The God of Quality

EZ caught up with Tumi Holdings, Inc’s Senior Vice President and Managing Director of Asia Pacific, Tom Nelson, when he was in Penang for the official opening of the brand’s first flagship boutique in the luxury lifestyle mall, Gurney Paragon.

In a world where the jet-setting elite are not only growing in numbers but also in sophistication and discernment, the need for excellent travel gear has generated a lucrative industry. With many brands vying for the attention of the well-heeled traveller, there is one brand that has been revolutionising the way people travel.

Taking its name from a Peruvian god, Tumi is a world-renowned brand that began almost 40 years ago, built around the basic philosophy of creating products that make people’s lives easier. The 1980s saw Tumi’s innovation – the soft, super functional, black-on-black ballistic nylon travel bags – captivate the consumers and sow the seeds for an astronomical growth. The last two decades has witnessed Tumi’s conquering of the luxury travel segment and leading the trail with its superior quality luggage, business cases, handbags, small leather goods, executive accessories, electronics, gifts, pens and watches. That the brand holds 25 patents for its design and engineering developments is no coincidence nor is being recognised as the brand with the best products in the travel and business categories.

While in the past, Malaysians could only purchase Tumi products in the brand’s flagship boutiques overseas, the last couple of years have seen a marked increase in the brand’s presence as Tumi sets up its boutiques in Malaysia. With four boutiques in Kuala Lumpur and one in Johor, Valiram Group which exclusively manages and operates Tumi in Malaysia brought the brand to Penang in October 2013. EZ caught up with Tumi Holdings, Inc’s Senior Vice President and Managing Director of Asia Pacific, Tom Nelson, when he was in Penang for the official opening of the brand’s first flagship boutique in the luxury lifestyle mall, Gurney Paragon.

As the SVP and MD of Asia Pacific, Nelson’s job covers a wide region. ‘I am responsible for the Asia Pacific region, which extends from India in the west, down to Australia and New Zealand in the South Pacific, all the way up to Northern Asia, China, Japan and then, actually, up to Hawaii. And so, that sort of is the market in the region of Asia Pacific, and I am responsible for the sales, business development, and marketing of the brand,’ explained Nelson on his role.

Nelson was seen totting a Tumi backpack, which he says has been with him for over a decade. He regards the brand and its products with great respect, something that tells us he would still be a fan of Tumi if he was not working for the company. ‘I have worked for a number of premium, high-end consumer goods brands over the course of my career, and I knew about Tumi well before I was with the company. When I was asked to meet in an interview with the company executive, I was very interested because I deeply respected Tumi,’ confessed Nelson.

‘One of the wonderful qualities about Tumi is that we appeal to clienteles we like to refer to as global citizens and these are discerning consumers who appreciate the Tumi difference and who are successful in their careers; men and women, who have a very fast-paced career who in many cases fly frequently. And so we find that the end users are truly global consumers, not just travelling but living everything. In Malaysia, just like other countries in Asia and around the world we find that Tumi began with the global citizen,’ he said, shining the light on one of the main factors that has made the brand such a success.

‘Tumi is essentially comprised of five founding characteristics and I’ll name them for you. They’re excellence in design, functional superiority, technical innovation, outstanding world-class quality and world-class customer service. Those five founding principles have always been with us within this company and this brand, and I was interested in them. On top of it, throughout my career and life, I have a passion for travel, and a portion of Tumi’s business and heritage is in travelling, so that’s very much something that appealed to me as well.’

It is the travel part of Tumi along with its continual development of good performance products that draw Nelson. Born and raised in West Virginia, US, Nelson professed to having the wanderlust even when he was a young boy. His family, he said, travelled together, often. ‘My mother in particular; she has a deep-seated love of travel, and so she would often get us out on the road,’ he related. ‘We travelled quite a bit and that’s what I think, created a thirst that I have and I still haven’t really satisfied for getting out and being in the world.’

Tumi is essentially comprised of five founding characteristics and I’ll name them for you. They’re excellence in design, functional superiority, technical innovation, outstanding world-class quality and world-class customer service.

With his job taking him around the world, Nelson has spent a wonderful 14 years with the company, which he says is quite hard to believe that it has been that long. ‘I have spent most of my 14 years either travelling to and from the US, but in the last four years I’ve actually been based in Asia, in Hong Kong,’ he answered when asked where he is based. ‘I’ve actually lived in many different places, and the great thing about that is when you live somewhere, you really get to know the city. I thought I knew Hong Kong during all the times I’ve travelled there; you really don’t know the place until you’ve lived there.’

‘But I also like to say I’m based on an airplane,’ he joked, ‘Because I’m so often on an airplane.’ Family, he said, is another reason why he travels so much. ‘I do have a family and I am married, and my family lives in the US while I live in Hong Kong so that’s one of the reasons why I travel around so much. My family shares my love of travelling as well.’

Nelson, who was flying off to a trade show the very next day, said that cities have a sort of effect on him. One of his favourite cities is Munich, Germany. ‘I love that city for its beauty and its architecture, and so I really enjoy cities that are low-hassle, that are visually beautiful, that work well and I think that sort of reflects how I like to conduct my life. My life is complicated, but I really seek to improve it.’

It would not be too far-fetched to postulate that it is with this philosophy in life that Nelson connects most with the company he works for, the brand of which he has chosen to represent. Tumi, at its core, strives to make people’s lives easier, just as how Nelson seeks to improve his complicated life. Tellingly, Nelson attributes the most rewarding aspect of his job to a very tangible experience – seeing people carry Tumi products. ‘It really is the key, the acceptance around the world of the brand and the execution of the Tumi difference. When I’m travelling around and I see other people carrying our brand, it feels very rewarding to me because it shows that we have a product that people appreciate.’

One of the very most exciting aspects of working with Tumi is also getting to work with hardworking people ‘who have such great passion for a good brand, because they recognise the authenticity of the brand’ said Nelson. According to him, Tumi is a very creative organization that is placed on the high end of entrepreneurship, making it an ideal workplace for Nelson.

‘We’re a recent public-listed company and you see the impact of your decisions straightaway. It’s not like you have to go through layers of management to see your decisions get implemented. You can make a decision today and see it implemented tomorrow. Sometimes that’s really the passion and creativity of entrepreneurship.’ Perhaps it is with these intrinsic qualities that Tumi, and its key personnels such as Nelson that have made possible for Tumi to have carved a name – a very respectable one at that – as the premier brand of high quality and luxury travel and business gear.

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