‘Difficult childhood made me work hard to break away from hardship’

THIS week we get thoughts and views from press and convenience retail company Bison Consolidated Bhd executive director and CEO Dang Tai Luk.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Being a leader was not something that had crossed my mind when I was growing up. However, I had been active and playful in school and over the years was chosen to lead sports teams and extra-curricular clubs. After I finished school I was quite bold and brave like a calf wondering in the wild that did not know the dangers in the wilderness. I quit good jobs from one country to another without realising the consequences of not being able to get the same. But I had always told myself that one day I would settle with a business of my own and I didn't end up selling newspapers.
In retrospect, my difficult childhood seems to have been the necessary condition that made me work hard to break away from hardship. Perhaps poverty does inspires one to work very hard to become a leader.

What traits do you look for in your talent or how do you decide who is right for a job?
Hiring talent with positive attitude and behaviour are paramount as skillsets can be taught through training for reskilling or upskilling. The right attitude and behaviours will enable a person to grow and embrace new learnings, develop positive team spirit, work well with others, stay focused and add-value to the company.
A person who does not have the right attitude or behaviour tends to be disruptive, not just to others but to themselves as well. With the right attitude, a talent can develop the right mindset, skillset and discipline to succeed.

How do you think the industry you are in will evolve in the future?
Convenience stores will be the destination of choice in the future for food-to-go/ready-to-eat meal solutions due to longer commuting time as a result of urbanisation. The demand for convenience, speed and variety will continue to be a lifestyle for time crunched consumers.
The ready-to-eat foods will evolve with consumers becoming more informed and aware of nutrition and choices of cuisine due to advancement of technology. Information on nutrition value, health and environmental issues are easily found across the web.
Technology will also play a role in building e-commerce channels into convenience stores where click to collect and click to deliver will change the consumers' path to purchase. Brick and mortar convenience outlets will supplement the online shopping experience as the business evolve. Cashless transactions will provide ease of purchase/ hassle free customer experience where a customer can pre-order their food-to-go and other items online, pay online and select a convenience store outlet located at a transportation hub or mixed development, for collection on their way home.
Some of our myNEWS.com outlets are designed with tables and chairs as 'common place' for consumers; an extended convenience for customers to eat, read a magazine and have their coffee. Bill payments, money changing, parcel pick-up services are some of the approach to provide more product offerings and we believe this concept will be on a continual trend due to the accessibility of convenience stores location in communities.

What advice can you offer those looking to start their career/own business?
I would advise people who wish to start their own business to do proper soul searching before making that leap of faith. Are you ready? Are you motivated or are just forced into it due to peer or parental pressure? Are you ready to suffer and have the passion and conviction to not simply let go when the going gets tough?
Steve Jobs said, "If you look closely most overnight successes took a long time." Yes, from our journey it does take a long time and it took us 20 years to build myNEWS.com to what it is today. So, anyone who wants to start his own business must be aware that most journey to success take a long time and he must be prepared to endure the long journey.
Starting your own business would require investment of time, efforts and money. Having a sustainable business requires perseverance and continued focus towards maintaining healthy cash flow and profits.
Be honest with yourself and do an internal health check on your finances, existing commitments and initial outlay towards the start-up of your business, how long are you able to sustain before you achieve healthy profits and if you have a viable business model to begin with. Do some research to check on competition and how you can create a differentiation.
Lastly, support from family members, friends and loved ones will fuel your determination to succeed.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional life?
I have had the opportunity to work beside my late father for many years. It wasn't an easy thing to do during those younger years, especially when it started when I was less than 10 years old. My father brought me and my brothers with him to work at the rubber plantation and padi field on weekends and during school holidays. When I was in secondary school, my older siblings went overseas for further studies. In order to support them my father supplemented the family income by venturing into a welding business. This was when I was exposed to the business world by working beside him on every school break that I had over a couple of years.
Working beside my father has trained me to be hardworking. My father never stopped working until the day he passed away at the age of 76. My father never stopped learning. He had little education because he gave up schooling during the second world war. However, he had the habit of reading newspapers and material of his interest. He was knowledgeable in world affairs and things around us. When I was just a very small kid he would bring me with him to work. He would throw questions such as "Why is the tyre made of rubber? Wouldn't it be better if it is made of steel that last longer and never puncture?" He would explain to me how rain is formed. He thought me how to predict rain from the gloomy sky and most of the time we were able to rush home in time, from the plantation before the rain began to fall. He took every opportunity to teach me.
In retrospect, I learned the most unconsciously by working beside this amazing man. He was a skilful farmer whose advice was much sought after by others. He was so hardworking and resourceful that he had a very positive outlook on life and always found opportunities during difficult times.

What do you want to accomplish in the next five years?
We believe that the convenience sector in this country is underserved and underdeveloped. The penetration rate is low. Therefore, there is still plenty of room to grow. Our new store opening is on track at 70 stores a year and we are confident that the rate could be increased in the future. Our revenue has been growing healthily at above 20% year on year. Likewise, our level of profit is increasing too. Barring any unforeseen circumstances that are beyond our control, we are optimistic of maintaining our growth trend. Malaysians will continue to see an increasing number of this proud homegrown brand myNEWS.com that is coming closer to their homes and workplaces. In short, in the next five years we will continue to work hard in keeping up with our strong financial and operational track record in order to deliver the expectations of our customers and shareholders while maintaining a competitive edge and our position in this industry. We see are ourselves in a sweet spot and will continue to ride on this fastest growing sub-segment of the grocery retail segment in Malaysia.

Best piece of advice you ever got on your career.
It wasn't an advice but a priceless piece of observation on me by someone whom I worked for and highly regard. I was at my first job in a bank's IT department. The manager of my department was promoted to be a senior manager, supervising a few departments including the one that I worked in. The new department manager did not appraise my performance well. One fine day my former manager turned senior manager approached me to ask if he could rewrite my appraisal, and I would have to sign it again. I was absolutely surprised because it was unheard of. The reason given was that the senior manager did not approve of my earlier appraisal but instead passed a comment that sounded like, "You all do not know this guy (me) well. He is the type who would never fall. Even when shot and wounded, he would still stand up and continue to fight on." That was when I myself realised that I never gave up no matter how difficult a task is assigned to me. This appraisal incident has served as a reminder to myself that I will not fall and if I did, I would stand up again and continue the fight. It has given me confidence and assurance to face tough challenges.

Most admired business leader? Why?
It is Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs' business journey started from his father's garage. He had nothing other than his talent to begin with and he went on to build Apple to become the world's most valuable company. He said, "Innovation differentiates a leader from a follower".

How do you stay abreast of issues affecting your industry?
By reading and travelling.

If you could have an hour with any thought leader in the world, who would it be and why?
Any leader will do. I will just tell them to do good for their country and the world. Leave a good lasting legacy for the future generations. Plant the seeds of the future for whole country as if they are planting them for their own children and grandchildren.

What has been the biggest challenge you have faced? and what did you learn from it?
Biggest challenge was we went into a traditional business that dealt with a traditional product – the print media.
a)The industry was traditional and chaotic. When we first entered this business the traditional newsstand had not been updated, ever. It was messy, cluttered and closed-off. Even more disturbing was the unsystematic and unprofessional manner in which newspapers and magazines were distributed in Malaysia.
What did I learn from it? We tried very hard to improve the way things were done on a day-to-day and step by step basis. Like trying to make incremental changes. Unfortunately, it didn't work. In fact, we upset our business partners who were so used to doing things the usual way. Eventually, we brought order to the industry and challenged how things were done. We reframed the business rather than just making incremental improvements. We had to revolutionise the whole industry and become a standard bearer. This had made us the number one print media player in the country. So the lesson is if incremental changes do not work, you have to reframe and transform.
b)Not long after having revolutionised the industry and become number one, we found that we were trapped in a sunset business. Digital media was fast replacing print. When a change is brought about by technology, it is beyond anyone's control. We did not want to end up like Eastman Kodak. We have to innovate. I learned that to stay relevant we must continue to innovate. We are saved by innovating to become a Press and Convenience story instead of staying as a purebred newsstand chain that would have been wiped out by now.

A must-read for every business owner/manager is ..
Harvard Business Review. It gives business leaders new ideas and expert advice on business.

How do you expect policies on climate change to impact businesses in the future?
Changing government policies, climate-related regulation and market incentives may cause a shift in product preference and price volatility. Climate change issue is relevant for all companies, varying in terms of physical and regulatory impact. It presents a wide range of risks, new opportunities to reduce costs, differentiate products, and working with suppliers and consumers. Consumer who are environmentally conscious will factor into their purchasing behaviours; greener products, organic food and where they buy from, with a preference towards companies that share and embrace similar causes and purpose.

What are the top three factors you would attribute to your success?
a) Motivation
Firstly, you must be motivated to do something. If you are forced into it by your parents for example, your venture has actually ended before you begin. I was motivated to break away from hardship. My parents were rubber tappers. I grew up in a large family. I was not willing to be permanently locked in the chain of hopelessness. I dreamt about bringing change to my life and my family.
b) Passionate conviction
To me, Malaysia is one of the easiest places to start a business. Get a wok, start a fire and you are already a businessman selling char koay teow by the roadside. Like me, I started a simple business, I sell newspapers. But no matter what you do, you must have passionate conviction. It could be a million-dollar business to begin with if you are born with a silver spoon or it could just be a char koay teow business by the roadside but ultimately what determines its success is the passion and conviction to keep going even when the going gets tough. If you do not stop like others when it gets tough, the winner will be you as the others fall off.
Why do we need both "passion" and "conviction"? You could be very passionate with what you are doing but if you are not convinced you can make it a success it is still not enough. At the toughest time, you will give up. I had been put through the fiercest fire and I know that it takes passionate conviction to save you from falling off the edge.
c) Execution
Reward comes as a by-product of success. Not like the restaurant – eat first then pay. In life, you have to work first then, only you get rewarded. Have you ever asked yourself why a lottery winner's winning doesn't last long? Because he has not travelled the actual journey of building up his wealth and has not acquired the skill to become successful at keeping and growing his wealth. After winning the lottery the only skill he has acquired is how to spend the money.