Stanley Thai: making a billion from rubber gloves

Malaysian entrepreneur Stanley Thai first spotted an opportunity in latex in 1987. He made his first million by the age of 29, and booming demand thanks to Covid-19 has boosted his fortune.

Rubber gloves have proved “a quiet cash cow” of the pandemic, says The Sunday Times. That’s great news for Malaysia – the country makes around two-thirds of the world’s latex gloves – and for Stanley Thai in particular. His company, Supermax, has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the boom. The company’s shares have risen “by more than 12 times this year on surging demand for gloves”, noted The Edge Markets in December. Thai himself has joined the ranks of the country’s billionaires. 

A dark cloud is lifted

Profiting from a pandemic might not be to everyone’s taste, but it has proved a lifesaver for Malaysia’s rubber-gloves industry, “which was previously marred by an industry oversupply and thinning profit margins”, says The Star (Malaysia). Last year also marked quite a comeback for Thai, 59, who hit a personal low in 2017 when he was sentenced to five years in jail for insider trading – making history as the first Malaysian to be handed down a custodial sentence for the crime. Thai managed to stay out of prison while he appealed his conviction, which related to suspicious trades in APLI, a Supermax associate company, in 2007. After a long legal battle, it was quashed as unsafe in September last year.  

“Money is just an instrument,” Thai remarked in 2011. “There are certain things that it cannot buy, such as experience, trust, reliability and brand.” In that context, his acquittal removes a dark cloud from an otherwise inspiring story. Born one of 14 children in Batu Pahat, Johor, Thai grew up in a household where “money was scarce”, says The Edge Markets. Convinced education would lead to a better life, he headed for Canada – then “the cheapest destination for students” – to study for a business degree at the University of Windsor, Ontario. 

Returning to Asia in 1982, Thai honed his trading skills in the textile division of an international trading company before branching out on his own in 1987 – having spotted an opportunity to trade latex gloves. Starting out with the “minimum paid-up capital of RM2”, Thai worked 16- to 18-hour days to build the business, assisted by just his wife and a secretary. He tackled the sector’s low margins by majoring on high-volume deals using “interest rate and currency arbitrage” to juice profits, said Forbes. By the time he was 29, he’d made his first million. 

A latex heavyweight

Thai, a father of three, enjoys wearing Prada and Versace suits, but has always kept a beady eye on finances. “I feel heartsick if I spend too much because it is hard-earned money.” His first instinct is to reinvest. That led to an early move into manufacturing that secured Supermax’s status as a latex heavyweight at home and abroad. It floated on the Bursa Malaysia in 2003 and now has multiple overseas distribution centres and churns out around 26 billion pairs of gloves a year, says The Star. One reason for its big jump in fortunes this year is that its “vertically integrated” supply chain consistently beats rivals on margins. 

For Thai, it’s all about control. “Everything you do comes with risks,” which “I believe… can be measured, calculated and controlled,” he once observed. “They may seem scary, but when you really examine them, you find that you have nothing to lose.” He might well look back on the Covid-19 era as vindication of the theory. 

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