Making A Difference – A Scientist’s  Success

Making A Difference – A Scientist’s Success

When Dr Jau-Fei Chen’s not busy running a multi-million dollar business empire, she’s giving educational talks to packed auditoriums or can be found in the lab, lost in hours of research on her lifelong passion – the science of nutritional immunology. Since establishing E. EXCEL International 28 years ago, it doesn’t look like Dr Chen is slowing down any time soon. Recently, Top 10 of Asia gets to speak with the dynamic entrepreneur about her background and her untiring efforts in making a difference to the well-being of humansthrough nutritional immunology.

Speaking to Dr Jau-Fei Chen, the founder and chairman of E. EXCEL International, one gets the vibe that she could master anything she puts her mind to. Beneath her calm and gentle demeanour, lies an insatiably curious and scientific mind that has been finely honed from a very young age to transform the world through good nutrition. “I’m a nerd,” she admits with a winsome smile. But this self-professed ‘nerd’ wears many hats, be it scientist, entrepreneur, philanthropist, author, speaker, educator, pianist, wife and mother of three.

277Q6735Dr Jau-Fei Chen

Whether it is harnessing the latest technology to create life-enhancing products or building a business that spans many countries including the United States, Canada, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia, she knows exactly what it takes to be the best. “In my dictionary, there’s no such word as failure,” she says. “There’s only results. Every time I do something, I get a result. If it’s not the result I want, I make sure I’m not going to get the same result the next time. That’s how I improve. And I’m one step closer to where I want to be.” People like the legendary Thomas Alva Edison inspired her with his tenacity and spirit of never giving up.

Dr Chen’s story started in Taiwan where she was born. When she was 10, she emigrated to overseas with her family. Her academic achievements were nothing short of impressive. At the age of 19, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology with a minor in chemistry from Brigham Young University (BYU) in Utah and continued her studies until she earned her PhD in microbiology with a focus in immunology when she was 26. At the same time, she conducted extensive research on cancer for over 20 years. Disheartened by the discovery that cancer treatments such as chemotherapy destroy healthy cells and cause immense suffering to the patients, she decided to focus on the ways our body can defend itself from the disease instead. “The path I was on led me to discover the link between proper nutrition and the health of the human immune system. And the best source of nutrition are plant foods.” It was then that she decided to dedicate her life to the prevention of disease rather than labouring over a cure.

Shortly after her momentous discovery, Dr Chen founded E. EXCEL International, a global platform to spread awareness about Nutritional Immunology and support her continuous research of plant foods. However, when she was looking for research funds, no one wanted to support the young scientist to do research on the vegetables in the supermarket aisle. “They would ask me whether my research on broccoli will result in the making use of its extract to make a pill.” She told them frankly that she had no intention of doing that. “I told them that I just wanted to know what’s inside the broccoli that makes it such a miracle. And I would like to use that knowledge and educate the public to eat more broccoli.” Unfortunately, that resulted inher not getting any funds to support her altruistic research.

Entrepreneurship was the natural next step to take as she needed to support herself in her research work and commitment to public education. Based on Dr Chen’s research on how different nutrients relate to the human body, the company developed health products of the highest quality using different types of natural wholesome plants that have been carefully studied. The processing method chosen, be it freeze-drying, spray-drying or concentrating polysaccharides, is selected after careful consideration of the unique characteristics of each plant.

“Bear in mind that our products are for convenience and are not a cure. If you do not have the time to buy and prepare vegetables at home, you can use our products as a substitute,” Dr Chen says adding that she is not interested in hawking a bottle of miracle pills that will cure diseases. “I’m more concerned about what mothers would buy in the supermarket because that’s where true change begins – from the choices we make in the supermarket that will end up on the dining table.”
Citing the example of a typical Chinese home-cooked dinner featuring an average of five dishes. She explains, “Out of the five dishes, four would contain some sort of meat and only one dish would contain vegetables. I’m suggesting, why not reverse it? I’m not asking everyone to become a vegetarian. Just by having four vegetable dishes and one meat dish will do wonders in the long-run.” She adds, “My research into the different types of vegetables in the supermarket on how they affect our immune system involves research on phytochemicals, polysaccharides and antioxidants. But in layman terms, what we teach to the public is that variety is good. As long as you have the different rainbow colours of vegetables on your plate, you’ll be able to prevent up to 40% of all types of cancers.”

“When I started in 1987, it was really, really hard,” she recalls. It was the era where vitamin supplements and miracle cures rule over the humble vegetable. “I would tell people, you do not need vitamin supplements. All you have to do is to eat the vegetables in the supermarket. And they would look at me strangely.” Never one to shy away from challenges, she took on the massive task of educating the public about the health benefits of plant-based foods. She realised that network marketing was the most effective platform to share her research findings with the world.

“E. EXCEL, which stands for Extra Excellence, is all about education. Our mission is to share the gifts of health and knowledge with mankind. We want people to be able to get the help they need through our educational activities. They do not have to use our products. As long as they can change their lifestyle, that’s good enough for us,” she says adding that she doesn’t even talk about their products in her public speeches. “We have never succumbed to being just a profit-making company. From Day 1 to this very day, we believe and share about the power of wholesome vegetables and shun man-made products like vitamin pills,” she says.

Her determination to stick firmly to her principles paid off. “E. EXCEL has remained very stable through all the financial turmoils. Our growth has been consistent and stable year by year, which is what we aim for.” Her tireless efforts have garnered numerous awards including The China Dynasty Award by the Overseas Chinese Affairs Commission of Taiwan and Outstanding Individual of Our Time Award by the media in the Asia-Pacific region, and E. EXCEL won the Asia Pacific Super Excellent Brand—Outstanding Brand Excellence Award. Dr Chen was also named as one of the Top 100 Chinese in America and March 8, 1996, was declared Jau-Fei Chen Day in the state of California.

A philanthropist at heart, Dr Chen, through E. EXCEL, has supported numerous charitable organisations throughout the world including World Vision, the American Cancer Society and YayasanNanyang Press. In line with her passion to support and raise the next generation of nutritional immunologists, Dr Chen has set up the Jau-Fei Chen Scholarship and Research Endowment via her alma mater, BYU. She has also written a number of books, the most recent of which is Nutrition • Immunity • Longevity, a practical and power-packed tome that explores the most common diseases affecting people today and how suitable nutrition intake can help strengthen the immune system.

According to Dr Chen many people perceive cancer to be an invasive disease that happens overnight. “We tend to think of a colleague, a friend or someone who got diagnosed with cancer and in a year or two, they are gone. But it actually started a long while ago.” She gave the example of breast cancer taking six to eight years to develop fully from the appearance of the very first breast cancer cell until the time we can see it from the x-ray. As for lung cancer, it will typically take 10 to 20 years. “This means that two thirds of the time, there may be cancer cells growing within us right now and we don’t know about it. It is during this time that we can heal ourselves and where nutrition comes into play,” she emphasises.

Dr Chen is gratified that more and more people are aware of and accepting the fact that the human being should be eating wholesome vegetables rather than supplements. “Many scientists and members of the public today agree with what we’ve been saying nearly 30 years ago. The journey has been long, but so very rewarding,” she says. “Just knowing that we have somehow been an influence and have made some positive change in the world is what really makes it all worth the while.”

Issue 10/2016

Taking Hold of Success In A Foreign Land

Taking Hold of Success In A Foreign Land

Hani Abu Asfar knows a little something about cultural adaptability. After all, not many people can lay claim to starting a company from scratch in a foreign land and building it into a multi-million venture before its fourth birthday. In this issue, Top 10 of Asia speaks withthe energetic and intelligent Jordanian, who is the CEO of Asfar Holding (Arab Supplier Fabrication and Retail Sdn Bhd),about his love for Malaysia, the palm oil industry and the Bedouin lifestyle.

Hani Abu Asfar cuts an imposing figure with his tall and regal stature and decisive mannerism. A natural leader, he has a warm and friendly side to him as well, which adds to his versatility. He welcomes us in his opulently decorated office located at his manufacturing site and insists that we sip shot glasses of the aromatic “sada”, the black cardamom-flavoured Jordanian coffee. “In my country, we drink coffee like the Chinese drink tea,” says the gracious host.

He briefly visited Malaysia for the first time in 2006. So impressed was he with the wealth of opportunities and development in the country that he returned to Malaysia two years later, and has been residing here ever since. “Malaysia is a second home to me, my wife and my two-year-old daughter,” he says. “It’s the land of great opportunities in various industries. Malaysian products are very well-respected throughout the world and in Jordan they are priced higher than most products imported from other countries.”

In 2010, he decided to invest a small sum of money in the country and started a palm oil trading business in his house in the USJ area, a suburb just outside of the capital city, Kuala Lumpur. For the first few months, he did everything from planning the business to establishing good connections within the industry and sourcing for suppliers. After that, he moved to his first office located in Shah Alam, a neigbouring township, dealing mainly in the import-export side of the industry. Two years later, the company switched gears to become a full-fledged manufacturing business which necessitates its expansion to a manufacturing plant in Kapar’s Industrial Park, an industrial zone nearer to Port Klang on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia.

“Recently we acquired some shares in a refinery plant in Johor Bahru (a southern Peninsular state neighbouring Singapore) to expand our range of services.” Within a short span of time, Asfar Holding has evolved from a humble trading company to a leading manufacturer and exporter of a full-range of palm-related products, which also offers OEM services to local customers. The company may be young, but it is built on strong foundations. “I run my business based on the principles I learned from my father, who was a teacher. He taught me to honour my word and commitments, to be honest, straightforward and not hide facts. In the export market, trust is the most important commodity you can have. If there is no trust, you will have problems growing your business. As you can see, these principles really work!”

There are 11 brands represented by his company, one of which bears his name. Affectionately coined by the marketing staff after the dynamic CEO, the “Hani” vegetable cooking oil brand was introduced into the market just two years ago and became hugely popular in the African region. “Customers will come specifically to Malaysia looking for the brand and ask me, ‘Are you the manufacturer of Hani?’ and I will say, ‘No, I am Hani’,” he laughs.

He credits his success to his team, as well as the good opportunities and helpful industry players he deals with in Malaysia. “We also have a strategic product, palm oil, which is in high demand globally,” he adds. However, palm oil is notorious for its unpredictable fluctuating prices, which greatly affects the trading operations of Asfar Holding. “We could have a lucrative contract with a supplier, but once the price fluctuates adversely – which happens when we least expect it, we will suffer losses,” he reveals. With Hani’s prudent and responsive leadership, the company managed to navigate itself through the tumultuous waters, take control of the situation and emerged stronger than ever. “Thanks to our good relationship with our manufacturers in Malaysia, we could come to a mutually beneficial agreement that pulled us through those challenging times,” he says.

Though the industry is competitive, Hani is confident that the palm oil market is huge and there’s plenty of space for everyone. “Just don’t be greedy. Deal in sincere and straightforward terms, and don’t take unnecessary risks knowing how volatile the prices can get,” he cautions. “And don’t expect to get rich overnight. You will definitely see good results as the industry is huge but it will still take some time. You need to stay focused on your target in order to succeed.”

Wealth and success in this business may not come overnight but it sure did arrive at a phenomenal rate for Asfar Holding. “In 2012, our revenue was RM40 million and in 2013, it jumped to RM220 million when our manufacturing operations took off, making us one of the largest palm oil manufacturers in the nation,” says Hani, glowing with a sense of pride. His meteoric rise to become a successful entrepreneur mainly lies in his drive for success. “I love success. I don’t accept failure. It’s not a word in my dictionary,” he says earnestly. “Nothing is impossible. If you set a target, you will reach it no matter what situations you face, if you persist.”

Pleased with what his company has achieved, Hani is now venturing into new markets, such as South America, where no Malaysian palm oil exporters have gone to before. Seeding the ground in a region where soya bean oil is king is challenging, but Hani and his persistent team have managed to convince some of the strong importers in those countries to switch to palm oil. “Our efforts are starting to bear fruits. We recently managed to achieve some 10 to 15 containers, which is equivalent to 200 to 400 tonnes to just Panama alone.” He has also established offices in key locations within the Middle Eastern and African regions helmed by trusted and able marketing directors. And that is just a sneak peek at more exciting growth to come for Asfar Holding.

Hani plans to reside in Malaysia for the foreseeable future, but he is a Jordanian through and through; deeply patriotic and rooted to the Bedouin lifestyle of his forefathers. He visits Jordan at least twice a year, returning to his Bedouin roots by camping in his farm in the desert. For a man who is constantly busy from dawn to dusk, this is his favourite way to de-stress and rejuvenate. “The desert is a place where you are alone with yourself and your thoughts. Where no one will bother or disturb you. Where there is no phone reception and no internet,” he smiles. That’s the beauty of the Bedouin lifestyle, which he believes that everyone should experience it at least once in their lifetime to break free from the pressures of modern life. “When we return to our forefathers’ natural and simple way of living, we’ll feel really connected with them and be contented with our lives as they have been in theirs,” he says. “Rest assured, my investment in Malaysia is a lifelong one. But one day, I hope to replicate my Malaysian success story to my beloved country Jordan. I want to invest there and be a bridge between both countries.”

Issue 6/2014

Empowering Women A Young Visionary’s Success

Empowering Women A Young Visionary’s Success

For decades, the women of Saudi Arabia have been side-lined by the nation’s working community and they faced a gargantuan task in their attempts to enter the job market.However, this scenario began to transform drastically when a young Saudi visionary rose to the occasion and started a paradigm shift in the work culture and tradition of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In this issue, Top 10 of Asia gets to speak with the young and inspiring Khalid Alkhudair, who through Glowork.net – a niche website he launched, has been empowering women across the Kingdom to take their rightful place in the workforce.

When Khalid Alkhudair came back to his home country after graduating from Saint Mary’s University, Canada in 2007, things for him were going way better than what he thought. His success in his first company KPMG, one of the world’s most prestigious leaders in professional services, had put him in good stead to eventually become one of the top success stories in his country.

However, Alkhudair’s achievement in his career made him realise that everyone’s life is affected by the job market in one way or another, especially in Saudi Arabia. His family members (sister and wife) had issues when it came to finding job opportunities that match their skills. Their predicament, which is also faced by the rest of the nation’s female population, propelled him to look for a solution. It came to fruition when he went on to launch, Glowork.net, a website that aims to bring empowerment to women and to increase diversity in the Saudi workforce. It is the first website and initiative dedicated to female recruitment in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, creating equal opportunities for women in the region. “It means a lot to me when I know that I am helping them and their families grow, having secure incomes to build stable households,” says Alkhudair.

In early 2012, Glowork came up with a great innovation tool that paved the way for women to be integrated into in the nation’s workforce. Its ‘virtual office’solution opened up thousands of job opportunities for women in rural areas and also for those with disabilities and special needs throughout the Kingdom.Its efforts won recognition from the United Nations and the World Bank for the best innovative solution for job creation.Alkhudair attributes this achievement to the collective passion of everyone at Glowork for creating a better world for Saudi women. “Glowork is run entirely by females,” says Alkhudair. “They have truly put in 10 years’ worth of effort in the past two years,” he adds with a sense of pride.

When asked about his management and leadership style, the founder of Glowork says that he likes to maintain an open door policy and regard his employees as valued partners in his journey to achieve success. “It is important to listen to what others in the team have to say especially when it comes to making key business decisions,” Alkhudairstresses.He strongly believes that the people working in Glowork are role models and the outside world would look up to Glowork for good solutions. “I empower them to take control of the business at hand and to move ahead confidently,” he says. “I help them to see their worth and contribution to the business right from the start to the completion of a project and this means a lot to them.”

As the global business environment becomes more challenging, especially so for women, Glowork has taken to looking at the Kingdom’s current legal framework and to working alongside the Saudi government to come up with more suitable and conducive legislation to enable women to participate effectively in the workforce. “The Ministry of Labour and the Saudi government have put in laws that will create some 400,000 jobs for women in the next three years in the retail industry alone,” reveals Alkhudair. “Another law requires organisations having over 50 female employees to have a nursery in place in the same building,” he says. “Glowork is proud to have played a role in this positive transformation process.”

Recently, Glowork has entered into a Private-Public Partnership with the Ministry of Labour which allows it to have access to the government’s database on the nation’s unemployed women where it gets compensated when they are successfully placed in the job market.

Starting a business that aims to empower women in Saudi Arabia is undeniably a rocky path. Glowork has to contend with major obstacles stemming from the cultural and traditional mindset of Saudi society. In a country (the only one in the world) where women are not allowed to drive, the prospect of them working has been reduced substantially. “What we did was to take a long hard look at whatever obstacle that may present itself and then turn it into an opportunity that we can seize upon,” says Alkhudair. “And that has made us stand out,” he adds.

Alkhudair laments the fact that the concept of social entrepreneurship is yet to be understood in his part of the world. “My vision was to turn one of the most difficult issues in my country into a success story so others may be encouraged to follow suit,” he says.“We started Glowork when we saw the need in the market for us to establish a sustainable enterprise that would have a huge desirable impact on our society and Glowork, being the social enterprise that it is, has been able to achieve that.”

Even with the sterling results that he has achieved today, Alkhudair humbly admits that kick-starting the business back then was no bed of roses, having to sustain a healthy balance between his professional and personal life. “You have to give your all to make sure the business is up and running. At times some 16 hours would be spent at the office. I’m blessed with an understanding wife who can be there for me when it comes to those uphill battles and struggles that one faces in a business start-up,” he says. “I believe that reaching this far is already an achievement in itself,” he adds.

This far-sighted social entrepreneur who was recently made the curator for the Global Shapers at the World Economic Forum, Riyadh’s Chapter sees it as a great opportunity for him. “I’ll be able to tap into a global network to share my story to the world on how a small start-up in Saudi Arabia has grown to become the great social entrepreneurship story in the Middle East,” says Alkhudair with a sense of excitement. In addition, he also became an Ashoka Fellow recently making him the first Saudi to have received this honour. “This has given me much inspiration and encouragement to continue striving to achieve more for myself and my country,” he says.

As for Glowork’s plans in the near future, Alkhudair looks to setting up complementary companies in the areas of training and development as well as starting up the first legal women’s fitness centre in the land. “The overall goal is to create a healthy work life balance for women for them to shine,” he explains.

Alkhudair is also hopeful that Glowork’s success in Saudi Arabia would be replicated throughout the region. “We believe that we have delivered a successful model which has helped changed several aspects of our daily lives and has raised the flag for women in our nation,” he says. “If it works in Saudi, it will work anywhere.”

Issue 3/2013

Stepping Up To A New Era Leadership Role

Stepping Up To A New Era Leadership Role

Xi Jinping, who hails from Beijing, is the son of the revered leader and revolutionary hero, Xi Zhongzun of the Communist Party propaganda department and later Vice-Chairman of the National People’s Congress who helped build its base in Shaanxi province. He was 15 when his father was jailed in 1968 during the Cultural Revolution forcing the young Xi to relocate to Yanchuan County, Shaanxi where he worked with the Down to the Countryside Movement.

Growing up in aristocracy in Beijing, Xi Jinping found it a challenge as he tried to familiarize with the new setting he suddenly found himself in. That was the time when he went to live in a small village in northwest China’s Shaanxi Province. He looked and sounded different from the people of Liangjiahe, a village in Shaanxi, who are mostly farmers. Life there was tough for Xi where he had to be involved in carrying out all sorts of laborious tasks. By the time Xi left the village some years later, he went with a heart filled with desire and determination to do something for the people there.
In 1975, he enrolled in Tsinghua University, a university which has produced a good number of China’s current leaders including Hu Jintao. There Xi graduated with a degree in chemical engineering and later received a doctoral degree in law from the Institute of Humanities and Social Science of the same university in 2002. Soon after he completed his undergraduate education, Xi worked as a personal secretary to Geng Bio, then Minister of Defence, for 4 years. This gained Xi some knowledge of the military.rowing up in aristocracy in Beijing, Xi Jinping found it a challenge as he tried to familiarize with the new setting he suddenly found himself in. That was the time when he went to live in a small village in northwest China’s Shaanxi Province. He looked and sounded different from the people of Liangjiahe, a village in Shaanxi, who are mostly farmers. Life there was tough for Xi where he had to be involved in carrying out all sorts of laborious tasks. By the time Xi left the village some years later, he went with a heart filled with desire and determination to do something for the people there.

His 7 years living in dim, narrow and musty caves of Liangjiahe in absolute run-of-the-mill life had shaped him to become a wiser and stronger leader. “We mustn’t stand high above the masses nor consider the masses as our fish and meat. The hard life of the grass roots can cultivate one’s will. With that kind of experience, whatever difficulties I would encounter in the future, I am fully charged with courage to take on any challenge, to believe in the impossible and to conquer obstacles without panic.”

Xi was always fascinated by politics, resulting from inspiration and influence of his own father. In 1971, he joined the Communist Youth League and later in 1974, the Communist Party of China. In 1982 he was sent to Zhengding County in Hebei as Deputy Secretary to the CPC Zhengding County Committee, and subsequently promoted to Secretary of the CPC Zhengding County Committee in 1983. Xi as served in four provinces during his government and Party career from 1969 to 2007: Shaanxi, Hebei, Fujian and Zhejiang.

In 1987, Xi married the celebrated Chinese singer PengLiyuan. This was his second marriage. Together, they have a daughter named XI Mingze, who is currently studying in Harvard University under an alias.

In 1990, Xi became the president of the Party School in Fuzhou in 1990. Subsequently in 1999, he was promoted to the Deputy Governor of Fujian and became Governor in 2000. In 2002, he took up a senior government and Party post in Zhejiang where he was promoted as party chief and succeeded in securing growth rates averaging 14% per year. Xi came under the microscopic view of China’s top leader through his fight against corrupt officials. Successively, in March 2007, he was elected as the new Party Chief of Shanghai, which demonstrates the Central Government’s confidence in his capability to unite the people and combat endemic corruption.

Xi’s appointment to the Party Secretary post in Shanghai was seen as a stepping stone for him to become an emerging member of the fifth generation of Chinese leadership. This was solidified by his appointment as a member of the nine-man Politburo Standing Committee at the 17th Party Congress in October 2007. Successively, in March 2008, Xi was elected as Vice-President of the People’s Republic of China11th National People’s Congress.

In February 2009, with his new role as Vice-President, Xi journeyed to Latin America, visiting Mexico, Jamaica, Colombia,Venezuela,and Brazil to promote Chinese ties in the region and boost the country’s reputation in the wake of the global financial crisis. Xi has since gone on a series of foreign visits to Belgium, Germany, Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania, Japan, South Korea, Cambodia and Myanmar to burnish his foreign affairs credentials. He is generally popular with foreign dignitaries, who are titillated by his ingenuousness and pragmatism. Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson described Xi as “the kind of guy who knows how to get things over the goal line”.

On 15 November 2012, Vice President Xi was elected to the post of General Secretary of the Communist Partyand Chairman of the CPC Central Military Commission by the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, making him the top-ranked leader of the Communist Party of China.

On 14 March 2013, Xi Jinping officially became the President of the People’s Republic of China, pledging for a cleaner and more efficient government in a confirmation vote by the National People’s Congress in Beijing. Bowing after his name was announced, he received 2,952 for, one vote against, and three abstentions. He replaced Hu Jintao, who retired after serving two terms. The Vice President post went to the liberal reformist, Li Yuanchao.

Xi undertakes the leadership of a nation that is growing wealthier but more vocal in its anger at issues such as rising inequity, environmental damage and food safety. He also faces concern among regional neighbors over how China will wield its rising power, particularly in relations to thorny issues such as territorial disputes with Japan and ASEAN nations.

This new leader will try his best to curb social spending and other actions to spread prosperity more evenly and narrow a politically volatile gap between China’s wealthy elite and poor majority. The austerity drive for bureaucracy is an attempt to address rising public anger over perceived luxurious lifestyle of leaders.

With the economic model that brought decades of high growth sputtering, the new government is looking to transform the world’s second-largest economy by nurturing self-sustaining growth based on domestic consumption and technology.

Problems such as corruption and bribe-taking by some party members and cadres, being out of touch with the people, placing undue emphasis on formality and officialdom had to be addressed. Making this his main priority, Xi warned that corruption could lead to “the collapse of the Party and the downfall of the state.”

Over the next few months, China and the rest of the world would be watching closely the developments under Xi’s new leadership. How will Xi lead China’s 1.3 billion people towards realizing the China Dream of an affluent, strong, democratic, civilized and harmonious modern socialist country and what has he in store for China’s due contribution to world peace and development? Xi’s efforts may remain yet to be fully felt but as it is he is already seen as a leader who brings a fresh breeze to the country’s political life with a determination for modern reforms. Xi certainly looks well poised for the take-off as he steps up to this new era leadership role for him.

Issue 1/2013

An Awesome Steely Determination

An Awesome Steely Determination

Over the years, Tan Sri A.K. Nathan has spearheaded his company, Eversendai Corporation Bhd (Eversendai), into becoming Asia’s leading integrated structural steel turnkey contractor with a strong design, engineering division and modern fabrication facilities in Malaysia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar. In a recent interview with the extremely enterprising founder as well as the Executive Chairman and Group Managing Director of the Eversendai Group, Top 10 of Asia learns about his humble beginnings, trials and tribulations as well as the notable, impressive works carried out by his organisation.

Tan Sri A.K. Nathan remembered vividly the very moment when he first involved himself in the steel industry. At the tender age of 22, A.K. Nathan was a reserved young lad fuelled with a burning desire to be successful. Despite having to drop out from university due to financial constraints as well as closing down his earlier printing business due to unforeseen circumstances, A.K. Nathan did not let any of these obstacles quench his desire to be successful. His short stint in American International Assurance Company Limited as an insurance agent armed him with confidence as well as people skills.

A.K. Nathan made his entry in the construction business in 1982 by chance when he secured the services of a sub-contractor to execute the temporary steel platform works for Dayabumi project in Kuala Lumpur. It was not long before A.K. Nathan found out that the sub-contractor took advantage of him after learning that he is a newbie in the industry with zero knowledge on steel industry.

A.K. Nathan then fired the subcontractor before hiring a good supervisor with skilled workers in order to get the job done. He got to know about the trade through the hard way; spending most of his time at the site and learning as much as he could from the supervisor and workers.

It was in 1983 when A.K. Nathan made a breakthrough in the industry through the Malaysian National Car Plant (Proton Factory) project which was secured from Nippon Steel Corp. Despite not having any track record and no previous contact with the project manager, Tameshi Yamaki, he was awarded the project. A.K. Nathan later found out the reason he was awarded the project. That was when he casually asked Yamaki about it a month after that and Yamaki gave this reply, “Nathan, do you remember when I first met you, I looked straight into your eyes and your eyes did not run away as you looked into mine? That’s when I know I can trust you.”

However, all the good times were cut short when the recession hit in the mid 80s which left A.K. Nathan devastated and desperate. It was at this time when he was awarded the Singapore Indoor Stadium project in Singapore by Nippon Steel Corp.
“When I got this chance to do a job in Singapore, I left thinking that I will never return to Kuala Lumpur again. The journey itself was really tough as it involved complicated technicalities and I had to be hands-on in everything as well as sacrificing sleep for days. But in return, I had gained integrity and respect. Going to Singapore was a turning point in my life. It was from then on I saw the gradual growth of Eversendai,” he elaborates.

Fast forward a few decades later, Eversendai has since earned a formidable reputation in the construction industry; being one of the leading structural steel companies in the world with remarkable projects where most of them are the landmarks of a country. They included the Petronas Twin Towers, The KLCC Suria, KL Tower, KLIA – Main Terminal Building Contact Pier and Cargo Terminal, the Dubai Airport Control Tower, Dubai Festival City, Kingdom Centre at Saudi Arabia, Khalifa Stadium and Qatar Science and Technology Park at Qatar, Changi Terminal 3 in Singapore and the Chek Lap Kok Airport extension in Hong Kong.

Today, A.K. Nathan still takes pride in having had a hand in the construction of the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur. The burning desire to build the world’s tallest building as a Malaysian became the pushing force for A.K. Nathan to lobby hard for the project at that time. He even took the effort to drive for five and a half hours to Singapore to pitch the idea and impressed the Korean contractor with his portfolio.

“My greatest pride was working on the Petronas Twin Towers. I was involved in the construction of Tower 2 which began three months after Tower 1. However, I am proud to say that I completed Tower 2 ten days ahead of Tower 1,” says A.K. Nathan with a sense of pride.

Eversendai’s portfolio is not the only thing that is interesting. In fact the name itself has left a lot of people pondering on whether Eversendai is a Malaysian or Japanese company. “I know that the name creates the impression that it is a Japanese company. It’s a 100% made-in-Malaysia company,” adds A.K. Nathan with a chuckle.

According to A.K. Nathan, the name, ‘Eversendai’ came into being back then in a conversation he had with Tameshi Yamaki, who became his good friend. Yamaki’s hometown was in Sendai, which means ‘thousands of generations.’ A.K. Nathan took a liking to it. He then added the word,‘ever’ to it which explains how the name, ‘Eversendai’ came about.

When it comes to work, A.K. Nathan holds firmly to the three principles: Never compromise on safety, Never compromise on quality of workmanship and Always deliver what you’ve promised. Eversendai’s emphasis on a high standard of quality, workers’ safety, strict adherence to time schedules and total customer satisfaction has made Eversendai one of the most-sought after company in the steel industry as well as earning a reputation for impeccable quality and reliability.

“I am not an engineer. I have no degree. Owing to financial constraints, I could not further my studies. But through sheer perseverance, I tackled the intricacies of the business to a level where I astounded engineers and other professionals with my innovative recommendations,” says A.K. Nathan.

According to him, satisfied clients always come back with orders. “Eversendai has established a reputation in the market where people come looking for us. In fact, for the last 9 years, we have not done any marketing work in the Middle East market.

“My marketing people are my clients, architects, consultants, project managers – people who have worked with us, who respect and value the good work that we do. In fact, in all the countries where we have executed projects, it was purely through invitation,” shares A.K. Nathan.

Moving forward, A.K. Nathan is bringing Eversendai into developing innovative composite structure construction. By taking advantage of its mechanical and engineering expertise, Eversendai also plans to venture into the oil and gas industry. In fact, it had bought 20.1% stake in an oil and gas company in Singapore to create a base track record for a start.
“Exciting times are envisaged for Eversendai in the near future. Indeed, a lot of work needs to be put in but I will make it happen,” A.K. Nathan says with a smile.

Over the years, A.K. Nathan had received various awards and recognition for his contributions and achievements in the steel industry. These include the Ernst & Young Master Entrepreneur of the Year and Ernst & Young Malaysia Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2008 and Golden Construction Award by Trade Leader Club, Madrid Spain. He has also won the International Gold Star Award for Leadership in Quality by Business Initiatives Directions, Madrid Spain, Asia Pacific Entrepreneur Award and CIDB CEO of the Year as well.

“It is very easy to give up but it’s very hard to achieve success. It’s a high mountain to climb and success doesn’t come that easy,” says A.K. Nathan.

“Just like the steel, I have moulded myself into shape by the struggles I underwent to make my business a success. In the 26 years that I have spent building my business, I have seen the worst. But, I regret none of it as these experiences have made me stronger, more resilient and confident in achieving anything that I set my mind on,” he adds.

A.K. Nathan is married with two children. Despite his hectic schedule, he makes it a point to spend time catching up with his married children. His son is currently spearheading a subsidiary company of Eversendai in Dubai while his daughter is staying at New Zealand with her spouse. During his spare time, A.K. Nathan takes to playing golf as well as enjoying reading motivational books with Law of Success by Napolean Hill as his favourite.

In his deep blue suit with a diamond-studded gold watch to match, A.K. Nathan smiles when he explains that he is married to his job. “I have a lot of passion and love my job. I believe that as long as the passion is there, it will pull me through all odds,” he says.

A.K. Nathan doubts if he would ever retire. The recent celebration of his 57th birthday has most assuredly indicated that greater exploits can be expected from this unique entrepreneur of steely determination.

“Just like the steel, I have moulded myself into shape by the struggles I underwent to make my business a success.”

“I am not an engineer. I have no degree. Owing to financial constraints, I could not further my studies. But through sheer perseverance, I tackled the intricacies of the business to a level where I astounded engineers and other professionals
with my innovative recommendations.”

Issue 2/2013

Triumphing Over The ‘Impossible’

Triumphing Over The ‘Impossible’

From things cemetery to tourist attraction, Founder and Group Managing Director of Nirvana Asia Ltd, Tan Sri Kong Hon Kong has completely transformed the company beyond the imagination of many. At a time when it was a taboo to promote funeral services and when even the National Land Code had no provisions for private cemeteries, Nirvana scored a first when it became the pioneer and now the largest, death care service provider in Asia. In this issue of the Top 10 of Asia, the affable and visionary Kong tells the story of how he began the business “without a single cent” and the odds that were stacked against him, including a listing on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

Once a bankrupt in his early 30’s, Nirvana Asia Ltd Founder and Group Managing Director, Tan Sri Kong Hon Kong is unashamed about his passion for challenging the ‘impossible’.

He has proven his mettle when he built the world-class Nirvana Asia Ltd from ground zero to being the largest of its kind in Asia and listed the company successfully on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in December 2014. Nirvana was the first Malaysian company to have a singular listing on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

Even while Kong was toying with the idea of starting Nirvana, the odds were already stacked against him but he decided to challenge the ‘impossible’.

“I was inspired by the idea of setting up Nirvana in 1985 when my father-in-law passed away. At that time, there were no private cemeteries in Malaysia. I was tasked to choose the burial plot for him. When I went to the local cemetery managed by the associations, I found myself stepping on tombs and apologising repeatedly to the deceased.

“There were no proper walkways or landscaping. It was really eerie. It hit me that others too would not feel like going to the cemetery anymore under such conditions,” says Kong.

From then on, Kong felt that he needed to do something about the lacklustre way cemeteries were managed. Filial piety is a core value fiercely embraced by the Chinese community, and Kong was determined to ensure that it will be upheld.

“We can’t expect filial piety from descendants of the deceased when the cemetery environment is so depressing and unwelcoming. Surely, they would not be encouraged to honour their departed by visiting graves in such conditions. I was determined to do something about this so that the next generation will be attracted to carry out this aspect of filial piety,” Kong adds.

After a few months of feasibility studies abroad, Kong returned to Malaysia and began to look for land. He approached a geomancy master who found him a piece of land with good feng shui, or a good “dragon-head land”.

That land was located in Semenyih in the state of Selangor but the challenges for Kong were just beginning to manifest. The land owner simply refused to sell the land at Kong’s price. However, Kong was persistent and he continued wooing the land owner week after week. After much perseverance, Kong finally convinced the land owner to partner him in doing the business.

Kong’s next problem came in the form of the National Land Code. At that time, there were only three categories of land use – residential, agriculture and industrial. He recalls vividly how he broke down in tears when he got his rejection letter from the local authority. The reason given was that there was no recognition for private cemeteries under the National Land Code.

“However, a song I heard over the radio encouraged me to move on. The song reminded me that my future is not just a dream. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I listened to it. Then I told myself that I will start over again tomorrow,” shares Kong.

Kong, with the help of others, eventually managed to convince the Menteri Besar (Chief Minister) to give the green light for his business endeavour.

“After that I was faced with the problem of not having the capital to develop my bereavement care service business,” adds Kong. The people around him, including his family and friends, thought he was out of his mind and that it was a bad idea.

However, Kong went ahead with sheer passion, patience and persistence for the next 25 years until he made Nirvana the largest integrated death care service provider in Asia – and he has shown no sign of slowing down with Nirvana now a world-class brand.

One of the challenges that Kong faced in the beginning was the need for him and his company to be well versed with the intricacies of the local cultures. “It is important for us to comply with the specific cultural rituals required by the bereaved for the funeral service. Elderly relatives of the bereaved have often made it difficult for us to perform proper rituals because they have their own opinion on how things should be done. But today, we don’t face this problem anymore because of our position as the market leader,” Kong says.

Unique designs, creations and services have played a pivotal role in the company’s business development. For instance, Nirvana had spent some RM20 million in the setting up of its Chinese calligraphy Stone Gallery at the Nirvana Memorial Park in Semenyih. Kong believes that such an investment, though lavish, is absolutely necessary because of evolving consumer expectations.

“We realised that when people are buying burial plots, it is not just because of the plot. They are buying the environment and services that we provide. This is what I call the ‘hardware’ aspect of my business.

“As for the ‘software’ part, our employees have been well trained to treat the deceased with great respect just like they would their own family members. This has touched the hearts of the bereaved because they can take comfort in that their departed member is being ‘looked after’ with care and thoughtfulness. Our customers do remember us long after using our services,” says Kong. He considers this, and not the millions he has earned, his greatest achievement.

“I take pride in having successfully promoted this aspect of filial piety among the people, bringing them together in a meaningful way. Today, unlike in the past, you can find many families offering prayers to their departed on a regular basis – not just during the Ching Ming Festival (All Souls Day),” shares Kong.

Kong has even turned Nirvana Memorial Park in Semenyih into a tourist attraction where visitors to the Park are mesmerised by its tranquil beauty. He has managed to transform the public’s negative perception of the cemetery.

Nirvana’s listing on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange was a high point for Kong. “We managed to raise RM1bil without much difficulty. That would not be so easy in Malaysia. Our Hong Kong platform is definitely an advantage for us,” Kong says of Nirvana Asia Ltd which has 13 branches all over Asia. Its branch in China is currently under development.

In 2012, Nirvana was named ‘Asia Outstanding Brand in Funeral Service Industry’ and ‘Asia Outstanding Award in Multi National Expansion’ at the Asia Funeral Expo (AFE) Awards Ceremony. More recently, Nirvana was ranked No. 1 in “Best Small-Cap Company in Hong Kong” in Asia’s Best Managed Companies Poll 2015 by FinanceAsia.

All these achievements did not stop Kong from spending quality time with his family of two sons and three daughters.

“I may be very busy but I will still jog with my sons for about 45 minutes in the mornings. We have breakfast together as a family every morning and dinner on a weekly basis. Beyond that, we also travel overseas together. We’re a very happy family,” says Kong. His daughter, Jo Jo, who was present at the interview session says with a laugh, “We are very understanding too!”

As for the road ahead, Kong intends to improve on the “software” of the business even though Nirvana is already the largest of its kind in Asia. Kong believes that the biggest competitor is one’s self.

Having an undying passion to challenge the ‘impossible’ himself, Kong now fans that kind of fire in those who aspire to go into business.

“You must have a strong passion for the business. The secret to my success is my passion. I was at the memorial park site every week during the early years of the business. Even when my wife was pregnant, she would be there too. I really love my business. If you don’t have the passion to start with, then I’m 100% sure that your business won’t be successful!” says Kong.

His undying passion for the bereavement care business at the time when it was unheard of in Malaysia, has propelled Kong to dizzying heights.

“Nobody was doing it in Malaysia then doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible. I can’t help feeling that I have triumphed over many ‘impossibilities’. Nirvana has become a tourist attraction with even a spa in it. Can’t be listed in Hong Kong? I did it. No pre-planning for your funeral because it is a taboo? I have thousands of members doing it now,” Kong says.

For those who think his kind of success is only reserved for the elite, Kong insists that he is just an ordinary person, hailing from a background of rubber tappers.

“Don’t ever look down on yourself because anything is possible. In the past, I have looked up to a few people as my role models, but never have I imagined that one day I would actually be bigger than them. Your fighting spirit has to be there every day,” says Kong with an unmistakeable conviction in his voice.

Issue 9/2015