It all started with a glow-in-the-dark condom and a spontaneous trip to Tioman Island – well, that’s the condensed version of the story behind the partnership between Karex Bhd, the world’s largest manufacturer of male latex condoms, and Global Protection Corp, the parent company of ONE Condoms.
An aim to increase condom usage (a mere five per cent of the world’s male population wear them) and to make condoms the preferred method of contraception has been the shared mission of Goh Miah Kiat, CEO of Karex, and Davin Wedel, CEO of Global Protection Corp, for the past two decades.
“With our values aligned in terms of always trying to surprise and delight our customers, there’s so much opportunity for us to grow when we look at making the whole consumer experience better while using condoms,” says Goh. “That’s our motivation: to get more and more people using them. There hasn’t been anything crazy that we’ve not spoken about in the past, even on the first day when Davin arrived with his glow-in-thedark condom. It was crazy, but we made it all work.”
Looking at their respective histories, Goh and Wedel couldn’t have had more different introductions to the condom industry. Goh (who his friends and colleagues also refer to as ‘MK’) was very much born into the business, having grown up helping to pack prophylactics – not that he knew what they were as a small child – at his family’s condom factory in Klang. Following the unexpected death of his father, he found himself tasked with the responsibility of leading the sales and marketing side of the company when he was fresh out of university.
In 2013, Goh became Karex’s CEO – and today, the Malaysian public-listed company is officially classed as the world’s largest condom manufacturer, having achieved an annual manufacturing capacity of five billion condoms three years ago. To put that in perspective, one in six condoms in the world has been made by Karex – no surprise, really, when you consider that it offers 100 variants of condoms in numerous colours, textures, sizes and flavours, which might explain why the company registered a record sales high of MYR408 million last year.
Wedel, on the other hand, famously stole his first condom during his teenage years in the United States because he couldn’t deal with the embarrassment of purchasing one. Later, as a sophomore at Tufts University in Boston, he decided to answer the clarion call of then Surgeon General C Everett Koop, who was promoting the use of condoms in order to prevent the spread of HIV. This, however, was 1987, a time before the widespread discussion of contraception within mainstream culture and the anonymity of Internet shopping.
Condoms were anything but sexy. They came in cheesy packaging, had a reputation for interrupting whatever pleasure could be gained from intercourse, and most people feared being laughed at (or worse, recognised) when they were buying and carrying protection. Realising that condoms needed a serious PR boost, Wedel and a classmate launched a sexual safety campaign on campus using a condom matchbox that featured their college mascot, Jumbo the Elephant, with the slogan ‘A Safe Jumbo is a Happy Jumbo’.
The use of popular images to give condoms an attractive street cred that they’d rarely attained before sparked Wedel’s resolve that condoms could, in fact, be an acceptable part of everyday life, as well as something cool and fun. A year later, Global Protection Corp was established, and he set about creating eye-catching products such as Smiley Pops – condoms packaged to look like lollipops – and a glow-in-the-dark condom. The latter was where Karex’s can-do attitude and aptitude for innovation came in.
“I’d previously worked with Japanese, Thai, and Chinese companies, all of which tried to make the product consistently and of a high quality, but I had challenges with all three of them,” recalls Wedel. “It wouldn’t have been possible to launch a glow-in-the-dark condom successfully in a way that could be sustainable in terms of supply. I’d worked with Karex on earlier production runs, and when I gave them the task of finding a manufacturing solution, they came up with a unique method that was different to all the others and helped enormously. Since then, making the product has been a smooth ride. Karex brought innovation into the challenge and met it.”
The first time the two CEOs came face-to-face, it was in the early 2000s when Karex – and Goh’s career – was in its infancy. “I met Davin at Changi Airport in Singapore. I was very young back then when I picked him up, so I don’t know what his impression of me was.”
“I was really young too,” Wedel adds. “I was a typical backpacker. I’d visited Karex previously and met MK’s uncles as I was already purchasing a standard product, and I’d show up in shorts, flip-flops and T-shirts! I was used to travelling in Asia – I’d been doing that since high school and my college years – and the plan was that, after meeting Karex, I’d head off for an adventure with my backpack. The thing is, we had quite a bonding experience.
“MK picked me up, we went to Karex’s office and conducted our business, and then it was time for the weekend. His family told him, ‘You need to entertain our guest from America.’ He’d planned an easy visit with a nice hotel, and I immediately said, ‘No – I want to explore a jungle.’ He had to do a quick turnaround, and I didn’t realise how much manoeuvring he was doing in the background, figuring out how to make it work.”
“I’ll put the full drama into it,” Goh interjects. “It was a Hari Raya weekend and, obviously, you can’t book any hotels around that time. I don’t know how we ended up in Mersing, but we got on a ferry, and the next thing we knew, the guy on the boat was trying to sell us tickets to Tioman. We hopped on another boat in Tioman and got stuck on a neighbouring island, and I thought we’d have to sleep on the beach that night, but Davin wasn’t worried.” (“I’d be fine sleeping on the beach – I’m from Boston, y’know?” Wedel laughs in the background.)
“I did all I could – at one point, we were about to sleep in someone’s kitchen, and then someone agreed to open up a broken house that we could stay in after I’d bought straw mats for bedding. I’m still trying to get the image of the mouldy bathroom out of my head – it was pretty disgusting – but it’s a story we remember until today! If I’d known Davin was used to backpacking around the world, I would have just dropped him off at the beach and excused myself,” jokes Goh, who describes himself as a confirmed city boy.
Was that what sealed their friendship, then – overcoming obstacles together? “Definitely. When you’re 21 years old and you have to deal with that, Davin couldn’t have given me a more difficult challenge. Making a glow-in-the-dark condom would have probably been easier!” The growth of their companies along a shared timeline has led to the development of a close mutual mentorship between Goh and Wedel, underlined by a more formal business partnership between Global Protection Corp and Karex.
The creation of Global Protection Corp’s signature ONE brand, which was launched in 2004, has strengthened its bond with Karex – and, indeed, between the companies’ CEOs. Instantly recognisable for their unconventionally round foil wrappers and colourful packaging (ONE wrappers carry enormous visual appeal, featuring a vast range of designs from urban street art to Tom of Finland’s artwork), it’s now the fourth most popular condom brand in the United States and sells in excess of 40 million pieces annually.
Besides manufacturing ONE Condoms, Karex purchased a 55 per cent stake in Wedel’s company in 2014 – a share that has gradually expanded to 70 per cent – and holds exclusive distribution rights in SouthEast Asia, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, North Africa, the Middle East, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea. “Next year, he’ll be a 100 per cent subsidiary, and Davin will be part of the Karex Group as well,” says Goh. “We’ve worked very well together, and what he’s brought to the table is a lot of crazy branding ideas – and that’s always a proposition that Karex has been wanting to grow.”
JOHNNY BE GOOD
“MK and I share an entrepreneurial approach to always challenge the status quo,” Wedel expounds. “If there’s a problem or challenge, we find new solutions and use innovative thinking to solve it. We’re constantly trying to find gaps within the industry, and how we can use innovation and technology to create products that address consumer needs. Let’s take fit, for example. If a customer goes into a drugstore and buys three different condoms from three different brands, it’s very likely that those products are actually very similar in size. The number one complaint about condoms is that they don’t fit and are uncomfortable.
“To address this, our myONE product line has 66 sizes, so customers can get a condom that is ideal for their penis size. Again, as far as having a manufacturing partner goes, MK and Karex have been so supportive of a concept as challenging as manufacturing and marketing bespoke condoms. As you can imagine, making small runs of multiple sizes is no easy task – there’s a reason why many companies aren’t doing this. Since this introduction, we’ve received hundreds of stories about how much of a difference myONE has made in customers’ lives. We’re going to expand on what we’ve learnt from advertising and marketing in the United States, so we can do the same here and move into Asia.”
“I always call Davin a true-blue entrepreneur and, sometimes, a ‘condompreneur’ as well!” Goh smiles.
“Growing up, I’ve come to consider him as a big brother – I’ve learnt so much from him. He’s this guy from Boston who started off selling condoms in his final year in university, and went on to build a wonderful brand. One thing he did was to break social norms: if there’s any status quo, he’s the first person who’s going to break it. I can still recall sitting in the middle of a factory while Davin sketched out his crazy idea for ONE condoms – and you know what? It was crazy enough that I said yes.”
When asked about the dynamics of their working relationship, though, Goh points firmly towards the balanced, equal nature of the partnership. “I believe that the days of having a ‘master’ training an ‘apprentice’ are long gone. Today’s successful business relationships all rely on mutual mentorship to be successful, regardless of title, age or gender. The most important aspects that are key to this would be to ensure that the mentoring is cross-generational, crossfunctional (inter-departmental, new hires and longterm employees) and even cross-industry. We have so much to gain from each other; all we have to do is break down barriers by accepting that the most impactful learning happens by connecting with people.”
For Wedel, it’s all about that natural fit – one that feels as effortless and enjoyable as one of their bespoke condoms. “A successful working relationship in a mentor-mentee dynamic is one where people challenge each other, and are always open to new ideas and ways of thinking. I’ve had a lot of wild ideas throughout the years, and Karex has helped develop those ideas into reality from a manufacturing and regulatory standpoint. ONE Condoms is a rebel brand, with a spirit of constant innovation. We’re always tinkering with the latest technologies to make the experience of wearing ONE feel incredible, and using popular culture to spark conversations about safer sex.
“Through our partnership with Karex, we’re also continuing to make ONE a global brand that inspires safer sex around the world.” As a parting question, I ask them what special-edition ONE flavour they’re planning to release in 2020 (they’ve already produced nasi lemak, durian, teh tarik, and rendang-flavoured condoms in previous years). “We were just talking about it this week in Boston!” Wedel exclaims. “We’re trying to imagine what the next round of flavours might be.”
“We’ll keep you in suspense for now,” Goh says mysteriously. “Very soon, you’ll know.”