock points out, coping with pressure is part of the job.
Fawn Eye appreciates that the success of the company depends on its employees' abilities, and therefore rewards those most deserving. Promotion is tied to performance and ability, and the company makes a real effort to develop and retain staff, with the long-term prospect of a senior position in management. Since merchandisers can work in diverse areas including the toy industry they develop cross-selling abilities and accordingly their skills will always be in demand.