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When Michael Chan was given the job of promoting a brand of high quality paper to the local printing trade, he thought he might as well be trying to sell refrigerators to the Eskimos.
Quality paper was relatively high-priced at the time, and as such was often rejected by printers. Undeterred, he visited hundreds of printers and designers and managed to carve out a niche market for quality paper in Hong Kong.
That was 28 years ago. Today, Mr Chan is the proud owner of Polytrade Paper Corporation, a leader in recycled and environmentally friendly paper as well as quality paper for corporate identities and corporate stationery.
He explained that initially, none of the printers were interested in using quality paper. They suggested that he try his luck with designers, because they were the ones who influenced clients'decisions on what paper to use.
"One of the designers that I visited pulled out a pile of different quality paper that he had bought overseas and suggested that I import such paper myself. He said designers are always looking for quality paper, and it was a niche market waiting to be filled," Mr Chan said.
After conducting market research and enquiring about designers needs, his due-diligence persuaded him to open Polytrade Paper Corporation Limited in 1977.
Mr Chan entered the printing industry straight out of high school, working as a clerk in a printing material supplier. He quickly learned the basics of the industry and was hungry to broaden his knowledge. He found a job with a European paper retailer in Hong Kong, which over the years allowed him to work in different departments, from shipping to accounting to stock control and then customer service.
This experience gave me the chance to understand and learn the fundamental operations of a company. At the time, I believed that the knowledge and experience I gained would some day allow me to open my own paper business," he said.
That chance came 10 years after he joined the company. He was assigned to the sales department to promote a European brand of high quality paper.
"Back in those days printers rarely used quality paper unless they were specifically instructed to do so by their client," he said. "I really didn't know where to start. Looking back, I was lucky that I came across that designer who suggested I import the paper myself."
He contacted Gilbert Paper Mill in the United States, which was a little surprised as Mr Chan was then their first overseas customer. Polytrade still sells Gilbert paper and its co-op brand are still one among the company's most popular brands today.
Mr Chan scraped together his savings, and borrowed from family and friends to get enough money to rent a small shop in Lyndhurst Terrace, Central and soon after received his first shipment from Gilbert Mills.
An immediate problem that he faced was cutting the large sheets of bulk paper originally for the U.S. market into sizes suitable for Hong Kong customers who used British sizes.
"I remember that I had to do a lot of calculations to minimize any waste during the cutting process, so as to control cost and raise the competitiveness of products," he said. "Money was so tight in those days that I had to carry those big sheets myself to a cutting company to cut the paper to the right sizes. Those were very hard times."
By the mid-80s, the business started to take off and Mr Chan expanded from a one-man band, into a four-person SME. "Two of the original staff are still working for me today," he said.
Over the years, Polytrade Paper carved out a niche for itself supplying quality paper and became a pioneer in the recycled and environmentally friendly paper market.
The concept of environmentally friendly paper and recycled paper was virtually unknown in Hong Kong in the 1980s.
"We tried to introduce the concept of environmentally friendly paper through seminars and green groups , but at that time people couldn't see the point in using recycled paper," he said. "Gradually, people started to use it more and more, and we have become probably the leading authority on environmentally friendly paper in Hong Kong."
The misconception that environmentally friendly paper is more expensive than regular paper was the biggest problem that he had to clarify. Today, many paper mills have incorporated recycled paper into their production.
Moreover, people are making a point to ask printers to use environmentally friendly paper and are asking for documentation to back up claims of its recycled contents.
"Recycled paper does not mean it has to be a high price. What we are providing is high grade environmentally friendly paper, so people should compare the paper quality," he said.
"With so many companies aiming to project an image of caring for the environment, I think demand for environmentally friendly paper will grow, which is good for the environment and good for businesses," he said.
Company: Polytrade Paper Corporation Limited
Business: Suppliers of environmentally friendly paper
Year joined HKGCC: 1996
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