How the print veteran's making his comeback

TAKING UP THE CHALLENGE: Xpress founder Fong, 60, is no stranger to failure. After an ill-fated venture to blanket Singapore and China with Internet kiosks, he's back to rejuvenate a struggling print industry. PHOTO: THE BUSINESS TIMES


    Jan 21, 2014

    How the print veteran's making his comeback

    BUSINESSMAN K. K. Fong is dreaming big again, 15 years after his ill-fated venture to blanket Singapore and China with Internet kiosks.

    This time, the boss of mainboard-listed Xpress Holdings is attempting to rejuvenate a struggling print industry battered by increasing media digitisation and lower print volumes.

    "I still want to focus on printing. I've been in it for so many years - from the day I left school until now," Mr Fong, whose less well-known name is Fong Kah Kuen, told The Business Times.

    "To find the right model is a challenge. It's a responsibility. Nobody dares to take this challenge; a lot of people will run. Maybe I'm stupid to try. But if I make it, it's the other way around."

    He said that he is planning to set up a large network of franchised retail outlets in China, offering print and graphic-design services. Xpress is targeting a global network of at least 100 of these print stores and shops by next year, from just its current Singapore flagship store in Robinson Road.

    A rights issue announced in October raised $13 million, half of which will be used for business development and expansion needs. A subsequent management reshuffle also saw CEO Fong become executive chairman.

    Apart from offering its traditional name-card printing and financial-report printing services, Mr Fong envisions his retail outlets selling customisable corporate gifts - an increasingly profitable segment - such as calendars, diaries, stationery, IT accessories, T-shirts and caps.

    The franchised outlets, which will adopt its "8 -> 8 Biz Butler" brand of service from 8am to 8pm daily, will serve as a physical presence to bring in fresh clients.

    Franchisees will make money from retail sales and providing services to smaller firms, while referring to Xpress the larger clients that they do not have the resources to handle. These clients will be stored as Xpress' profitable VIP accounts, which includes names like UBS, KPMG, Citic Securities and Marina Bay Sands.

    Next month, it will launch its China flagship store in Guangzhou Knowledge City. This will be followed by an outlet in Beijing and in Shanghai.

    "We train people on-site first. You must open all at once, so people can't copy you," he said.

    Flagship stores are at the top of a business model that Xpress is trying out. They are fully owned by Xpress and will have a full range of digital-printing equipment and on-site staff to help with most company-printing needs. They will also act as marketing showrooms for corporate gifts.

    To stand out in the print business, Xpress offers value-added services, such as creative design, marketing and event support.

    "Nobody believes a printer can do layout and design," Mr Fong said. Xpress now has about 120 designers, with about a quarter of them in Singapore.

    Offering prompt service is another way to compete. "I have the best location. We sell convenience. I can charge you triple (the price), but you can get things on the spot."

    In China, Xpress also serves its big customers with a print "department", complete with print machines and staff, within the companies themselves. It does this for General Electric, Siemens and Wilmar International, and is hoping to expand to other firms.

    Xpress' current presence in China comprises print departments within a few big multinational companies.

    Mr Bob Lim, general manager of VIP client sales and marketing, said that this serves as a barrier to entry for competitors. "For multinational companies, you need a long time to secure the deal. Once you're locked into their system, it is difficult to be out (of it), as long as you don't commit major mistakes."

    And when the procurement team of a multinational goes to another company, they contact Xpress too, he said.

    Mr Fong, at 60, is no stranger to failure. He was first declared bankrupt at 24, after a gift-voucher business he started as an undergraduate went bust.

    Penniless, he joined his family's printing business to work off his debt.

    He founded Xpress Print as a modest name-card printer in 1986, before it cornered the local market with its ability to print financial reports in a day. In 1999, the company became i-One.Net, to ride on the dotcom boom.

    But the Internet kiosks the firm touted were rendered irrelevant by developments in PC, mobile and 3G technology. The attempt to diversify its core printing business collapsed, leaving the company with debts of over $80 million.

    Mr Fong resigned from the firm in 2001, sold assets to repay debt and went on a self-imposed exile in China for several years. He returned in 2006.

    Xpress revenues have steadily fallen in the last four years, with the group making a loss of $4.6 million for its full year ended July 31, 2012. But in its financial year last year, the company bounced back with a $2.7-million full-year profit. Though revenues have been coming down, margins have held up, Mr Fong pointed out.

    And so he continues to attempt what he has done best - making a comeback.

    "For the last two years, no printer could see any target. But now, we know what we're heading for, the vision is clear," he said. "You have to finish your career with a full stop, and your full stop must be beautiful."