Many people dream of turning their hobby into a career so that they can share their experience and make money from doing what they love. That is exactly what Whelan Leung decided to do in 1991 with four like-minded friends when they established Protrek, a hiking and outdoor clothing and equipment specialist.
Leung said when he used to work at an accountancy firm, every Saturday morning he would bring his backpack to work so that he could head straight for the outdoors after work. He and his four friends used to be instructors for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme, now known as the Hong Kong Award for Young People (AYP), and would often hear people lamenting about the difficulty they had finding quality outdoor clothing in Hong Kong.
“The idea seemed like a no-brainer as there was a shortage of such shops back then. However, we were always mindful of the saying: ‘to open a shop is easy, but keeping it going is an art,’ which was one of our biggest concerns,” explained Leung.
Since opening his initial store, Protrek has expanded to 11 stores, and also manages a HAGLÖFS brand store. It also sells to department stores, sporting goods chains, outdoor retailers, bike shops and even chiropractic clinics. Leung said the business has grown steadily for more than two decades because of Protrek’s business philosophy.
“The turning point for the business, perhaps the outdoor industry too, was around the time of SARS. At that time, people became much more conscious about their health and considered they needed to do more exercise. As Hong Kong has its constraints with regards to limited sports facilities, a lot more people took up hiking,” he explained. “This created more opportunities for us to grow, but at the same time brought in more competitors.”
More brands are vying for customers in stores and shopping malls, but Leung said despite the fierce competition, he is against competing through price, as at the end of the day it is not sustainable.
Sustainable business, sustainable planet
Leung said the company’s philosophy of running a sustainable outdoors supplies business is a win-win situation for his business, employees, customers and the environment. Protrek keeps a close eye on labour welfare issues and environmental standards of its suppliers. Over 80% of the brands it carries are certified for quality, durability and environmental sustainability. During staff training session, Leung and his partners speak about the importance of being environmentally-friendly.
“Our imported brands are mainly from Europe, where the outdoor clothing and equipment industries are sophisticated. Corporate social responsibility in business is also very advanced. For instance, Europeans would not buy a down jacket that was not traceable,” he explained.
In Hong Kong, Leung admitted that some customers preferred low prices over sustainable products so take their business elsewhere. However, after years of education, the company has won over a significant number of sports and outdoor enthusiasts who are concerned about the environment.
Building customer trust and confidence is crucial for success in any business, so it is essential that staff understand what they are selling to customers, how it is used and its limitations. To let his staff have first-hand experience of their gear, the company organizes overseas skiing, hiking, camping and ice climbing trips. “It is very important for our frontline staff to be able to share their travel experience with customers, even if they are just exchanging advice and chatting,” he said.
Leung said one of the greatest challenges for his business is human resources management. “Building a happy work environment is essential to avoid a high staff turnover, which is why during the appraisal period I spend a lot of time talking and listening to staff face-to-face. Staff want to be respected and this truly motivates them. We also need to step into our older staff’s shoes and think how we can support them more,” he said.
Leung explained one policy change that was very welcomed by staff was its “caring time-off programme”, which enables staff to take half a day off from work to accompany family members to visit the doctor or even spend time with the family for dim sum. He also wants staff to learn more about the industry, so every year brings some senior staff to visit outdoor exhibitions in Germany to learn about new trends, materials and technologies.
“I think staff appreciate the philosophy that we employ in helping them understand our business and industry more, and of course our concern and efforts to protect the environment, which should be on everyone’s agenda,” he said.
Protrek Holdings (Hong Kong) Co Ltd
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