Tanned and personable, Coway Malaysia’s managing director Kyle Choi doesn’t look like a corporate head. With those square shoulders and winning smile, he might have been better suited to a lifestyle brand or, perhaps, a fashion and retail business, especially bearing in mind his chosen attire for the day — a well-cut dark blue suit and a crisp white shirt with the top button undone just enough to reveal some silver jewellery.
The Seoul-born leader is charming if not a little reserved, although we are putting that down to language — it is a huge accomplishment to handle an interview in a language that isn’t your native tongue, let alone crack jokes in it. But whatever he may lack in small talk or witty repartee, Choi more than makes up for in preparedness and a razor-sharp focus on the company’s mission in Malaysia: creating a healthy and convenient living environment through innovation. Considering that the number of Coway subscribers has grown tenfold since he became managing director eight years ago, we would say it’s a job well done. “It’s luck,” he smiles modestly.
A South Korean white goods manufacturer founded in 1989, Coway debuted its now-famous rental business in 1998, which put its award-winning products — limited to water and air purifiers at the time — in many households that might not otherwise have been able to afford it. Possibly taking inspiration from the thousands of women who power Tupperware’s and Avon’s home sales, the company established a team of professional women who would visit customers’ houses for product maintenance. Called Cody, a portmanteau of Coway Lady, the occupation is recognised by the Ministry of Human Resources in South Korea. Also unique is Coway’s B2C (business-to-consumer) business model, which circumvents the need for a retail middleman that could dilute the brand’s message.
Coway entered the Malaysian market in 2006, by which time it had perfected its business model and product line-up to include sophisticated and innovative home essentials that are as beautiful as they are functional — Coway’s products have won a slew of international accolades including the Red Dot Design Award, iF Product Design Award and iDEA Award. Today, its local subscriber base stands at two million, with half that number achieved in the last three years alone.
The pandemic has much to do with this — as more people spent more time at home, they were also willing to channel more time and effort into making it as comfortable as possible. Coincidentally, Coway was also in the news a lot more than usual as the company had stepped up to support frontliners at the start of the pandemic, when the supply of masks was still inadequate, and continued to do so in the subsequent months. “Our staff use masks regularly and have been doing so since before the pandemic,” Choi says in his charmingly accented English. “We were happy to donate what we had to the police force, which was the start of how we supported the community during the pandemic.”
That initial donation of 100,000 masks to Polis Diraja Malaysia soon snowballed into a concerted effort to support the community, underscoring Coway’s commitment to provide best-life solutions. One of the earliest multinational corporations to leap into action at the start of the pandemic last year, Coway also gave away 10,000 sanitisation kits to GrabFood riders and customers, 300 air purifiers to 38 public hospitals designated to treat Covid-19 patients, RM300,000 to the Ministry of Health’s Covid-19 fund and provided disinfection services in public spaces such as residential areas, schools, police stations and government offices.
“Our business is very human-driven — our products are for humans and our services are carried out by humans. When the pandemic hit, we saw how people were suffering, through our own Coway family. We kept thinking about how we could help. There were many ideas from the weekly meetings with the heads of divisions, and that’s how we planned our efforts to help the community. This was very much a local initiative because in South Korea, things were not as bad as they were here. But Coway’s head office was very supportive of our efforts,” says Choi.
With additional support from its headquarters, Coway Malaysia stepped up its relief work in 2021 based on current needs — 101 air purifiers were donated to the Klang Valley’s four mega vaccination centres, and another six to well-being spaces set up at Hospital Tengku Ampuan Rahimah, Klang, and Hospital Kuala Lumpur to help ease the burnout faced by healthcare workers. Responding to the needs of low-income earners who were so strapped for cash they couldn’t afford daily essentials, Coway donated RM400,000 to Mercy Malaysia’s Food Aid Programme, benefitting 3,600 families from vulnerable communities.
“We got very positive feedback from customers and our own staff, which was very encouraging to us,” Choi says. “As a company, we always think about how we can contribute to the communities we are in and try to improve their quality of life. What we did during the pandemic is just part of that.”
In between all this, Coway continued with its existing corporate social responsibility initiatives, established well before the pandemic. For example, for every ticket sold for the company’s annual Coway Run, the company contributed RM10 to its Happy Water Project, which aims to provide access to clean and safe water for Orang Asli communities in need nationwide. The run also channelled RM200,000 to three NGOs — EcoKnights, Mercy Malaysia and Reef Check Malaysia — after runners across the country collectively exceeded the national goal of 250,000km. In honour of World Children’s Day, air and water purifiers made their way to the three Ronald McDonald Houses (RMH) located at UKM Hospital and Tunku Azizah Hospital in KL, and USM Hospital in Kubang Kerian, Kelantan.
All of Coway’s community support initiatives sit under an over-arching CSR umbrella, We Stand As One. “This is a campaign that we want to dedicate to every Malaysian, from healthcare personnel to everyday heroes,” Choi says. “It seeks to highlight our support for the public during the current challenges. Many people have been impacted by the pandemic and it continues to have a significant impact on the well-being, health and finances of individuals. That is why we believe it is important to highlight the power of coming together as a community, as we are in this fight to overcome the challenges resulting from the pandemic.
“The We Stand As One campaign is just one part of Coway’s long-term CSR framework in Malaysia; we plan to continue introducing even more far-reaching initiatives to strengthen the health of the nation as a whole, reaching out to those in need and helping to provide a better and happier life,” he adds. “We continually work together with our partners to sustain our CSR efforts, maintain consistency and at the same time ensure we make a positive impact on society as a whole. We believe that change is the result of consistent efforts by all parties.”
Despite this systematic approach to its CSR activities, Coway Malaysia hasn’t been very scrupulous in measuring its impact in terms of ringgit and sen — not altogether a bad thing, because the true value of altrisum lies not in its ROI, or return on investment. “Numerically, we don’t know the effects,” Choi admits. “But other corporations did reach out to us when they heard about our activities. We were invited to speak at a regional virtual conference in Jakarta organised by a group of South Korean companies — and that also resulted in a lot of acknowledgement of the CSR work we have done. But we didn’t do it for those reasons; so many people needed help and we simply responded to that. We believe that a simple act of giving can result in life-changing impacts. We hope to encourage and inspire more communities, and this can be done through our own employees being involved and engaged every step of the way through the CSR activities.”
He pauses before continuing, looking away thoughtfully from his neatly printed set of notes. “But I do think it’s important for a particular company to do CSR work that is related to the business it is in. It helps our business, of course, but it’s also something everyone in the company has knowledge about. This is why Coway believes strongly in promoting clean air and water — less polluted air and water help us because our products don’t have to work so hard and we can become a more sustainable business in the long run. Aligning Coway’s CSR philosophy with its vision and mission is hugely important. By doing so, we are creating a sustainable ecosystem right from the company to the products and the community at large.”
In the last three years, Coway Malaysia has seen such rapid growth that it currently contributes to 80% of its sales outside of South Korea. Not only did the company’s products appeal to local sensibilities, but its subscriber model also did. Codys made their way into multiple homes across the nation, providing employment opportunities for many women — some of whom are single parents — who could then take charge of their families’ finances. “We managed to secure one million subscribers from 2006 to 2019. Between then 2019 and now, we doubled that,” Choi says proudly. “We enjoyed record growth this year.”
While it is true the work-from-home crowd has much to do with this achievement, Coway has also given customers a lot more options to consider, product-wise. Apart from water and air purifiers, it recently introduced mattresses and hands-free bidets as part of its home care segment. It also managed to identify a unique way to sell products to customers even when staff could not make it to individual customers’ homes — working through the Codys. “There was no chance for in-home sales or services during the lockdown and the sales records were zero, so we had to get creative. Our Codys would reach out to customers to arrange the next possible service appointment, and while doing so, would tell them about new products. During our sanitisation services, we did the same thing — sales while fogging,” he chuckles.
Building on its success, Coway has long-term plans for its local operations. While manufacturing remains in South Korea, it has established a research team in Malaysia and plans to create symbiotic collaborations with universities that allow the company to tap the potential of local graduates. This will then feed its expansion plans — new products, ideas and innovations. “If something can increase the quality of life, we will do it. This is what guides our growth and expansion strategy,” Choi says. “We will also continue with our subscription model, because it really works!”
This brings us to the question of competitors — or in Coway’s case, a lack thereof, owing to its innovative business model. Choi looks at things a little differently. “Our competitors are not other product manufacturers, but other utilities that fight for space in our customers’ purses,” he correctly observes. “When customers do their monthly budgeting, what are their priorities and how can we make our products part of their priority list? To do this, we must continue to emphasise our services. We must continue to innovate and when we have a new product, we must able to share it with our subscribers — they have access to what we can achieve straightaway, and they already believe in what we do.”
An auditor with KPMG before joining Coway 18 years ago, Choi spent time managing and growing the business in China, Thailand and the US before coming to Malaysia in 2013. He is still young, and to have clocked up so many years with a single employer is testimony to the values the company upholds. Choi smiles. “When you coach a team, you look at the players and if there is a weak player, you keep coaching and keep caring for them. The care and professionalism practised in Coway are what I like most about the company. It is why I have stayed.”
This article first appeared on Dec 13, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.