Employees of Podium, Bangkok, Thailand, handcraft quality tables made from American Black Walnut.
Podium Furniture, Thailand: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”
Bangkok, Thailand – Good quality and design are descriptions easily bandied about by furniture manufacturers these days; not least in Southeast Asia where differentiation is sometimes hard to achieve, especially among so many OEM producers. But there is simply no other way to describe the furniture made by Podium Holding Group Co. Ltd. in its plant outside Bangkok.
In 1982, Charit Mauleekulphairoj set up his small OEM business to make Teak furniture for the Thai domestic market in a plant near Chonburi, a couple of hours from Bangkok. This included assisting construction companies and architects by supplying interiors for five star hotels in Thailand. He then took a step-by-step approach and in 1987 started exporting dining sets to the U.S., largely by subcontracting out manufacturing for exports. In 1990 he built its first 6,000-square-meter factory. When cutting restrictions on Thai Teak curtailed his business development he turned to Rubberwood, which is grown extensively in plantations in Thailand. But in 1994 he looked to the U.S. for hardwood material – starting with Cottonwood as an alternative. He also produced door parts and later cabinet frames for the Japanese market. Looking back, he says he “tried many American hardwood species such as Hackberry and Sycamore” and those species he regarded as cheap material for furniture parts. One dares to suggest that alone put Mauleekulphairoj way ahead of his peers, many of whom have still not ventured out with such trials.
Pictured is a chair in production made of American Ash.
Today Podium, with a 40,000-square-meter plant and capacity to employ up to 800 people, is a significant user of American Alder, Ash, Oak, Walnut and Cherry, as well as some European Beech, directly importing 6 – 10 containers a month of hardwood and the occasional container of softwood. But sales are no longer directed to the U.S. market, with 70 percent destined for Japan and only 10 percent to the EU and Southeast Asia and 5 percent to the U.S. For 20 years Podium has developed its connections with, and understanding of the market in Japan, one of the most discerning in the world. Anyone visiting the annual Thai International Furniture Fair (TIFF) would notice the proliferation of Scandinavian inspired furniture on offer in Japanese sizes and with Japanese ergonomics at the fore. Japanese retailers and investors have long favored the Thai furniture industry and Podium is not unusual for that. What is clear however is the degree to which cooperation between Podium and its Japanese advisers has resulted in such success with 60 percent OEM and 40 percent OBM.
“Japan pushes innovation,” said Mauleekulphairoj, “and we cooperate very closely on technical issues, because they really understand the character of wood as well as the way to design and finish wood. We are always looking to move up in the market and looking for something new.” Podium works extremely closely with Japanese, and sometimes with Italian and Thai, designers and now employs one Japanese designer in its Bangkok office – the only foreigner in a workforce of 550 employees. A showroom in Bangkok also caters for Podium’s domestic sales, whereas all exports are still controlled in Chonburi.
As with most high-end producers, Podium is also a substantial user of veneers, which are sourced far and wide, but always with Japanese tastes, color selection and quality requirements in mind. The use of American hardwoods is partly due to the Japanese liking for such species as Hard Maple, White Oak, Ash and Black Walnut and it also reflects the Scandinavian look for unstained furniture that these species suit. Talking about the next TIFF 2014 at which Podium will extend its ‘Curio 2013’ brand range, the company says it will continue with its “Scandinavian design for the Japanese market.” Finishing is also a key to the Podium look, by having the flexibility to use polyurethane, oil or water based and wax finishes according to individual market requirements, always depending on the customer. All Podium furniture is guaranteed 10 years without conditions and that links directly to Mauleekulphairoj’s views on the environment – specifically that minimalist high quality furniture lasts and avoids the need for rejection and waste after only a few years.
Pictured is Charit Mauleekulphairoj, owner of Podium.
“Podium is confident that the production of durable furniture is the best means to conserve the environment by using less forest resources and delay the disposal of old furniture,” according to a company spokesman.
On the use of local tropical species Mauleekulphairoj said, “I hate people who cut the rain forest and exploit poor people who live in the rain forest, so I banned using tropical rain forest wood. We do not use any – not one piece from places like Cambodia and Laos.” Rubberwood, of course is a plantation by-product for which Podium has over a dozen, mainly Thai community, plantation suppliers; but in recent years the price has been rising to as much as US$500 per cubic meter, which is worrying the company. Now it is looking for other species to replace its need for 250 cubic meters monthly. In the U.S., Podium can “talk to the right people and evaluate our needs, so we can also keep a small material stock and rely on our regular suppliers.” Likewise the company keeps very little finished furniture stock as everything is made to order and shipped out. Podium believes it used to be the only manufacturer at the annual TIFF showing American hardwood furniture, but now there are lots, they say. “But our success comes from what we know,” said Mauleekulphairoj, adding that “we start on Saturday mornings with meetings to disseminate all we know.” The company works a 6-day week with 8-hour shifts and “time and a half” paid for any overtime in excess of that. It is proud of its low labor turnover, a key factor in retaining its skill base.
To the final question of the company’s secret for success, Mauleekulphairoj replied, “We don’t work for owners or shareholders because we are independent.” He explains his transparent approach, in which the plant is open for all to see how to work with American timbers, which he describes in Podium’s brochure as “clean wood from economically well-managed forests in North America.”
This is one angle of the expansive Podium furniture plant, located in Chonburi, Thailand.
Visits are regularly made by many Japanese technical advisors and good suppliers. He believes that a quality factory like Podium is the best showroom to be checked and approved by buyers because it has a good management team, remarkable workmanship and long-experienced staff. For those unable to make it to Chonburi, Podium’s new showroom at the Chapya Park Hotel in Bangkok would be a good stop to look at some of the finest contemporary furniture made in Thailand from American hardwoods.