Q&A with Primer CEO Jimmy Thai on Business Model Innovation

Jimmy Thai is the CEO of the Primer Group of Companies. Embarking on his path with a modest buy-and-sell enterprise in 1985, Primer has since evolved into a powerhouse, boasting a portfolio of 150 premium consumer and travel brands spanning diverse sectors like outdoor, travel, footwear, fashion, action sports, wellness, and urban lifestyle. Included in their repertoire are notable brands such as The Travel Club, Bratpack, Res|Toe|Run, and Recreational Outdoor eXchange (R.O.X.). 

With a global footprint of over 350 stores across numerous countries, the group’s influence extends even further as they have ventured into environmentally-conscious industrial solutions. A master innovator recipient  for business model innovation of the 3rd Mansmith Innovation Awards, Jimmy Thai graciously shares the trajectory of their transformation from local distributorship to international brand ownership, a transformation exemplified by the strategic acquisition of renowned global brands such as Poler Outdoors, Sledgers, Flight1, World Traveller, and Freewaters.

Q1: Can you describe the pivotal moment that prompted the shift from local importing and distribution to a global brand strategy? Which came first – changing the vision of your group of companies or acquiring global brands for worldwide release?

A1: Our vision materialized in gradual phases, with each step interconnected. Initially, our journey began with a singular focus – marketing a global luggage brand exclusively in the Philippines. Our primary aim at that point was to excel as the foremost local distribution partner for this principal brand.

As with any entrepreneurial venture, our dreams and ambitions have naturally evolved over time. The emergence of globalization and retail liberalization in the Philippines has prompted us to contemplate both the challenges and opportunities of moving up the value chain. Gradually, we are sowing the seeds, starting in the Southeast Asian region, where we are replicating our successful model from the Philippines. This endeavor is aimed at establishing our own ecosystem of retail concepts and portfolio of brands across the region, poised to bolster a robust lifestyle specific retail and distribution network.

Through our extensive industry network, we stumbled upon opportunities to acquire foreign and global brands, transforming us into proprietors rather than mere retailers. This shift allowed us to expand our role to encompass product development, sourcing, and the global promotion of these brands.

Q2: Transitioning to a global brand strategy surely presented challenges. What were the major obstacles your team faced during this transformation, and how did you navigate them to successfully establish a global presence?

A2: Our transition from a local brand distributor to a global brand owner presents a significant challenge: the need for a new set of competencies and infrastructure. Our responsibilities have transcended from mere brand building and establishment of distribution channel. As brand owners, we now shoulder the responsibilities of research and development, product development, sourcing, and global business development.

To navigate this transformative journey, we adopted a hybrid strategy. We gradually build our in-house team and expertise while fostering close collaborations with various global partners to fulfill our evolving requirements.

Additionally, our collaboration with global brands, some of which we’ve partnered with for over a decade, has provided invaluable firsthand insights. These collaborations have allowed us to learn the working principles, best practices, and models from industry-leading global leaders.

Q3: Expanding globally requires robust supply chain and logistics strategies. Could you shed light on how your supply chain and logistics frameworks evolved to meet the demands of your international operations?

A3: Navigating the intricate global supply chain and logistics landscape can be quite a challenge, especially within the fashion industry where our turnaround times are significantly shorter compared to commodities. Our sector is profoundly influenced by both supply and demand dynamics, making long-term planning and forecasting nearly impossible. We also face vulnerability to global disruptions such as geopolitical conflicts, rising costs, and supply chain bottlenecks.

Nevertheless, we find ourselves fortunate to operate in an era marked by the organization and continuous innovation of the supply chain and logistics sector. Over the years, we have reaped the benefits of globalization. Governments worldwide have come together to forge economic agreements and treaties that provide incentives and facilitate the smooth movement of goods across borders.

Furthermore, our progress has been greatly accelerated by innovations within the supply chain and logistics industry. Technological advancements in logistics and value chain management have revolutionized international business, enhancing efficiency and interconnectedness.

While we have strategically invested in our supply chain capabilities, our primary approach involves collaboration with specialized experts in the field, sometimes even taking the form of joint ventures. This approach enables us to harness the rapid development and evolution of this sector, which ranks among the fastest-growing, and seamlessly apply these advancements to our operations.

Q4: Balancing standardization and consistency with local market adaptation is a delicate art. How did you manage this challenge as your company’s reach extended across different geographies?

A4: Managing a global brand necessitates a broad global perspective. While we acknowledge that we are still evolving in this arena and have ample room for improvement, several valuable lessons have emerged:

1. Recognizing the Uniqueness of Each Market: Every market presents its own blend of commonalities and idiosyncrasies. As a global brand, we strive to strike a delicate balance between maintaining a consistent brand message and strategy worldwide while also remaining responsive to the diverse local markets we serve.

2. Global Team Alignment: We are committed to consistently aligning our teams across the globe, fostering collaboration on a unified brand and business platform. Simultaneously, we actively engage in incorporating insights and feedback from the various markets in which we operate. This dual approach ensures that our brands are in a state of constant evolution and inclusivity, all while preserving the core identity and unmistakable voice that defines our brand.

Q5: The shift from a local to a global business model often necessitates organizational adjustments. Were there specific changes in your company’s structure or management approach that helped facilitate this transition?

A5: We’ve ventured into and matured within the diverse markets we operate (ASEAN markets) in through an organic, entrepreneurial approach. Throughout, we’ve remained committed to upholding the same core values and principles that underpin our business operations across these markets.

Much like any entrepreneurial endeavor, our journey commenced with a small and humble start, harnessing the mindset and spirit of a startup to drive efficiency and passion throughout our business.

We embarked on this path early on, accumulating valuable experience through years of trial and error. We collaborated with various partners and adapted our business model as needed in each market over time. The essential ingredients were patience and unwavering determination, persisting until we uncovered the right approach, the right people, and the opportune timing.

While our local teams diligently built their businesses from the ground up, we simultaneously ensured that the best practices, guidance, and resources from our headquarters were readily available for them to leverage and capitalize on.

Q6: Scaling internationally often involves strategic partnerships and alliances. Could you provide insights into the key strategic collaborations that played a pivotal role in the successful scaling of your business on a global stage?

A6: The establishment of Primer Group stands as a compelling example of the pivotal role that partnership and collaboration play in the foundation and growth of a business or organization.

At the heart of our core business model lies a bedrock of collaboration and partnership. We engage with brand principals on one end and customers on the other, forming symbiotic relationships that drive the value chain.

When forging partnerships and alliances, even across geographical boundaries, we place paramount importance on shared culture and values over solely aligning business interests. Challenges are an inherent part of any partnership, and for it to not only endure but also thrive long-term, the partners must share a deeper alignment beyond mere business considerations.


Josiah Go is the Chairman and Chief Innovation Strategist of Mansmith and Fielders Inc., offering eight innovation courses to help your company thrive. Visit www.mansmithinnovation.com to learn about contemporary innovators in the Philippines.

The search for the 4th Mansmith Innovation Awards is ongoing. Send your application/nomination here: https://bit.ly/4thMansmithInnovationAwards.

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Josiah Go features the movers and shakers of the business world and writes about marketing, strategy, innovation, execution and entrepreneurship


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