Hong Kong's garment manufacturing industry had its heyday in the 70s. The mainland's economic reform saw a gradual migration of the industry over the border in the 80s and 90s, and many feared that apparel manufacturing was going all downhill for Hong Kong.
However, for Eiffel Pau, managing director of LAWSGROUP, the growth has never been stronger, thanks to excellent co-operation among the Group's 14 manufacturing sites in Asia and its headquarters in Hong Kong. Mr Pau points out that while there is almost no production line left in Hong Kong any more, the region remains pivotal in global apparel merchandising.
"While labour-intensive activities here are long-gone, Hong Kong has successfully transformed into one of the world's biggest apparel sourcing and value-adding hub," he explains. "Today, the industry is getting more dynamic and fast-paced. New lines of products are coming out every other month, or even more frequently. To ensure the products we deliver meet with our clients' expectations in quality, lead-time and other compliance requirements, we rely on seamless communications between our production lines and retailers' demands. Our merchandising team plays an integral role in the process and is therefore critical to our business operations."
One of the merchandisers' duties is to guarantee that clients' concepts are accurately interpreted in the merchandise that reaches their shop shelves, which, for LAWSGROUP, means the US, Japanese and European markets. "Shortening product life cycles means a much narrower margin of error for basically everything we do. Garment merchandisers these days need to have not only solid product knowledge but also soft skills like project management, time management and negotiation to facilitate their work," says the apparel industry veteran.
Operational efficiency of the merchandising team therefore becomes a key factor in the success of an industry player. Over the years, LAWSGROUP has successfully made use of information technology to streamline operations while improving efficiency. "Our proprietary resources planning system is tailor-made to cater for the specific workflow involving material procurement, inventory management, sample development and production processes. Our RFID (radio-frequency identification)-enabled production monitoring system also plays an important role in automating the production management process," Mr Pau says. Merchandising staff in headquarters can log onto the system and immediately check on the latest production status from a particular production line in China, Thailand or the Philippines.
In addition, many of the manufacturing processes that are still done manually in smaller companies are automated and optimised at LAWSGROUP through applications such as ERP (enterprise resources planning) or CRM (customer relationship management). Use of such applications speeds up processing and gives the merchandising team more time for better communication with clients, thereby minimising errors and ensuring top quality customer service.
"We must keep improving as most of our clients are marketing leading global brands and so require the best quality," Mr Pau emphasises. "Application of information technology has also freed up time for further development. Last year, both the merchandising team and the management realised the need to pick up the latest developments and know-how in the industry. To make the most out of the training opportunity, we approached the Institute for Enterprise of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and worked with them to devise a three-month programme. More than half our merchandising staff attended the programme and their response was very positive."
Fully-optimised operational and staff development opportunities have given rise to a stable workforce at LAWSGROUP. It has established a structured career path for merchandisers so that talents know clearly where they are heading, from merchandising trainee at the bottom to management level at the top.
Internal communications is another area the group relies on to bring out synergy in its workforce. At the annual staff conference, a company-wide gathering, all employees are presented with the latest market update and the company's corresponding strategies to leverage on market opportunities. Employees are encouraged to contribute ideas and suggestions in order to help achieve corporate goals.
In addition to this large-scale meeting, recreation activities for staff are organised throughout the year, including a company soccer team and different employee workshops for cheesecake-making, yoga, aromatherapy and make-up classes.
"Through such activities, we gain a deeper understanding of our team members while fostering closer relationship across different functional teams," Mr Pau notes.
He believes that willingness to learn, and the ability to inwardly examine personal performance, are critical in becoming a successful merchandiser. "Although most of our merchandising staff have formal training in textiles and other aspects of the industry, the actual work situation could be quite different from what is described in books," says Mr Pau. "People must gain a solid foundation through practising the basics in the trade before they move forward. Besides sufficient knowledge in garment production, successful merchandisers must have good communication and time management skills. They must also be detail-minded and team players because there is lots of teamwork involved in the job."
Merchandisers the trouble-shooters
- Vital middleman role between maker and buyer
- Integral part of production and sales process
- Basic industry knowledge needed plus soft skills
- Skills and knowledge upgrade necessary as technology advances