How Thule came to Malaysia

Sometimes opportunities just seem to fall into your lap, but not without hard work, dedication, sacrifice and the realisation that it could just float away and never materialise. We are all guilty of lacking vision sometimes but there are some people who manage to recognise the chance of a lifetime and grab it.

For 61-year-old Wong Swue Onn, one of the founders and current Managing Director of Thule South East Asia, his failures in the past have really helped him make the company one of the biggest transportation solution providers in Malaysia. Not only has he created something that would help many Malaysians move bikes around more conveniently, he also secured a comfortable life for himself and his family.

The story of Thule’s existence in Malaysia is quite an intriguing one. With the brand being Swedish, of course it has to start with a Swedish person. Anders Nordin was the man initially responsible for introducing Thule to Malaysia, but he has a small part to play in the bigger picture. It was actually Wong who made Thule into what it is now.

“The way things are in Malaysia, we all know that a foreigner could not launch a company properly without having a Malaysian counterpart,” explained Wong. “For Nordin that person was me. We actually met at a dinner party and after chatting to him about my passion of providing transportation solutions to the masses, things seemed to speed up from there. The big break for Thule in Malaysia was actually when Proton approached us to provide roof rails for the Juara back in 2000.”

“Many other companies tendered for the contract, but we managed to win the deal through our ability to provide a quality product. The rest, as we say, was history. In 2008, the rights for Thule South East Asia was offered to me through Patrik Bernstein, my then Swedish superior.

I decided to purchase all the rights for the Thule South East Asia name so that I could permanently be in charge of the operation here and I was happy that they obliged. The second big break for Thule South East Asia was around 2011-2014, due to the increased interest in cycling in Malaysia.

“I decided to focus on providing all sorts of Thule racks for cyclists and it paid off. Because we were the first company here to provide such quality equipment, we have become a household name when it comes to bike racks. Many have tried to penetrate the market, but in the end, everybody comes back to us as we meet a great balance between value and quality,” said Wong.

Wong was also a biking enthusiast so it was easy for him to understand what the market wanted. “Although these days I enjoy my long walks with my dogs more, I have a soft spot for bicycles. Even today I keep my Scott bike in tip top condition and hang it up on the wall like it’s my pride and glory.

“I used to cycle more, but these days with my grandchildren and other responsibilities, I do not really have the chance to. But when I do, I’ll quickly grab my Scott and off I go. It’s easier to understand what customers want if you’re like them and at the time, I cycled passionately,” said the fit 61-year-old.

But it wasn’t all happy days and sunshine, because between 1990 and 1999 Wong went through a period where he was jobless and only freelancing. After leaving his job as a commodity trader with Mapro Industries he thought he would try his hand at something different.

“I left Mapro in 1987 to go into the construction industry. Things didn’t work out and I was left empty. Because I had a family, I did pretty much anything I could to provide for them. This included some freelancing work as well as dog breeding. I love dogs so at least the dog breeding part was a joy to do,” said Wong.

When we asked what the future looked like for Thule South East Asia, he explained that they are starting to focus a little bit more on another product segment, on top of their ever popular bicycle racks. “Right now we are getting a lot of interest from consumers from our luggage and bag department. We have noticed this demand and wish to make it easier for people to purchase. However, Thule is also revamping their bike racks to make them more aero profiled so that it creates less noise,” said Wong.

Before we left, we ended the interview by asking Wong the all important, niggling question: “How do you pronounce Thule”? He laughed. “It depends where you are from. In America, it is pronounced Too-lee, in Malaysia it is pronounced Thu-ley but in Sweden it is pronounced Thu-la. Because the largest market for Thule is in America, Too-lee is more commonly known worldwide.”