Of sex and durians: The Malaysian family business that became the world’s largest condom maker

Of sex and durians: The Malaysian family business that became the world’s largest condom maker

Goh Miah Kiat, CEO of Malaysian-listed Karex, talks about injecting more pleasure into the business of sexual protection, on the interview programme Power List Asia.

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5 billion condoms – that’s how many rolled off the factory lines last year of the Malaysian family business that is the world’s largest condom maker. Read more about Karex and its 39-year-old CEO.

MALAYSIA: His multi-million-dollar business is built around sex and pleasure, and Mr Goh Miah Kiat must constantly think of way to get people to buy and use his company’s prophylactics. 

He’ll rattle on about the appeal of various types of condoms - ranging from the durian-spiked to the tattoo-inspired.

Yet when it comes to explaining to his daughter what he does for a living, the 39-year-old can be as flustered as any dad faced with that birds-and-bees talk.

“You know, people tell me I can put on a straight face talking about condoms. But when it comes to a morning when the daughter comes and asks you, ‘Pa what are you doing?’, I hide under my blanket and say, ‘that’s your mum’s job’,” he said, laughing.

Asked jokingly if his four children are a result of “product deficiency”, he quips back: “No, I call that succession planning.”

Mr Goh is the chief executive of Malaysian company Karex - which, it might surprise many to learn, is the world’s largest condom manufacturer.

One in every five condoms in the world’s supply comes out of its factories, and it includes those made for well-known brands such as Durex.

One in every five condoms in the world’s supply comes from Karex's plants.

Headquartered in Port Klang, some 25 minutes’ drive southwest of Kuala Lumpur, the company churned out about 5 billion condoms last year, and made US$77 million (S$106m) in revenue in 2016.

But Karex started out modestly as a family business dealing in rubber processing.  And in an interview with Power List Asia, Mr Goh talked about how the condom-making business “almost did not happen”. (Watch the full episode here.)

The company’s near-bust-to-boom story has been one of constant reinvention.

FROM NEAR-BUST TO BOOM

Mr Goh’s grandfather started a rubber-processing factory which became successful. But amid the mid-1980s global commodities crash, the business ran into trouble.

So in 1988, they changed tack. “We had two ideas - we had our first condom machine and we wanted to go into gloves as well,” said Mr Goh. But the second machine eventually ended up being converted for condom-making as well.

The first few years were particularly rocky, as they were new to the industry with zero track record. He said:

In fact, we nearly went bust. We owed rental for over a year and we couldn’t pay for it. We were almost on the brink of selling the only machine we had.

Mr Goh himself joined the business in 1999 after graduation. It had not been his father’s intention for him to do so.

But after his dad died unexpectedly during his second year at university in Sydney, he said: “My aunt and uncles told me, ‘you should come back because we need help’. So I came back (after graduation) and I was tasked to sort of manage the whole sales and marketing division.”

Karex was then chalking up about RM$7m (S$2.2m) in sales. Sixteen years later, that’s grown exponentially to RM$350m.

Mr Goh was 36 when he took over the reins as CEO in 2013. That same year, the company was listed.

MORE THAN A CONTRACEPTIVE

Karex now has factories in Malaysia and Thailand. In its nondescript factory in Port Klang, machines run 24 hours a day to meet the burgeoning demand for condoms.

While the bulk of the condoms are sold to brands, governments and non-government organisations, in the last two years Karex has made five acquisitions - including of the United States condom brand ONE, known for its hip packaging that appeals to a younger market profile.

Mr Goh thinks the demand for condoms will continue to boom, as half of the world’s population of 7.5 billion is under the age of 25. “There will be a lot more people who will be sexually active,” he said.

And while he might joke about talking to his children on the subject, he does think youth sex education is a serious matter – albeit a “sensitive” one, he acknowledges. Indeed, with ONE, Karex is specifically targeting the youth market.

WATCH: 3 things to know (2:34)


“As a father… you don’t want (your kids) to grow any older,” he said. But it’s about ensuring protection. “It’s like I always tell people, if you have a swimming pool at home, you can’t just tell your kids, ‘you can’t jump in there’. You just got to teach them how to swim.”

2016’s Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the year in Malaysia notes that over the decades, the prophylactics industry has gone from one that focused primarily on safety against disease and family planning, to being “pleasure-driven” these days.

Our challenge is that a lot of men always come to tell me, why use a condom? But my job is to make condom use better than actually having sex without the condom

He added: “The whole idea is mainly to make a condom that feels nothing down there.”  Which is why they are researching new materials such as hydrogels, where the condom “becomes like your contact lens”.

And to make them more appealing and (in more than one sense) palatable, the company does R&D into flavoured, textured and unusually-shaped condoms.

“A lot more money has to be spent on innovation. And that’s probably one of the key successes for Karex,” he said.

The current repertoire includes glow-in-the-dark condoms, tattoo-inspired textured ones - and even durian-flavoured, studded ones.

Oh yes, the ‘spikes’ are there and it is one of our best-selling products. There are people who like it.

“The next thing I am trying to work out is a nasi lemak flavoured condom. In Malaysia, the first thing we wake up in the morning, we talk about our nasi lemak. So I suppose it is something that will unite us all,” he said.

HALF OF CONDOM BUYERS ARE WOMEN

What Mr Goh also finds significant is that almost half of the condoms around the world are bought not by men, but women.

Which is why they have designed for this target audience a metallic condom case that discretely resembles a box for mints.

“For a woman to have a packet of condoms dropping from her handbag might look very ugly,” he explained.

The company has even ventured into made-to-measure, custom-fit condoms.

Some 5 billion condoms rolled off its production lines in 2016.

Mr Goh recounted how one condom expert told him that condoms are designed for only 20 per cent of the population; the condom world has liked to maintain the myth that one size fits all.

“It probably fits, but the question is - is there comfort in it?” he said.

With its acquisition of UK company TheyFit, Karex’s customers can now print out a measuring device online, measure the length and girth of their penis, and order the right-sized condom.

“We used to walk into a jeans shop as Asians and there are these American brands that are super long and you need to get it tailored before you can wear it.

“How nice it would be to walk into a shop, buy jeans that fit you at the right length - and that’s how condoms can be,” he said.

Click here to watch this and other episodes of Power List Asia. 

Source: CNA/yv

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