Swedish protective gloves business in Kuala Lumpur

Soft Touch AB is a leading brand and producer particularly of work gloves for the international market. STIL Services Malaysia Sdn. Bhd. (STIL) is the group’s Kuala Lumpur-based entity, where also the Swedish CEO Michael Cederkvist is based.

From Malaysia STIL conducts product and business development, quality assurance and logistics for the production in Asia and also training and back office services for the headquarters in Gothenburg Sweden.

STIL also obtained so called MSC Malaysia status about four years ago, which is an initiative by the Malaysian government to accelerate the growth of the Digital Economy in the country.

CEO Michael Cederkvist of Soft Touch AB in Sweden, and STIL Services Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Joakim Persson

Two years off

This business’ presence in Southeast Asia goes back to 2004.

“When we moved here I already had companies in China, Hong Kong and Pakistan, so I was already established in Asia. But we chose Malaysia because of a combination of English being spoken, good food and affordability. We only planned to be away for two years and wanted to make those as good as they could possibly be. And Malaysia also had good schools for our children and location-wise it was close to get to many other places in Asia,” explains Michael in Kuala Lumpur.

The main reason for the move was actually that he and his wife had decided to change their successful but fast-paced and overworked lifestyle back in Sweden.

“It was our way to escape reality and do something else. So we came here to set up something that could add value to the company but also for the family.”

And that move has clearly proven to be successful, as they remain in Kuala Lumpur 15 years later. Only thing is that while they stayed on for their two children’s educations not to be disrupted, their son and daughter eventually moved to England for university education and work.

Looking back, Michael says: “After the two first years I could show that it was not only about diversion and having fun to be here. My job was to source for the company in Sweden. I had travelled a lot to find producers, initially from Sweden to China, doing networking and relationship-building. But a knowledge transfer project together with SIDA changed everything into being much more for real.”

Pakistan the big push

In the end of the 1990s Michael had visited a manufacturer of dress gloves in Pakistan, who had shown interest in producing also protective gloves. So he had started sourcing from there, as one of the pioneers on the market.

“But the big push for growth came around 2007, when I got the offer to run a programme financed from SIDA and Nutek with the goal to move production from China to Pakistan. I thought relatively early that China had had its time as manufacturing country and wanted to move to a country I believed in for the production of gloves.”

“My task there was to assist producers of gloves to become more industrially savvy and make it more lean, and also produce working gloves in large quantities – it’s a big difference for example in manufacturing 100 skiing gloves in one day, than 15000 working gloves; an entirely different production – and being the volume I represent.”

“What’s good with Pakistan is that it has a supply of skilled craftsmen producing gloves. They are also very good at leather and the work understanding is there thanks to dress gloves actually,” explains Michael and adds: “Those buying from Pakistan are relatively few because it is dangerous to operate there; people are scared of that country. That also contributes to giving us much attention when we come up with smart product development.”

Soft Touch’s final report on the successful project concluded that it created about 2,000 jobs.

Michael who has been in this niche business sector since he was twenty two years old uses the word “nerdy”, but recognises that he has developed a lot of know-how for product development and innovation throughout all the years

“One thing one knows is how to talk when it comes to product development, and then things happen very fast and it’s very easy.”

He demonstrates this by showing examples of basic idea sketching, which, combined with communication with the established Pakistan manufacturers, quickly can progress new ideas and models into new products.

For innovation in terms of materials they look at what comes out within leisure and sports; in particular things like mountain biking and climbing.

“We work with synthetic leather materials but there are various characteristics and we prefer materials that can breathe. We build gloves with membranes and various functions. So a lot has happened; what we today call working gloves are gloves with so many more functions compared to some years ago. We also do models in pure leather – which is an art form. You get some pretty cool things. Today gloves resemble the hand much more, so, looking back, a lot has happened and I think we have contributed as well to the innovation,” he says modestly.

Linkedin success

Michael has built up a reputation of being an authority on innovation within protective gloves, much thanks to branding via his personal Linkedin – where he has reached 21500 followers to date. He says this really took off around 2016 and today it is the most important tool for the continued expansion of the business.

“It’s a bit funny: I was quite early with Linkedin and by starting to publish articles with the confidence of being the best in the world, it led to people seeing me as a different person than I’m in fact am! Sometimes I get invited to speak about innovation and gloves and how the future looks within personal safety. That would never happen had I not written those articles.”

A marketing team member writes the posts – published three times weekly. In Kuala Lumpur they also produce the photographs and commercials that are published online.

“We’re now building and expanding a base with customers where we sell private brand. We can see which market is opening up for us, where we are seeing how we can penetrative via Linkedin etc. We write everything in English.We are at the beginning of an entirely new journey, I believe.”

“These days I get queries that almost scare me. We are constantly working with projects also with an American connection and are working hard on getting a break-through in the US,” he adds.

In Sweden Soft Touch sells 15000 gloves per day, plus another 1.5 million annually for private brands.

In 2018 an agreement was landed with the Dutch company KRAMP Groep BV, in launching a whole line of new work gloves in all EU countries represented

“We estimate that sales can be about 1 million pairs of gloves per year within the EU.”

“Should things develop as we are hoping for the whole world will open up. Then who knows what will happen!”

MSC status

In Kuala Lumpur, as one of nearly 3000 companies with MSC Status, Michael’s company has permission to employ up to 50 Swedes and other foreigners.

“We use it to do services for Sweden from here; so we deal with queries and customers – with a sales team based in Sweden”

Provisioners of services such as Global Business Services or Knowledge Process Outsourcing can apply for certain incentive tiers and get tax exemption, based on fulfilling various criteria.

“It is my wife Anki Cederkvist who strongly contributed to us getting it – she had the patience and stimulation required to go through the lengthy application and approval process which is far from always straightforward.”

Once obtaining it one can only be based in certain MSC-approved offices, where STIL chose a building near KL Sentral, with views of the Kuala Lumpur city skyline.

“After being here for fifteen years we consider ourselves permanently based in KL and call Malaysia, as well as Sweden, our home country.”

About Joakim Persson

Freelance business and lifestyle photojournalist

View all posts by Joakim Persson

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