KSGills, which was founded in 1941, is today much stronger than it was before the coming of the computer age. Pix: Manjit keeping his father’s legacy alive as pen doctor.
When computers first started becoming popular, naysayers started predicting the impending obsolescence of physical writing instruments. KSGills Sdn Bhd, the purveyor of pens and other writing instruments, was naturally worried.
“We were quite afraid initially… people were telling us pens will not sell anymore. And we were surprised that the opposite happened,” reminiscences Muhammad Ridzuan Gill.
The company, which was founded in 1941, is today much stronger than it was before the coming of the computer age. Business is flourishing. And Since Ridzuan took over the family business from his father five years ago, the business has also ventured online – the company was renamed KSGills Online Penshop Sdn Bhd to reflect the change – and derives 20% of its sales online. Not bad for a company people once said will fail because of computers. Why it is not generating more sales online has to do with the sentimental nature of pens – pen lovers typically prefer to experience how the pen feels in the hand pre-purchase.
Ridzuan with the Van Gogh fountain pen collection
According to Ridzuan, the Malaysian pen industry is worth RM100 million a year, with luxury pens accounting for about RM70 million. The latter is KSGills’ playground, where it commands a “substantial” share and sees tremendous opportunity for growth.
An area that has huge growth potential is the corporate business. Fine pens make excellent corporate gifts and KSGills has a growing customer base comprising both government departments and corporations. This part of the business, shares Ridzuan, is steady throughout the year but gets extra busy between September and January as companies look to utilise their excess annual budgets.
Ridzuan attributed KSGills’ success in not only staying relevant but also thriving to its breadth of choice and quality of service, and the resurgence of the fountain pen.
For a long time, KSGills carried only three brands – Pelikan, Parker and Sheaffer. It subsequently added Eversharp, Pilot etc. Today, KSGills carry more than 20 brands, including the full range of Parker, Sheaffer and Lamy, its fast-moving brands. Ridzuan aims to bring in the full range of a few other brands gradually.
Ranjit makes the trip to KSGills feels like one is visiting one’s favourite uncle.
The service offered at KSGills is excellent, as visitors to its shop in Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman (including yours truly) will readily attest. Ridzuan and his brother Ranjit Gill are knowledgeable and friendly, ever ready to assist, making shopping, or even window shopping there, pleasurable. Another brother, Manjit Gill, carried on his father’s legacy as a top-notch “pen doctor”, bringing life and shine back to ailing pens.
The store’s reputation even attracted customers from abroad. “We have international customers who keep coming back. They tell us they like our warm and knowledgeable service compared to what they get in other countries,” Ridzuan says, beaming.
Resurgence of the fountain pen
Defying expectations that email and the ballpoint pen has killed it, the fountain pen has made a comeback in recent years. People are starting to appreciate the positive emotions that only the fountain pen can evoke – emotions beyond mere nostalgia of inky fingers, smudged exercise books and piles of blotting paper. Among others, the fountain pen is linked to better penmanship, writing as an art, class and prestige, and old-fashioned goodness.
“Like a pendulum, it was swung back!” says Ridzuan, adding that fountain pen users and collectors are not restricted to the older generation. “The younger generation is also starting to appreciate fountain pens, perhaps due to the influence of their parents.”
He notes that fountain pen owners do not necessarily use it for writing. Some use the fountain pen as a jewellery item, a fashion statement; or specifically for signing, not so much for writing. “Those who are serious about their signatures, or whose signatures have value, tend to go for fountain pens.”
Then there are pure collectors. Ridzuan highlights an illiterate collector who left his grandson a fortune in pens. “He did not know how to read or write but he knew how to appreciate pens. In that collection, worth easily RM2 million, are several pens 90- to 100-years-old that have never been inked. These pens are still shinny… ah the quality those days…”
Another KSGills customer has a most impressive collection of some 2,000 pieces! And he adds new pieces to the collection every month. “Mont Blanc alone, he has at least 70 pieces, and these are not normal Mont Blancs but special editions. Each day, he leaves the house with a different set – fountain, roller ball, ballpoint pens and a mechanical pencil,” shares Ridzuan.
According to Ridzuan, fountain pens appreciate well. Most fountain pens double in value every 10 years or so.
The late Mr Gill himself had a collection of some 40 pens for personal use, including a solid gold Aurora that he had bought for RM17,000 and is now worth RM70,000. “All his pens were fountain pens; he refused to use a ballpoint. He was that oldschool,” Ridzuan shares.
Viability as a family biz
Ridzuan, Ranjit and Majit are the only three of Gill’s nine children still involved in the business.
“Running a family business is very different from running a normal business. There’s lots of sentiments involved… there’s ups and downs. Thankfully, we have managed to keep the harmony all these years,” says Ridzuan, the youngest of the second-generation Gills.
The prospect of KSGills remaining a family-run business is hazy. No one in the third generation is interested as “it’s a specialist job that requires lots of passion and hard work”. The only hope left is Ridzuan’s still school-going youngest daughter but she had expressed the desire to be a doctor.
“We may have to sell the business,” says Ridzuan, adding that he does not want to work till his last days like his father, who still went round to the shop till he passed on at a ripe old age of 94. Nonetheless, at 56, Ridzuan reckons he would still have the passion and energy to go on for another 10 years at least.