Fashion can be a fickle game, with constant demand for something new, something different. It takes a toll on many a company that enjoys its moment of fame, but then flames out. It can be just as brutal on the companies manufacturing and supplying the fabrics and garments to fashion houses.
For Executive Director and CEO of KTMG in Singapore, Damien Lim, supplying products to the fashion industry is both a dream and nightmare in one. But he wouldn’t have it any other way. "KTMG is the family-owned business started by my parents, which is how I entered this industry in 2002," he says.
"Textile and apparel manufacturing is a very competitive industry. You are working with unpredictable demand, short product life cycles, quick response times, large product variety and complex supply chain structures. I find this career very challenging, and this is how I came to enjoy working in this industry – it’s exciting and I get to push myself to the limit."
The company is much more than simply a manufacturer and supplier of fashion garments. It is also involved in the origination, design and subsequent manufacture of fashion items in collaboration with its clients, and is now listed on the Catalist board of the Singapore Exchange.
Founded in Batu Pahat, known as the textile city of Malaysia, in 1988, KTMG manufactures apparel under contract for retailers in the US, the UK, Europe and Canada. KTMG’s story is one of organic growth and innovation.
Ten years after opening, the company expanded into a much larger manufacturing facility in Batu Pahat in 1998, then in 2009, it began outsourcing production of some products to a third-party contract manufacturer in Cambodia.
We are in a very fast-paced industry and we need to respond to all kinds of changes at the same pace.
At the same time, it began offering design services through a "co-creation" business model. In 2011, it established its first offshore facility, Moon Apparel, in Cambodia, and in 2019, it went upstream into knitting, dyeing and finishing of fabrics with its own textile manufacturing facility in Malaysia.
This one-stop shop platform provides diversified alternatives for clients looking to capitalise on new trends and market directions. However, it also places the onus on KTMG to provide accurate, forwardlooking design concepts and materials in a costeffective and timely manner.
That means the company’s designers have to always be right on trend; making poorly considered decisions could be the end of the road for much of the company’s upstream business. "Fabric is the key element of our apparel products, and we have accumulated the knowledge and experience learned in the past to make this a success," Damien points out.
"Being a vertically integrated textile and apparel manufacturer has given us a competitive edge in the market. We are also looking into OBM, which is the downstream of our integration line. We believe we have the capability to design, engineer, manufacture and market our apparel products in the future."
Damien brought his appreciation of new technology to the company, and is a disciple of adapting technology to refine and improve the company’s operations in both factory and office.
When he entered the industry in 2002, he designed a software platform that acts as a database for the company to keep track of orders, procurement, merchandising, manage production data and more – like a mini ERP system for the apparel manufacturing industry, he says.
He confesses that he can’t work with messy, disorganised data and information because the correct information is vital for making plans and decisions.
He purchased computers for all management staff, including the supervisor on the production floor, and encouraged them to use the software he designed to manage their jobs effectively and reduce errors caused by incorrect information.
"We have our own developed ERP web-based system that allows our employees to work anywhere to process orders, including creating sales orders, preparing purchase orders, contracts and production worksheets, capacity planning, real-time production output monitoring and calculating interim costings to final costings after shipment," he explains.
"We have a contracted programmer continuously making improvements and enhancements to the system to adopt the latest changes in process.
"Later, I looked at the production floor and introduced automation in each major and critical operation. I started to implement hanging production systems for garments to improve production flow, and I automated the spreading and cutting machines to improve the cutting room’s efficiency."
KTMG managed to maintain its production schedules during the COVID-19 pandemic through stringent safety measures, despite the myriad obstacles for its employees. It also manufactured antibacterial face masks at its manufacturing facility in Malaysia to assist the region in its fight against the pandemic.
"The health and safety of our employees is the company’s top priority," Damien says. "The company adheres to the COVID-19 guidelines and standard operating procedures as recommended by the governments of Malaysia and Cambodia, respectively, and has implemented safety precautions across our operations, such as the mandated wearing of face masks, safe-distancing measures and checking in daily with workers on their health conditions. The company has also set up a COVID-19 task force as a designated channel for employees to address their concerns on the COVID-19 guidelines and SOPs."
Due to the vagaries of the fashion industry, KTMG is vitally linked with its suppliers and end customers in a way that other industries are not. With such rapid turnaround in both products and fashion lines, all three in the supply chain must be closely connected to forestall any events that might impede design, production and shipment.
"We communicate constantly with our suppliers and partners, as we are in a very fast-paced industry and we need to respond to all kinds of changes at the same pace. I meet my major suppliers and partners face to face everywhere every few months to exchange ideas and feedback. This helps to create more streamlined and effective supply chains, and ensures everyone in our business is on the same page. I am always looking for a trustworthy partner that can share the same goals and values in business; for example, our relationship with Econ Nano Technology (Suzhou) – our textile chemical supplier in China, which provided us with great support in setting up our textile mill in Malaysia."
Despite the rapid growth of the company in two countries, the now much larger KTMG still enjoys a close and collaborative relationship with all its employees, who can use their localised knowledge to advise on how to improve production efficiencies or provide better service to clients. It’s all part of Damien’s philosophy of practical improvement in competitiveness at every level of the company.
"We have a family-oriented culture in KTMG," he suggests. "We’ve cultivated a sense of mutual understanding, respect and cooperation in our workspace, and we give employees the freedom to share their ideas and opinions. Everyone shares a common set of core values, which is to do things the right way with the least amount of time and cost. We like to be practical, and this is the way we are able to stay competitive in this industry."
While the fashion industry constantly requires a close eye on the immediate future, Damien has a longer-term vision for securing the company’s ongoing growth, including further expansion into new markets and regions, and enhancing its vertical integration. That, he says, will safeguard its position in a volatile global market.
"My greatest strength is that I’m a visionary leader type," he says. "I always ensure the vision becomes reality by setting up a clear goal, then supporting it with a strategic plan and empowering our people to execute the plan step by step and drive it to completion."
That leadership style was cemented in his earliest days at school, with the old story of the rabbit and the tortoise, as told by his teacher. "‘Even though you aren’t the fastest, you can still succeed with determination.’ This is what I learned in my first class at primary school," Damien recalls. Determination has served him well in the days since.
"Expanding the family-owned business to a publicly listed company is a stressful journey. It’s stressful in the way that I have to expand it thoughtfully and I cannot fail. However, I am very happy to see the achievement of KTMG today, and I tell myself this is not the end of it, but the beginning. We must keep evolving to stay competitive in this industry."
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