Kai Thybro Nielsen – the Man with many lives

To a Dane the word “marskandiser” signals old junk, knick-knack and second hand items but Kai’s showroom in KL is much more than that. It is atmosphere, period furniture, antiques, Danish design, Royal Porcelain and a bit of knick-knack… and you can always get a cup of coffee and a good story when Kai is around. Not least about Kai’s many experiences in life and the people he has met during the years.

Kai Thybro Nielsen has more or less been a furniture man all his life starting with an apprenticeship in furniture from Denmark but it probably wasn’t written in his cards that he would travel the world with various jobs in various industries.

Being curious and longing for traveling and adventure, Kai got his first overseas posting immediately after finishing a business education at Niels Brock in Copenhagen.

 

Furniture and design
“As a 23 year old, I first time worked overseas in a job arranged by EAC. I had a couple of interesting and educating years as boss for a British furniture factory in Ibadan in Nigeria”, Kai thinks back.

The next couple of years Kai lived in Denmark working with interior design for C. Danel. “It was during these years that I got to know world famous furniture designers such as Børge Mogensen and Kjærholm”… and no doubt, that marked an important point in Kai’s love for furniture and design. Strangely enough however, the next many years Kai would spend without working with furniture. First he had a short stint in Congo as factory manager for the bed manufacturer Dux in the 60’s followed by a position as Trade Officer for the Danish Ministry of Trade in the Philippines. Next he spent 4 ½ years in Denmark as Sales & Marketing Director for Carmen Curlers until they were sold to the American company Clairol Inc. and he didn’t want to move to New York and this sent him into he traveling industry.

 

The travel industry
“At some point when I was Sales & Marketing Director for Tjæreborg Rejser / Sterling Airways we had too many middle and short distance planes, some 40 Caravel’s if I remember correctly, but needed long distance planes for the new transatlantic routes… so what to do with the Caravels? Well, on a suggestion from a colleague we started a charter company in the Philippines and the “Priest” sent me to start it up. I managed to get a good contract which permitted me to do other things”, Kai says who then amongst others got back into furniture with a rattan furniture project in Cebu, Philippines.

 

Balut — a game or…?
Talking about the Philippines and Manilla, many Danes in SEA may know Kai through the International Balut Federation as an active player but did you know that Kai was one of the early founders of the game itself back in the mid 60’s?

“I used to meet up with a couple of buddies in a bar near all the girlie bars at the Emita district in Manilla and at that time kids would come round trying to sell us duck’s eggs almost ripe as these apparently were good for “masculinity”. They were called “balut” and the function appropriate for the area where the world’s oldest profession was thriving”, Kai laughs.

“After a trip back to Denmark I was introduced to a dice game and we started playing but I couldn’t quite remember the game so we made our own score system and later called it Balut. It was ever so convenient when you were calling a buddy to join for balut because nobody would know whether you went for the one type of balut or the other”, and a big grin on Kai’s face to let us wonder how those evenings ended.

It was only later that the more formalized organization of Balut started… in Thailand. Now most Danes working in SEA at least know about the dice game.

Designer wood in Penang
Kai’s good times in Manila in the 70’s ended rather abrupt with a car accident that kept him in bed for 8 months but a man with Kai’s appetite on life is difficult to stop… and next life started in Penang, Malaysia. Here Kai partnered with W.O. Gruth and bought a wood and furniture factory near bankruptcy.

During his 15 years on Penang Kai amongst others developed a method to use rubber trees in furniture production, partnered with famous designers from Dansk Design, Rosenthal, Kosta Boda, Georg Jensen and many more to develop wooden design products, expanded the factory to 500 employees and had export to 55 countries. By now in his mid 50’s Kai was wondering whether to return to Denmark… or maybe somewhere else.

 

Birth of Marskandiser
“After checking a few Danish auction houses I realized that I could buy designer and period furniture in Denmark cheaper than cost so I quickly filled a container. I arranged all the furniture in a house I had rented for 1 month in KL… and sold everything in one weekend!”, says Kai who then realized that here was a potential market.

“At some point I rented up to 6 apartments as showroom in KL until I got the bungalow 10 years ago where our showroom and workshop is still based on Jalan Ampang. Over the years we’ve had our ups and downs but have expanded quite a bit in the last couple of years. We still have a strong following of well-off locals, interior designers and of course a few foreigners. We also let furniture and decorative items to photo shoots and film productions… rather a lot actually”, says Kai who has never stopped being an entrepreneur.

Current projects include modern furniture designers such as Rud Thygesen, Hanne Stephensen and Trine Boisen who provides designs while Kai develops the furniture together with local craftsmen… and then he finds the customers. So far sales for these products are headed for Japan, Denmark and US.

Despite being 70 Kai’s life still seem extremely active with a travel schedule and activities that could make younger people tired. In fact, Kai has recently been to Florida to help his son open a showroom called ‘dkVOUGE’, probably the largest collection of Danish design furniture in the US!
But he is fast to praise his staff at Marskandiser Sdn Bhd. “Sometimes I’m away for weeks, even months, and things are always running smoothly. My next big goal however, is to find somebody to take over the shop and learn all the tricks while I’m still around. None of my 5 kids (living in 4 different countries) will take it up so I’m looking for somebody with a keen interest in furniture, willingness to learn, a bit of capital… and probably a white face as our local customers like to be served by a foreigner”, Kai says about one of his next big projects. However, don’t ever think you’ve heard the last from this man… he always has something new, somewhere, up his sleeve and his current life may not be his last!

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