NOTHING BETTER represents Hong Kong's transformation from a manufacturing to a service economy than the way the textile industry has continued to thrive by branching out and adopting robust new business models. 'In the narrowest sense, textiles are about the weaving industry,' said Willy Lin Sun-mo, managing director of Milo's Knitwear (International) and vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Textile Council. 'But here in Hong Kong we can define the industry in a wider context, which encompasses a variety of businesses, including weaving, dyeing, garment making, sourcing and merchandising.' Seen from this perspective, Mr Lin noted, the local textiles sector had evolved with the times and continued to do well. The key has been to become more service-oriented by developing expertise in sourcing and merchandising while still investing in the machinery needed to manufacture specific products competitively. Mr Lin said that some high-quality spinning and weaving factories were still based in Hong Kong, and local companies owned about 3,000 to 4,000 computerised jacquard knitting machines. Importantly, though, Hong Kong has also become a sourcing hub. Local textile companies have made the most of their industry knowledge to become businesses specialising in design, sourcing, managing production and assuring quality for clients around the world. Their sphere of influence is not just in the mainland but elsewhere in Asia. Mr Lin's company is helping an overseas partner to set up an Asian buying office. In due course, it will handle sourcing, quality control, compliance and other day-to-day issues. As a result of such moves, the textile industry remains a major local employer, with an estimated workforce of close to 100,000 people. The textile industry also offers a stable career path, borne out by the fact that, over the past 30 years, virtually every graduate of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University's textile and merchandising related courses has landed a good job. 'That beats a lot of other professions,' Mr Lin said, adding that this success could partly be attributed to the industry's worldwide reputation for efficiency and the 'can do' attitude of the workforce. It also helped that so many people in Hong Kong understood international best practices and Asian culture, and could speak relatively good English and Putonghua. 'And because we live in a big cultural melting pot we have an excellent nose for fashion, compared with, say, our [mainland] Chinese counterparts,' he said. However, as the mainland market continues to open up, this skills gap will inevitably narrow, which means Hong Kong companies will need to remain sharp to keep their competitive edge.