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Inspiring M'sian entrepreneurs of 2013

Eizaz (left) and Lee produced a range of limited edition guitars to commemorate Malaysia’s 56 years of independence./The Star

Publication Date : 24-12-2013


Entrepreneurs in Malaysia who understand what it means to rise to a challenge


When the going gets tough, the tough get going. And entrepreneurs are a group of people who understand what it means to rise to the occasion in times of challenges.

In the past year, The Star's Metrobiz has met a number of entrepreneurs who had built businesses from scratch and endeavour to be successful despite facing multiple challenges. Most say it is worth it to follow their passion even when the odds are against them.

While some were successful in their first attempt, others had to pick themselves up, dust off the failure and start again.

Here are some whose stories stood out and spoke of hard work and perseverance.

Original tea planters

The tea industry was one of the first industries in Malaysia to export goods overseas with only a handful of players back in the 1920s.

Today, one those the original tea planters, The Bharat Group, is one of the few still in business. But with a hard time sourcing unskilled workers, the tea plantation business, especially in Cameron Highlands, is going through a rough patch.

Bharat Group CEO Kesav Kumar Agarwal said the next three years will be the toughest times for planters.

“Previously there were four major players in Cameron Highlands, but today there are only two. In Malaysia, four tea plantation estates have closed down. They have moved to (planting) oil palm,” said Kesav.

Despite an astonishing 70,000kg of green tea leaves handpicked each week across 642 hectares of Bharat’s plantation, the equivalent of 3,143 cups of tea, the company finds it a challenge to keep the business going.

As the fourth generation of planters make their way into the family business, the group is taking a different approach to diversify operations.

The company embarked on a rebranding exercise to make the company more youthful and lifestyle-orientated and has opened three Cameron Valley cafes in prime locations, taking a page out of Starbucks’ playbook.

A hair-raising success

Founder of Neeta’s Herbal, Neeta Gosalia, had suffered from severe hair loss at the age of 17. And after many disappointing remedies, she turned to Ayurvedic treatments in India. The treatment proved to be a success and today, Neeta has a heedful of healthy black locks to show it.

But having gone through her hair loss experience and knowing that there was a solution to the problem, she decided to help others in similar situations.

She started her first salon in Brickfields with 6,000 ringgit (US$1,283) from her husband in 1987, providing Ayurvedic treatment as well as her own herbal remedies.

“It did very badly in the first year,” was what she had to say about her venture. Sales were flailing and with no more capital to keep the salon running, she had contemplated shutting it down.

An appearance on TV for a women’s programme kept her afloat for a while before sales took a dive again after public interest tapered off.

Determined to make it work, Neeta put in considerable effort and money in pushing her products out and her persistence paid off.

Today, she runs a thriving hair solutions company with more than 40 Neeta’s Herbal outlets worldwide and more in the pipeline.

Strumming a fine tune

Sometimes an unexpected road can turn out to be not just an enjoyable journey, but a profitable one as well.

Ray Lee and Eizaz Azhar, founders of Guitar Empire, one of the largest local musical instrument suppliers, can attest to that.

With little musical background, the duo ran a small music school and later pooled together 4,000 ringgit ($1,215) to start a small rehearsal studio in Endah Parade, Sri Petaling in 2006. Realising they could not keep operating their studio into the wee hours of the morning in the long run, they moved into retailing music instruments.

Lee and Eizaz pumped in more funds and started Guitar Empire with capital of 24,000 ringgit ($7,292) in a 900sq ft space.

Guitar Empire started out retailing guitar and uncommon instruments such as the mandolin and piccolo. The market for these uncommon instruments was small, but the duo persevered.

Following a big break in 2009 when a client placed an order for 300 violins, there was no turning back for them.

“We have to be versatile. We may have drawn out a plan but plans change. We were a small rehearsal studio but we realised that we could grow bigger and have a bigger influence on the industry,” Eizaz said.

Cookie queen

Noraini Ahmad, 57, is the founder and CEO of Noraini Cookies Worldwide Sdn Bhd.

Her passion for baking Malay traditional kuih started in her teenage days when she gave baking lessons to women in her neighbourhood.

Noraini grew up in a conservative home and her father was content with her finishing the Malaysian Cerficate of Education, while her brothers were sent abroad to further their education.

This did not hinder Noraini from striking out on her own to make traditional kuih-muih from her little kitchen in Desa Jaya, Kepong, after she resigned from her job as an accounts clerk with British American Insurance.

Noraini’s business picked up when she met a chef from a major hotel in Petaling Jaya who liked her kuih and offered a contract to supply them.

As the orders became overwhelming, Norani decided to network and contract production out to other housewives.

Noraini later decided to take a step further by adding Hari Raya cookies to her products.

The company has a factory with a built up area of 12,000sq ft, which was set up in Jalan Suria, Shah Alam in 2008.

Apart from cookies, the company also manufactures premixed cooking ingredients that are exported. Noraini is today among one of the most successful businesswomen in the SME sector and has won many awards for her entrepreneurship skills.

Financial frontier

Almost every day we see Malaysians complaining and venting their frustrations on social networking sites or even over a cup of tea with friends after work. But how many of us have actually done something to make it right? Or to “beat the system” at its own game?

Having gone through the same frustrations as the average Malaysian with financial institutions, Jared Lim decided to start Loanstreet — an independent Malaysian loan comparison website and a loan application service for customers.

“I started Loanstreet because I hit rock bottom,” said Lim.

Back in 2009, the Lim family encountered to financial problems and had to sell their home to cover a portion of their debt repayments. Lim had to buy an apartment immediately after losing the family house, but it was no easy task.

He realised that there was a gap in the market to compare loans from different financial institutions.

“There are 33 financial institutions in Malaysia offering loans. These loans vary from one another and each has a unique selling point. I could only identify banks that had big advertising and promotion campaigns,” said Lim.

Capturing a moment

Taking pictures has become instantaneous and anything can be captured, processed and published in a matter of seconds.

Jason Ang turned this trend into his business, Fotobox, in 2011. He sets up a customised photo booths for his clients at events so their customers can take pictures of themselves with the client’s branding icons.

Ang was inspired by the Blue Ocean strategy to use the old idea of a photo booth and transform it into an effective modern tool for branding at events.

“The idea quickly became a popular crowd-engagement tool for events. We’ve slowly expanded our operations to Sydney, Australia. Singapore is also a new market that we’re looking at in the near future,” said Ang, 25.

Although he didn’t’ study marketing or branding, he had the opportunity to learn the ropes when he worked for a branding company that served international clients.

His folks had initially hoped he would take over their F&B business, but they are nevertheless happy with Ang’s entrepreneurial spirit. “If it means working up to 20 hours a day and doing it every day for the first few months, the outcome will be worth it,” he said.


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