After years of first-hand experience with mechanical and fire protection, Seung I. Oh recognized a need for flexible piping solution for water and gas distribution, which led him to found Kofulso in South Korea in the fall of 1989. One of Oh’s most serious concerns, given violent movement within buildings associated with earthquakes, was fire outbreak. Existing sprinkler systems that used conventional methods within buildings often failed to perform during seismic events.
Flexible Sprinkler Drop had recently been invented and introduced in Japan. These flexible connections would allow movement during seismic events without disrupting the structure and function of sprinkler system. Kofulso, as one of the key pioneers, began production and distribution. The company’s initial mission was to address ongoing seismic events and its devastating effects in the region that had been a threat for decades.
In the past two decades Kofulso has become a prominent leader in manufacturing flexible stainless steel piping products. The company has made significant progress in supplying to Asia and Europe, and noted that demand in the U.S. market was growing rapidly as well. In response to that growth, Kofulso realized it was crucial to be located closer to its U.S. customers for fast delivery, customer service and technical support. In addition, in order to truly establish long-term relationships with customers, Kofulso believed that having a physical presence in the U.S. was needed. This led to the launch of Easyflex in 2005 — a brand that brings Kofulso’s solid expertise and record to the U.S. market.
Easyflex vice president Taek Chong and sales & customer relations manager Tommy Shinn recently were interviewed by editorial director Mary Jo Martin — and shared information about the company’s practices and products, and what is ahead.
MJM: Have you had to do anything differently with Easyflex than with the way you operate Kofulso; does the U.S. market and distribution channel differ from that in overseas markets?
Chong: Kofulso’s primary role is manufacturing, research and development. Easyflex, on the other hand, is the sole distributor and the representing arm for the American market — this includes South, Central and North America. Its services include sales, distribution, warehousing, transportation, compliances and product support.
The U.S. market is remarkably unique. First, distribution is complex with various types of business and distribution models. Often there are distribution network in place that preclude sales to others. Second, sales methodology is diverse. For example, we have independent sales representatives who bring years of valuable experience and relationships with customers. They are knowledgeable of local codes and regulations. They know the likes and dislikes of customers and consumers. For this reason we highly value our partnerships with representatives and believe is key to our success. Lastly, the industry culture is highly conservative and often exclusive. Companies and people tend to adhere to what is familiar and reluctant to change. This is why we spend a great deal of effort in not only in marketing venues such as trade shows and advertisements, but also in cultivating relationships and trust in the community.
MJM: Describe the range of products you offer in the U.S. market?
Shinn: Our expertise is in manufacturing flexible stainless steel products within the fire protection, plumbing, HVAC and renewable energy industries. The products include flexible sprinkler drop, gas connector, water connector, water CSST, solar CSST and other related products.
MJM: Would you share some specifics on your manufacturing facilities, including size, shifts, capacity, etc.?
Shinn: We have two main manufacturing facilities, one in Incheon, Korea, and the other in Shanghai, China. Both locations have a combined over 250,000 square feet under roof. We currently stock about $20 million in inventory, primarily stainless steel and brass pipe, valves and fittings. About 150 employees operate 16 machineries, including proprietary heat treatment furnaces, and process over 3 million feet of material per month per shift. Additional shift and machinery is executed per need basis, yielding over 10 million feet per month.
It should be noted that Easyflex, located in Southern California, possesses its own 30,000-square-feet warehouse and carries more than 3,500 SKUs across all product categories. Here, once again, we check for product integrity, quantity and identification. Custom assembly, labeling and packaging are performed. Orders are received, and they typically ship within one or two days. Will calls are also available if desired. We understand businesses today operate under a tight timeline and budget. This is why we are dedicated to accommodation and service.
MJM: And please talk about the three-step testing process that all of your product goes through at the factory?
Shinn: We have always regarded quality to be our highest priority, and will always remain committed to that. Every technician and personnel working in the plants must first undergo training and certification courses. Their knowledge and skills are then carefully evaluated by floor supervisors for proficiency. Only after successfully completing entire preparatory program do they step into the production lines.
Our production and quality control consist of 12 checkpoints including material inspection, forming, swaging, precision-cutting, heat treatment and impact tests. Lot management, guided by Active Preventative Program, consists of identification, dating and tracing mechanisms. Upon production, each and every product is tested for leaks — three times. This is critical since we cannot afford any leakage of flammable material such as natural gas which can lead to devastating consequences.
It should also be noted that our manufacturing facilities are certified and approved by the International Organization for Standardization, or ISO, thereby affirming our highest of production practices and standards. They are also continuously inspected by independent testing agencies UL, FM, LPCB, CSA and IAPMO.
MJM: Who are some of the people in your sales and management teams here in the U.S. — especially those who are recognizable to our wholesaler readers?
Chong: Our CEO Seung Oh spends majority of his time at the headquarters in South Korea. Easyflex management consists of me as vice president and Hun Kim, General Manger. Our Advisory Board is chaired by Bill Sallee, and our Sales, Marketing and Customer Relations are led by Tommy Shinn.
MJM: Talk about your CSST product and what makes it so unique?
Chong: CSST, or Corrugated Stainless Steel Tube, is a pipe made of stainless steel. The corrugations, or folds, allow the tube to be flexible manually. It is also very light in weight. In comparison to conventional rigid pipe, these characteristics of CSST make it much more attractive in terms of handling, installation and simplicity.
MJM: What are some of the benefits of CSST?
Chong: Let us mention the remarkable properties of stainless steel alloy itself. It is highly resistant to corrosion in atmospheric and water environments, including most acidic, alkaline, and chlorine bearing solutions; it resists scaling and retains strength at high temperatures; it is highly biostatic and thus hygienic; strength to weight ratio is excellent. Now combine these values of stainless steel and make it flexible. The result is a product that, in many ways, is superior over conventional rigid pipe for gas and water distribution.
MJM: There seems to be more widespread acceptance of CSST — why do you think that is?
Chong: Given the significant benefits mentioned previously, contractors and consumers alike are increasingly becoming receptive to the use of CSST.
MJM: Describe its various uses and applications?
Shinn: Our products are used mainly for gas and water distribution across various industries. For fire protection, the Flexible Sprinkler Drop provides flexible connection between the branch line and sprinkler head. For plumbing, Gas and Water Connectors supply gas and water for residential and commercial appliances; Water/Solar CSST for general plumbing, heat exchanger, and solar thermal systems; Braided Supply Connectors for fixtures.
MJM: What are some of the newest products you’ll be launching?
Chong: Next year we will be introducing Commercial Gas Connectors for the food service and Gas CSST for residential gas distribution. But this is only the beginning. Current applications of CSST are still very much limited, and we envision a considerable potential. I will tell you that we have a few classified projects in progress, and once complete, they will be nothing short of astonishing. We expect it to be so revolutionary that the industry itself will experience complete transformation.
MJM: Do you involve customers’ suggestions/ideas when developing new products?
Chong: It is not surprising that for any business of any industry, a company cannot exist without its customers. They are the reason why we are here and are the driving force towards success. So we make every effort, top to bottom, from executives to interns, to listen and absorb their concerns and suggestions. Quite simply, what good is a product if customers have no use for it?
MJM: Describe the efforts you’ve made in branding and marketing your product in the U.S.?
Shinn: We have had advertisements in various publications including The Wholesaler, FPC and Home Power. We attend major national and local trade shows like the AHR, NHS, PHCC, and NFPA. We regularly host exciting drawing contests and participate in customer appreciation events. We understand, however, the key is in the relationships — not only with our customers, but also with our sales representatives, government agencies, contractors and consumers. This is not a transient event but rather an ongoing process that takes real time and effort.
MJM: Describe how important your relationships with wholesalers are to Easyflex’s business, and the steps that you take to develop, maintain and strengthen those relationships?
Shinn: In the recent years, our industry and its people have experienced one of the most challenging economic times in history. In hopes to stay afloat, many had to implement drastic changes in the ways they do business. Some made painful budget cuts and reduced inventory. As such, we understand each of our customers has unique circumstances, and we spend significant resources on serving their individual needs. Each and every customer is assigned, in addition to the outside sales representative, a sales manager who carefully oversees all their activities. This means that all incoming orders are verified, product support provided, and special requests accommodated by the sales manager. We believe this kind of continuity and care to our customers is a crucial and necessary component of strengthening relationships.
MJM: Talk about the commitment that Easyflex and its parent feel toward their role in the U.S. market?
Chong: We are committed to superior product and service. We are committed to new ideas. We are committed to the highest ethical and moral standards. It is our vision to be the leader in this industry by providing real and flexible solutions to the market’s need.
For additional information, visit www.easyflexusa.com.