By CHRISTIE CHUA and PRETHIBA ESVARY
Last November, the AmBank BizCONFERENCE series drew to a close after a nationwide tour to five cities, each featuring well-known entrepreneurs with inspiring stories of challenges and success.
However, AmBank’s mission to develop small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Malaysia is far from over as the end of its series of conferences marked the beginning of a new chapter – the AmBank BizRACE.
The AmBank BizRACE is a business competition, where business owners of high potential SMEs will be provided with coaching and mentoring sessions to equip them with knowledge and methods to grow their businesses.
AmBank received almost 1,000 entries for the programme in November last year.
This endeavour to help Malaysian SMEs scale their business to the next level is supported by AmMetLife Insurance Bhd, Credit Guarantee Corporation (M) Bhd, Digi Telecommunications Sdn Bhd, Human Resources Development Fund (HRDF), and K-Pintar Sdn Bhd.
The first stage of the competition kicked off in January this year with 100 companies pitching their business plans to a panel of judges.
After two pitching sessions, 15 companies were selected to compete for the top three positions.
Leaderonomics spoke to these companies to gain some insight into their businesses and their experience in the AmBank BizRACE.
These 15 businesses could not be more diverse, but what they have in common is their drive to succeed.
Many of the finalists have said that the opportunities to network and learn from industry experts through the AmBank BizRACE have broadened their horizons, and they are now eager to use the knowledge gained to grow their companies and make them thrive in today’s challenging business environment.
A Job Thing
One of the difficulties that chief executive officer (CEO) and founder of A Job Thing Ray Teng faced when he started his restaurant business was the hiring of staff for its daily operations.
Drawing on his past experience in the technology sector, Teng decided to set up A Job Thing to ease the hiring process for businesses like his.
While other online recruitment platforms focus on hiring for executive or management positions, A Job Thing specialises in helping businesses fill non-executive positions on a large scale.
Having established a solid presence in Malaysia, the company is now set on expanding their reach to other countries in the region.
Head of business development Liaw Li Sian describes the AmBank BizRACE experience as being valuable and timely, especially now, looking at where A Job Thing currently stands in the market.
She says it has helped them to refine their value proposition and realign their business goals.
Whenever you’re preparing for a meeting with potential investors or people who could help your business, you always have to look back into your business model, re-evaluate the value proposition, and then do some refinement.
Cling film is a common product in many households. However, many people struggle with its usage. This is where Akyu, the company that prides itself on taking basic products and finding ways to innovate them, comes in.
Their touch of innovation on the traditional cling film packaging makes it much more convenient to use, and it is just one of the ways that Akyu is reinventing food packaging materials.
Akyu started off in 1996 as a small company that traded food packaging machinery, but has since ventured into producing food packaging products as well.
Managing director and founder Tony Lim is optimistic about the future – he expects to be able to export a lot of the company’s products and capture the overseas markets in the next five years.
To do this, it is necessary to go back to the basics. Tony admits that business owners tend to get too contented as time goes by, and says that they need to take a step back to look at the business as a whole.
“What I feel is that this competition gives me the opportunity, it allows me to go back and really look into the whole business,” says Tony.
Tony says that as an SME, the support provided as they progress further into the competition will be important to propel the company forward.
With the coaching and lessons given, it actually allows me to understand my people and my business better.
The Boom Beverage
Hausboom is a homegrown beverage brand that was created to fill the gap in the market for halal, carbonated beverages made with real fruit juice.
The Boom Beverage CEO and founder Azri Zahier Azmi wanted to produce a drink that not only looked and tasted premium, but was also affordable. The brand has now grown to represent more than just a beverage, as it is now also a lifestyle brand.
Having successfully exported their products to the United Kingdom (UK), Germany, Poland, Maldives, Brunei, Singapore, and China, Hausboom is looking to continue growing and further their reach globally.
Heading a young and dynamic team, Azri is determined for his company to be public listed by 2021, and has set his sights on becoming the No. 1 beverage in the world.
To do this, Azri felt that he needed to learn formally from a mentor, which is why he chose to participate in the AmBank BizRACE. He comments, “I think this is the only competition that is not offering 100% monetary rewards.”
And the non-monetary benefits of this experience have already started. Training for the competition’s 15 finalists may have just begun, but Azri is already inspired to make changes to his company.
“I’ve already had a lot of ideas on what to fix in my company. I can’t wait to go back to the office!” he says excitedly.
Tan Yong Meng’s passion for interior design and construction began when he did an internship at a medium-sized construction company prior to his first year at university.
After spending several years as a contractor, he realised that there were just too many inefficiencies within the industry such as a lack of transparency and an inefficient process of home design and renovation.
Seeing a huge opportunity in this area, Tan started BuildEasy in April 2016.
The company’s chief storyteller Ong Su Ping shares: “We are an interior design platform that connects freelance designers to home owners so both parties can work together online to design their dream home.”
Ong – who comes from a background of interior design – adds: “I’ve always felt that interior design is a form of storytelling. You are helping clients to tell a story about their space.”
Ong shares that one of the biggest challenges the company faces is ensuring everyone at BuildEasy is aligned.
“Everyone can be so busy doing their own tasks and we sometimes miss the big picture. This is where we (the management) have to work together with the team to achieve the company’s goals.”
When asked about the AmBank BizRACE competition, Ong says:
The competition is a way for us to see where we stand among other SMEs. It is also an opportunity for us to grow together with the other leaders here. The exposure and training [has been] very valuable. We are thankful that we have gotten this far, because there are many experienced and well-established companies [in the race].
To date, the company has built a presence in Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, Penang and Johor Bahru. With a mission to impact 100 million homes, they intend to expand further into Southeast Asia.
Datuk Chan Wei Hua calls the starting of IJ Pharmacy an “accident”.
He says it all began because his wife, who is a pharmacist, was rather unhappy with her previous employment – this inspired him to set up his own pharmacy business.
As someone who owns several other businesses, setting up another company seemed to be quite an easy decision.
Within four years of setting up its operations, IJ Pharmacy had evolved into a pharmacy retail chain which had 43 branches.
“Many people have come and tried, and failed in the business while we’ve been going and going in the last five years, and I hope that this continues for us in the future as well,” he says.
Datuk Chan hopes to get an initial public offering (IPO) for IJ Pharmacy within the next five years. He elaborates, “The reason for an IPO is to unlock the value of the company, and also as a testament to what we’ve done so far, and for my team, it would be the accumulation of their effort and success.”
He adds that there is no excuse to not make changes now that he knows what aspects his company needs to develop.
Peru Balan Ding came from a poor family from the interior part of Limbang, Sarawak. The managing director and CEO founded Persafe because he felt that running his own business would be the quickest way to improve his family’s standard of living.
This inadvertently opened up more job opportunities in the area. Peru says, “It brings me great satisfaction to be able to provide employment to the local community and provide good education for my children.”
He also notes that it was gratifying to see that his company was developing people and producing human capital for the state and the nation.
Priding itself as a one-stop centre for works and services, Persafe has spent the last five years investing in machinery and equipment to support its growing business divisions. Peru is keen for them to become a listed company in the future.
Peru believes that this competition will raise Persafe’s standards and give them a competitive edge. He says, “By participating in the BizRACE, we are able to gauge the level of our competitiveness as far as business growth is concerned.”
He adds that the BizRACE has given him a new understanding of competition in business, and the publicity from being a finalist – to a certain extent – will help distinguish Persafe from their competitors.
“I believe the programme will unleash our potential to grow to another level,” he states.
Linkk Busway Systems
In 2012, Linkk Busway Systems took over a mismanaged and failing company that manufactured power distribution equipment. In the first few years, their goal was to make as many sales as possible in order to survive, and their company policies reflected that.
Director and co-founder Jason Lim cites an example of human resources prioritising cost-cutting measures over the little ways to boost team morale, such as throwing the occasional celebration.
Jason admits that if he was to be perfectly honest, he chose to participate in the AmBank BizRACE without giving it too much thought.
Now that he is here, he is reminded that there is so much that he needs and sees what the entire journey has to offer. “I think the competition was an ‘aha’ moment for us. We’re in the generation where we watch a lot of YouTube clips and TED Talks, but it doesn’t really register until we’re in something like this,” Jason says.
Jason is grateful that things are going in their favour, especially for the opportunity to learn from the trainers and be in the same space as other enthusiastic business owners who are trying to deviate from the norm and strive for something bigger.
He concludes by saying, “I feel very thankful that I’m actually a part of that (the AmBank BizRACE).”
Plus Solar Systems
We consume a lot of energy in a day – from the air conditioning in our offices to charging our mobile phones. The question is, are we using all of this energy efficiently?
Enter Plus Solar, a clean energy company with a vision to transform electricity consumption patterns of users via energy generation, energy conservation and energy storage.
Executive director and co-founder Ko Chuan Zhen says: “As a one-stop service provider, we aim to transform the way people use energy, from traditional energy to a clean and sustainable energy.”
This passion for green energy came about when Ko developed a prototype of a solar energy solution in university 10 years ago. He shares: “That was the moment when I decided I want to spend the rest of my career in the energy industry.”
Together with his friends Ryan Oh Zhi Kang and Poh Tyng Huei, they started Plus Solar in 2013.
A key highlight from the AmBank BizRACE competition, Poh explains, is the experiential learning. The competition provides a good platform of networking from which they get to learn and bounce ideas off one another.
Ko adds that the seven-minute pitch they had to do during the competition – which included sharing about the company’s strengths, weaknesses and five-year plan – was a great opportunity for them to reflect on their business.
Peoplender founding CEO Kristine Ng felt that she was hitting a plateau in her previous role, and when the opportunity to explore uncharted territories came knocking on her door, she did not hesitate to grab it.
Fundaztic is the result of its founding team’s desire to be a pioneer in the Malaysian fintech industry, and is now Malaysia’s fastest rising peer-to-peer (P2P) financing platform.
In fact, Fundaztic has automated all key processes that can be carried out using technology to drive greater objectivity, ease and speed to its members.
According to Ng, the AmBank BizRACE has given them the opportunity to understand the business models of many different SMEs. But more importantly, it has allowed them to explore working relationships with the bank which could potentially benefit the SME community and investors within the country.
For Ng, continuous learning and self-improvement are crucial in helping to create the results she wants, and she hopes to leverage the resources provided and open more doors for her company.
“I think it (the competition) will definitely open up doors. I don’t know what I don’t know. These are opportunities to discover what I don’t know and to improve on what I know,” she says.
“It allows me to find more opportunities for the company, where perhaps in the past I didn’t know existed, or didn’t know how to go about it.”
Keong Chun Chieh was dissatisfied with the quality of hydrophobic coating (used on cars) available in the detailing market. He shares that the coat he applied onto his windscreen could only last for a week, and he had to keep re-applying it, which was such a waste of money and time.
Frustrated, the co-founder of IGL Coatings created a prototype – a semi-permanent hydrophobic coating – which could last for a year.
“We are a coating company that is green and can outperform competitors in terms of durability, quality and application,” he says.
IGL’s products are created with the user’s well-being in mind, followed by a desire and responsibility to protect the environment.
He adds: “We want to create products that pose no long-term health hazards to the consumer.”
To determine if they are on the right track, IGL Coatings decided to sign up for the AmBank BizRACE competition last year.
Keong shares: “We wanted to get a third party validation of how far our company can go in terms of scalability and growth.”
After undergoing several coaching and training programmes and two pitch out sessions, IGL is now among the top 15 finalists of the competition.
Keong shares: “We have received feedback regarding our growth plans and business model and it’s been helpful. It tells us that our idea is feasible.”
From a mere two-man show in 2015, the company has now grown by leaps and bounds and is represented in 46 countries!
But they don’t intend to stop there. Keong’s aspiration for the company is to be worth RM100mil within the next five to 10 years.
How many of us have been in this situation before? Something catches our interest on the internet, and we click on the little ‘enquire’ button that most websites have.
We’re eager to find out more, but days go by without a follow-up.
Chief operating officer (COO) Jeffry Chan says that in the current industry, turnaround time for attending to these enquiries is about five working days – sometimes it can even take up to 14 days!
Frustrating, isn’t it?
Seeing this gap in the market, Chan co-founded SalesCandyTM with Stanley Chee, who is also the CEO. It is a lead management software system that can route leads (or enquiries) to a salesperson within milliseconds.
He says, “We’ve done e-commerce overseas, but a business-to-business (B2B) venture requires a local presence, and we’re not that visible. These experts are able to share their knowledge about the target markets with us, which is useful in helping us penetrate those markets.”
Chan states that this is just the beginning of a long road ahead for the company, and he sees them expanding into at least six or seven countries within a span of five years.
In addition to getting an IPO, Chan hopes that a bigger company will acquire them in the future.
He concludes by saying, “I think the No. 1 takeaway is the amount of networking opportunities that AmBank BizRACE has given us, before we even reached the top 15.”
Segamat Panel Boards
“When I fly into KLIA, … it almost feels like I’m coming home,” says Peter Fitch. It comes as no surprise then, why the managing director and founder of Segamat Panel Boards chose to set up his business in Malaysia 16 years ago.
Originally specialising in high quality, thin panel medium-density fibreboard (MDF), the company enjoyed satisfying returns for a period of time.
Fitch says, “We’ve enjoyed a good business, but we need to change, otherwise we’re going to become irrelevant.”
Although forging ahead through times of change is tough, having the right team makes all the difference – and Fitch acknowledges that it is really the people that set his company apart from the rest.
The company has already developed a new product using new technology, and aspires to bring it to the market, scale it, and set up new businesses throughout Malaysia.
“Ultimately, winning is not the goal. The idea is to go through the process of looking at how other companies can reinvent themselves. So that’s where the value is, really.”
Going into the competition with this mindset, Fitch has already found the experience to be beneficial and wants to use this early stage to focus their efforts and vision. “It’s only the beginning,” he says.
Did you know that there is now a technology that enables you to purchase all your office supplies with a mere few clicks on your laptop?
We’re talking about Supplycart, of course! CEO and co-founder Jonathan Oh says: “It is an e-procurement platform for office supplies, products and services. We are a one-stop platform for offices to get everything they need for their office.”
Aside from office supplies, they supply equipment, furniture, pantry items, catering and even fresh fruit subscriptions!
Aside from the technology aspect, what sets Supplycart apart from competitors, according to Oh, is that they are reliable and trustworthy.
“We care about making your company more efficient and we want to help you save time and cost,” he says.
Getting there will warrant the company to gain more exposure. As one of the Top 15 AmBank BizRACE finalists, Oh shares: “Participating in this competition allows us to understand the SME market better. We joined it to gain more exposure to other SMEs.
We also wanted to determine whether our vision and mission are aligned to the needs of the SME market. And this information comes through conversations.
He adds: “From a business owner’s perspective, attending these trainings [as part of the competition] reminds me to look at things from an aerial view, as sometimes we can get too caught up in just doing things… The whole competition itself is an experience. It’s unlike any other competition.”
My Aone Learning
As a PhD student in Universiti Malaya many years ago, Dr Darren Gouk was dissatisfied that he had to pay up to half his monthly income in agent fees when recruiting students to tutor on a part-time basis.
“Anyone can teach, everyone can learn” is what he believes, and with a desire to connect tutors directly to students, Dr Gouk painstakingly taught himself how to build a website after chancing upon a video tutorial.
And so the “first” version of AOne was created, and it has evolved to become what it is today – a marketplace that connects anyone who likes to teach with anyone who likes to learn.
As AOne’s partner centres grew more successful, their administrative and operational duties became more intense – especially since 95% of these centres were still using manual methods to keep track of and manage their daily operations.
Seeing a gap in the market, Dr Gouk expanded his business to include cloud-based management (AOneSchool) and automated fee payment solutions (AOnePay) for all parties involved.
Dr Gouk cares about creating things that will make a difference in our society, and acknowledges that the reason they joined the AmBank BizRACE was to be validated on AOne’s direction and growth.
“It’s some sort of validation for what we’re doing and it brings a certain value to society. And that’s what I would always want to achieve: To create a product that eventually brings great impact to society, especially in the education industry,” Dr Gouk says.
Pertama Crane & Engineering
Having grown up in a family that was involved in the crane industry, and especially with his uncle influencing him, it is no wonder that Alec Chong has a passion for working with these machines.
A mechanical engineering graduate from the UK, Chong set up this company in 2002 after studying the trends in the industry and realising that he could do better with the available technology.
To him, the biggest challenge in running this business is the lack of manpower. He explains that more cranes are needed due to the sudden expansion of the construction industry, but many of the skilled crane operators are aging and the younger ones lack the experience to handle these machines.
He stresses the importance of thorough training for these operators, and hopes that industry leaders will allocate more funds for comprehensive training programmes, because “machines are safe, but in the hands of an incompetent person it can be very dangerous”.
He concludes by saying that proper training will help enhance the safety and productivity of the whole industry.
He shares that one of his reasons for participating in this competition was to inspire his children to never give up – he wants to show them that he is still learning even at this age, and is continuously working on self-improvement.
He also states that one of the things that makes this journey a great experience is being able to meet various business owners with interesting business models and to share ideas with each other.
“Today’s markets are more open, it’s about what you can do and what other people are doing; we have to share our experience, share the problems we are facing,” Chong says.
Read the full story in our digital issue.
Smaller companies struggle to succeed mainly because they lack the knowledge to take their business to the next level. Realising this, AmBank established the AmBank BizCLUB, a community platform to help Malaysian SMEs grow and scale their business. Head to ambankbizclub.com to find out more.