Kem Nghia

The master nail nipper grinder behind renowned ‘Made in Vietnam’ brand Kem Nghia explains his path from street stall to stock exchange.
Words by Ed Weinberg, translation by Francis Xavier and Kim Chen-Garel, photo by Alexandre Garel

 

“It’s a coincidence.”


Nguyen Minh Tuan, the 51-year-old chairman of Kem Nghia and master ‘nipper grinder’, explains the start of one of the world’s leading brands of nail nippers. As if it’s a path anyone could follow.


After the war, it was difficult to get work in Vietnam. Tuan resorted to manual labour and had inconsistent employment. Wanting to help him out, his sister brought him into the salon she worked at, to sharpen the nippers people took in. He’d done some metalwork in the past, but nothing as specialised as this. But he did it well. And the demand was there, finally, for something he could do.


A few months later he was working in the District 5 shop where he learned his trade, with the man he still refers to as his master. He’d found his calling.

 

On the Straight and Narrow


After a visit to a workshop in District 11, he saw how business should be conducted, “with tables, nice uniforms, secretaries, a cocktail on the side”. He was nearing a year in his District 5 apprenticeship when he took a job in District 1 — where real money was being made.


In District 1, he learned the business from the inside. They didn’t only grind nippers, but also stocked various salon and beauty products. And they sold something arguably more valuable than convenience and selection — good customer service and trust.


Tuan took these traits with him when he struck out on his own, operating a street stall near his former place of employment. Starting with an investment of just US$200, for the first few years things were tight. Then, in 1992, he incorporated, and all hell broke loose.

 

Cutting Edge


Tuan has his progress as neatly categorised as his regional branding — “blue appeals to westerners”, I’m told of the export-only brand Omi’s departure from Kem Nghia lime green. He charts Kem Nghia’s evolution in 10-year phases. The first 10 years he spent building his skills. Now it was 1992, and it was time to do something with them.


Nghia Saigon began production on nail nippers that corrected the basic failings of most Vietnamese models — they were sharp, and stayed that way. So convinced was Tuan of his offering’s superiority, he did something unheard of in Vietnam at the time, offering a no-hassle return policy.
He also made other clever moves, such as placing an early emphasis on branding. The branding was based on his nickname, Nghia, which translates to ‘meaningful’. Instead of the standard plastic clamshell packaging, he packaged his nippers in a resealable box, so people could check the action before buying. The nippers themselves carried the brand name, and the packaging carried some confidence-instilling English, although the reassuring word was an ironic one, ‘budget’.


As the brand began its steady climb to its current 80 percent domestic market share, a few lucky things occurred. One was not so fortuitous in wider terms, but still a boon for the young brand — the rising awareness of HIV/AIDS, which motivated people to invest in their own personal pair of nippers. The other was a textbook case of ‘right place, right time’.


World Beaters


At this time, another Vietnamese phenomenon was happening in the nail world, one which led to the current 30 percent of Kem Nghia’s sales deriving from the international market. In the US, the Viet Kieu had taken over the nail trade, and from 1994 they started returning to Vietnam, where Kem Nghia had already gained a reputation.


The nippers were quality and cost about one-tenth of the going rate for the salon standard-issue used in the US. Vietnamese-Americans loaded up their suitcases with Kem Nghia nippers, reselling them and flooding the American market, which Kem Nghia only formally entered in 2006.
These days, they have big plans for the future. The present 10-year plan is devoted to the international market, and they’ve done their research. Poland will be their entry into the European market, and they won’t use the colour yellow in their branding there — it’s a sign of cheapness. “It’s like trying to promote wealth in Asia without using red,” one of my translators tells me.


And, as Kem Nghia stays true to its mission — reinvesting in new technology, local training and up-to-date factories — it wears its ‘Made in Vietnam’ status proudly, as something people look for when they buy nail products. Like the nails that Kem Nghia nippers make presentable, their birthplace also benefits from their precise quality.


They say nails are a good indicator as to how a person takes care of himself, and Tuan’s are immaculate. As the interview comes to a close, our photographer asks about Tuan’s long pinkie nail, an outlier among his other short fingernails. Tuan tells him that sometimes you have an itch you just can’t scratch, and it’s good to have one fingernail that can reach it.

 


Nippers v. Clippers

A nail ‘nipper’ is a sharp, scissor-like tool used to cut back cuticles in preparation for a manicure or pedicure. It looks like something out of a medieval torture toolkit, and can also be used to precisely cut through thick toenails.
A nail ‘clipper’ is the normal levered cheapie boys use to keep their nails in check. It relies on force to do its cutting, and as such doesn’t need to be kept so sharp.

 

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