The garment industry is an exciting and dynamic field that has enjoyed strong growth in recent years. And it can be highly rewarding for someone who has an eye for details and is willing to do whatever it takes to satisfy the customer's needs, just ask Katharine Cheung, materials procurement director at Luen Thai Garment Company.
Creating a nice garment is a meticulous, time-consuming task, Ms Cheung says. "The thread colour could be wrong, or the button machine may break down. Lots of small things can happen every day. There can be some defects in any fabric, but the buyer is always looking for the perfect garment." Success depends on managing all the details, and the critical link in this complex supply chain is purchasing.
"You may have good workmanship, but you may not always be profitable," Ms Cheung says. Purchasing is the thread that identifies the company's own requirements, which involves negotiating with the right sources to deliver the necessary materials and services for the best possible value.
"Never say no. 'No' is not the answer. We must try and deliver"
Time is money
Ms Cheung has worked at Luen Thai, an apparel manufacturer, for the past two and a half years. Responsible for systems development and purchasing procedures, she reviews vendors' performance and builds relationships with them. Time is money in the garment business, and shortening the lead time between sourcing and delivery is the key to success.
Ms Cheung ensures that accessories are ordered and delivered to garment factories on a timely basis. Her other major responsibilities include cost control on purchasing activities and ensuring optimal "value for money" in terms of quality and prices.
"In the past, purchasing was the most important part of my job. Now the most critical thing is the short lead time - logistics and supply chain are important," she says. Besides garment manufacturing, Luen Thai also has a logistics and IT component and the three aspects of the business work closely together. Integration is therefore very important and it helps to build up the company's supply chain. She says buyers come to her because the company has a good supply chain system.
"Never say no" has been Ms Cheung's motto throughout her 19-year career in the garment industry. "For purchasing, the critical thing is the material cost. A buyer will ask you to copy an expensive garment and look for the same quality, but does not want to pay the high cost. 'No' is not the answer. We must try and deliver. I'm not a magician but, at least if I try, I will deliver 50 percent - you can do it," she stresses.
Learning by experience
"I first started out looking for a job with no expectations and began from the bottom as a junior staffer in purchasing, and worked my way up through the ranks to manager, and eventually director," Ms Cheung says. "You meet a lot of people and develop a good fashion sense working in the garment industry. It is satisfying to see what you are doing making its way from the factory to the shops."
According to Ms Cheung, the garment sector is a very attractive industry and a stable business in Hong Kong. "Exports have continued to increase since the 1960s, including this year," she says. The industry offers a stable source of income and plenty of job opportunities. A career in purchasing allows you to learn different skills, from negotiation and product knowledge to how to get along with people. In addition, it provides on-the-job training including in-house training, factory visits and on-going education programmes.
If you enjoy working with people, the garment business will suit you well. New hires can enter this exciting field as a junior staff purchaser. Basic computer proficiency is important as well as strong English language skills. Most companies in the garment industry have factories located throughout Asia, making English the common business language. Purchasers also need to work hard and be sociable.
In purchasing one must deal with suppliers and internal customers such as the sales and merchandising department. It is important to develop good relations both inside and outside the company in order to get the job done.
China is the biggest garment manufacturer in the world and there has been tremendous growth in exports to Japan and the US, Ms Cheung says. The Chinese have the advantages of cheap labour and workmanship, large cotton production and a strong textile industry enhanced by a well-developed logistics centre in Hong Kong. Career opportunities abound, and the Chinese garment industry gives priority to people who have experience working with Hong Kong factories.
The purchasing function is the key to increasing the efficiency of material purchasing and planning. Ms Cheung says improving the purchasing-management mechanism will enhance and streamline the garment business in China.