Executive Director & Founder of Fella Design
Jason Tan is detailing how it’s all a matter of being in the driver’s seat and knowing when to slow down and enjoy the view. “I’m semi-retired,” he jokes. “I’m no longer active in the day-to-day operations. I liken business to driving a car. We were aggressive during our youth. Flooring the accelerator and maximising what we’re capable of achieving. Yet, certain stretches of the road can be risky at that speed.”
Like many growing up, he simply tried to secure his first job after obtaining his Bachelor’s of Science (Physics) from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia in 1985. But fate had different plans. The recession led to massive retrenchment in most sectors. Jobs were hard to find and he couldn’t afford to be choosy. So, he took a job in the sales department of an interior design firm and stayed for seven months before deciding to start a business with two partners. All three were men, and they decided that as three ‘fellas’ in an industry dominated by women at the time, Fella Design indicated their entrepreneurial persuasion.
“Times were bad (then),” recalls the 54-year-old. “Many of my varsity mates went into teaching, but we were determined to start our own interior design venture. None of us had much experience, but we had the basic knowledge. The bigger companies had problems sustaining themselves because of the economic downturn. We kept our operations very lean and devoted a lot of personal attention to growing the business.”
Fella Design began getting a leg up as a result of rave reviews from top architects, interior designers and customers, according to Tan. Best of all, word-of-mouth allowed the trio to expand their clientele in a business that began in the affluent neighbourhood of Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur.
Soon, Fella Design expanded into making fabric sofas from a two-acre factory it set up. “I had property developers telling us not to go into furniture manufacturing,” recalls Tan. “I travelled to the United States and visited trade fairs, and saw the scale that was possible and my mind began to see the possibilities. Fabric sofas made sense because there are more variations as opposed to leather where there are fewer shades and textures.”
Chances are you’ve already seen its designs in trendy houses and offices. Favourable credit terms from overseas suppliers allowed them to survive the initial start-up difficulties. “Initially, I wasn’t aware that they bought insurance policies to cover the possibility of us defaulting,” he jokes. “In that sense, the underwriting bank assumes the risk and takes a haircut from the suppliers when we made our inventory payment. Our projected sales targets were easily achievable and we have never looked back since.”
Fella Design continued its growth with more showrooms and a broader range of products and providing customisation options. “You pick the fabric and the style and we’ll do the rest,” he says of the bespoke service. “We also have the advantage of printing our own fabric that further lowers our expenses.”
Even as Fella Design diversifies, the entry of upscale designer furniture boutiques and even the behemoth that is IKEA has not diminished the brand’s presence. “Contrary to what you might think, having IKEA in Malaysia is a plus because greater emphasis is placed by households on interior design. We’re still relevant because we provide choices that appeal to most consumers. We even have customers coming back to re-upholster their sofas.”
Tan’s success can be attributed to his awareness of changing lifestyle trends. He believes he has survived and thrived for so long because he is committed to customer satisfaction. “I’m perfectly fine if a customer changes his mind,” he says, allowing them to return and exchange their purchases because “we’re not coercing individuals to buy our products. In turn, this translates into returning customers and employees who feel secure with our philosophy and principles.”
Tan also hints at succession plans but lets on that a hired manager may not be as ambitious in spearheading expansion. “My children are grown up. I play squash and make it a point to have breakfast with my wife every day,” he adds. “This is the pace I prefer now.”
Magnus Johan Alvarsson
Managing Director of Atos Asia Pacific
Magnus Johan Alvarsson’s love affair with the Olympics began when he was a behind-the-scenes manager responsible for integrating the computerised central repository system during the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympic games. “It was a lifetime opportunity where we were managing the spider in the web of all this information that supported applications and sport teams.”
The ability to work under intense pressure and the analytical competence he brought to every subsequent Olympic project in various capacities with Atos – from Athens to Beijing and, eventually, Vancouver – earned him the reputation as one of the standouts in executing software projects from start to finish.
“From relaying real-time commentator information, athletes’ data and world records, we had to ensure that everything ran according to plan,” he says of managing the complex programmes that the games required.
“There’s a mutual respect and admiration between us and the athletes that was interesting. Not all of them were making millions like professional tennis or basketball players, and they were training relentlessly because it’s their passion despite having relatively short careers. We’re also not doing it for the money because there’s personal satisfaction in achieving our goals even if we’re coming from different ends of the spectrum.”
It wasn’t long before Alvarsson was re-assigned to head operations of Atos Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Myanmar. The Swedish native’s focus is on business development and restructuring; while ensuring growth and profitability targets are achieved. “My superior once remarked that I’ll never move back to Sweden,” he says.
“I do head back home once a year during the festive season to visit my family. Having relocated from Beijing, I love being based in Malaysia because there’s just so much to do and the cultural aspects of the country are fascinating. This is preferable to living in airports and hotel rooms.”
Along the way, he transformed Kuala Lumpur into one of the company’s strategic offshore hubs Just don’t mistake him for the tech geek who can’t throw a curve ball. He was once a bruising ice-hockey player who dreamt of playing professionally for the Boston Bruins. “Seeing the Stanley Cup in person during the Olympics was a memorable moment,” he says. “Athletes and visitors alike who are fans of the NHL (National Hockey League) were snapping away with their cameras. I wasn’t the most studious teenager and I’m not very detail-oriented. But I make up for it by being able to think on my feet and applying what I’ve learned in a practical setting.”
And while he has since traded a hockey stick for a seven-iron (not to mention five sets of golf clubs), he applies the same dedication towards his vocation as he does towards perfecting his swing. “I read often because I’m naturally curious. There’s always something new to learn because technology is constantly evolving,” says the single-digit handicap golfer, who mentions the Saujana Golf and Country Club as his favourite place to tee off.
“Nevertheless, it’s my personal objective to achieve some semblance of work-life balance. According to my personal trainer, I should not be spending too much time at the office. I’ll leave around seven and try to ignore my mobile phone as best as I can. It’s going be awhile before I retire so there’s a lot of time for me to work. ”
“There may come a day when I can play golf nine months a year in Malaysia, Indonesia or Thailand, and have a place in Sweden where I can head home and spend the summer months. That will be the dream.”
Tamil Selvan Durairaj
Executive Director & Group Deputy Managing Director of Censof Holdings Berhad
The ability to rise above is what separates the wheat from the chaff. As a student, Tamil Selvan Durairaj had a knack for numbers and it showed when he studied for an accounting degree instead of law or economics. His father was a planter and his mother a housewife, and his option after high school in Segamat was a local degree with affiliations to a Sri Lankan tertiary institute where he attended as part of the curriculum.
“I remember being in the thick of the (Lankan) riots during the early 1980s,” he says. “We didn’t know how bad it was going to get. The Malaysian High Commissioner came to pick us up and take us to the High Commission. There were around 50 of us and we stayed there for a week before our first flight out. That was an interesting experience, to say the least.”
It didn’t deter the plucky youngster from qualifying as an associate member of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) and, eventually, becoming a chartered accountant. “My starting pay was a measly MYR300, he recalls. “I eventually joined the Accountant-General’s Office before KPMG head-hunted me because they wanted someone with experience in the government sector.”
In 1995, Tamil Selvan formed a company named Century Software, which specialises in accounting systems and software. “The company started with just me and my partner (Ang Hsin) Hsien and we saw an opportunity for this Australian product that we could market to a potential client base here. I was a newlywed but, thankfully, my wife is a doctor, allowing me to come to terms with leaving a well-paying job to strike out on my own.”
Although never having trained as an entrepreneur, his partner had already chalked up significant marketing experience and they were able to weather the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.
“In Hsien, I found a great partner-in-crime who complemented my skillsets by making the cold calls and meeting potential clients while I managed operations,” says the 54-year-old. “We started with a tiny office, one laptop, a table and MYR35,000 in funds. We focused on adapting to the market swiftly
by being small and manoeuvrable, and the company grew quickly with our specialised financial management solutions.”
The Millennium Bug provided another opportunity to grow the business as Century Software’s products were Y2K-compliant and government agencies readily enlisted their help to stem a potentially widespread system failure. These days, Tamil Selvan isn’t resting on his laurels even as the addition of Ameer Shaik Mydin and Datuk Samsul
Husin to the board of directors has made the company “multi-racial and multi-faceted”.
“I’m still very hands-on even as we acquire listed subsidiaries such as Dagang NeXchange, tackling the GST implementation or even entering into a possible joint venture with MYOB for smaller business,” he says. “We have established good relationships with the government and corporate clients, and we’re looking to grow organically in the future.”
He believes the group is in good hands and is looking forward to easier days soon. “I don’t golf but I enjoy badminton. A former superior once me that ‘the day you are able to afford your dream car, you’ll relish driving it yourself instead of being ferried around by a driver’. That’s very true and I continue to send my children to college and school every day. It’s life’s simple pleasures.”
Shaifulizam Mohd Saleh
Managing Director of Trisystem Group of Companies
Snapshots of Shaifulizam Mohd Saleh’s career in the oil and gas industry reveal various catalysts that have been responsible for shaping not only his Trisystem Group of Companies, but also his life. The first was a scholarship to study at California State University, where the Subang boy pursued a Bachelor of Science degree majoring in electrical engineering and graduated in 1985.
The second was a headstart at Esso Production Malaysia Inc, where he plied his trade as an engineer for nine years before ascending the management ranks. “I was sent to Texas and it was an invaluable learning experience,” he says of his time at Esso, now housed under the ExxonMobil umbrella.
That experience would serve him well and led him eventually to become the head of a regional workforce that implements control and instrumentation solutions for the oil and gas and petrochemical industry, and one of the most comprehensive installation and operational maintenance networks in the business.
Shaifulizam, 52, says he had no back-up plan in 1995 when he left Esso to go it alone. It was just a decision to have a new life experience. “I had some savings and was mentally prepared for a few years of digging in my heels and gaining the trust of customers with timely delivery and systems that not only connected, but worked together smoothly. It was only about three years later that Trisystem started seeing a steady stream of business that kept us afloat.”
Experience has taught Shaifulizam that “luck gets better if you have a plan”. He always has a strategy and is meticulous in his approach towards establishing a routine that keeps him grounded and prepared, whatever the circumstances.
“Malaysia, being an oil and gas producer, also provided plenty of opportunities as a result of cost benefits that were in place,” he says. “Many have the misconception that the industry has big margins when, in fact, it is a very competitive sector after you consider the responsibilities and risks that we’re shouldering.”
As a creature of habit, Shaifulizam still starts his day early and heads to the office. “It’s a routine where I like to have the week planned out in advance,” he says. “Of course, there are days when I keep things open and there’ll be managers who want to discuss strategic matters with me. I believe in staying humble because success is relative; there are many instances in life where there are no right answers and you just have to try your best given the circumstances.”
Shaifulizam has thought long and hard about whether to involve his children in the company. What is certain is that he wants them to decide for themselves after their studies. “You may be passing on the wealth, but you’re also passing on the liabilities and the burdens that come with it,” he states.
He’s a strong advocate of being independent and having a long-term outlook. “I’ve never used a friendship to get what I want, although a contact may open doors,” he explains. “For, at the end of the day, it’s credibility and professionalism that get the job done.”