What inspired you to launch Enterprise Asia?
It was 2006 and we were ready to expand my travel and publication business to outside of Malaysia. We knew the key to expanding regionally is finding the right partner, yet we couldn’t find the relevant association or agency to help identify suitable people. In fact, there were no cross-boundary business associations then. That inspired me and a group of fellow businessmen to form Enterprise Asia, as an association for entrepreneurs and business leaders. Of course, the ASEAN Business Club was subsequently formed, but we’d like to think we were many years ahead.
We run Enterprise Asia like a business. While we are registered as an NGO from day one, we knew we had to be financially viable. Many of our activities are events-driven, which serve two purposes: help us raise funds, and keep members and other stakeholders connected. To give the then nascent organisation a meaning, we put together our two pillars of existence, namely ‘Responsible Entrepreneurship’ and ‘Investment in People’. These became the call for action for all our programmes. The Asia Pacific Entrepreneurship Awards (APEA), for example, has grown into the region’s largest and widest awards for entrepreneurship and leadership, on the back of championing responsible entrepreneurship and investment in people. Our very popular International CSR Summit, which was previously held in Macau and Singapore, embodies these same pillars.
Present position: President, Enterprise Asia.
Other positions: Chairman, Asia Spa and Wellness Promotion Council; Managing Director, Business Media International; Managing Director, Global Travel International.
Years in the industry: 18.
Education: MBA from San Diego State University and BTS from Taylor’s College.
Favourite quotation: “What you do today will determine where you will be in five years’ time.”
Favourite pastimes: Reading and travel.
Considering the business you are managing, what do you regard as vital factors for you to stay on top of your game?
Many of the other associations are dependent on government funding or funds raised over their decades of existence. We have neither the luxury of government funding, nor a long and illustrious history of fundraising. This means that everything we do needs to turn in a profit. One of our greatest challenges is the perception among the business community that an association shouldn’t be profitoriented; that your social cause should be all that matters. Developing a value proposition that inspires clients and partners to part with their money is, therefore, much more challenging. People see us as a charity, but we are not.
A lot of what I do is securing buyins for our concepts and ideas among stakeholders. That and coaching our people to think beyond what they are doing today. Being a small organisation means we can’t afford to be overly choosy about who we bring into the team. When you have people of very diverse educational and intellectual background, you have to work hard on building upon commonalities and inspiring the stronger ones to lead, while challenging the weaker ones to grow.
What are your plans for Enterprise Asia over the next five years?
As we become more regionally integrated, Enterprise Asia has to take on the mantle of regional leadership. Many of our members are top business leaders in their respective markets. Collectively, we account for over USD120 billion in turnover. Yet, as an organisation, we could do so much more. Our two pillars of existence remain our driving force. In the next five years, however, we have recalibrated our goal to be more inclusive. We shouldn’t be just an elite club of entrepreneurs (the minimum turnover for member-enterprises is USD5 million), but should help entrepreneurs of all stripes.
In 2016, as president, I introduced the two new purposes of Enterprise Asia: Institutionalising Sustainability and Democratising Entrepreneurship. We have lined up a series of programmes revolving around these two purposes to drive the sustainability agenda among businesses across the region, and to push for a more just, equitable entrepreneurial landscape. Ultimately, entrepreneurship shouldn’t be just for the elites. And, certainly, sustainability should not be just for publicity sake.
We are also looking forward to kicking-off the International Innovation Summit in Shanghai in November and introduce a new programme for corporate innovation. This would complete the triangle of entrepreneurship, sustainability and innovation, and help us play a stronger role in building regional business leaders.
What do you see are the gamechanging challenges facing your business and how do you propose to overcome them?
Much of what we do has been imitated by other associations and commercial businesses. Of course, people say imitation is the best compliment, but it also means much of our hard work and pioneering ideas have to go back to the drawing board. Moving forward, we continue to put effort into building our internal talents and regionalising our programmes. The APEA is now in 14 countries. Our new innovation programme will be global from day one. Competitors can copy ideas, products and processes. They can even pinch your talents and clients. But they can never take away your experience and reputation for excellence, and these are the areas that we are strong in.
Single out a leader in the corporate world you wish to emulate.
There are many inspirational leaders out there, and if I have to pick one, it has to be Tim Cook. It is not easy stepping into the shoes of an outsized predecessor. In the case of Cook, his predecessor had an almost God-like reputation, and the expectations would overwhelm most men. But Cook has shown a tremendous amount of restraint. It is all about focus and implementation for Cook, not showmanship or dreampeddling. Likewise, we have too many ‘visionaries’ in business and a chronic lack of people who get things done. If there’s anything I’d like to do better this year is to have the discipline to implement and implement ruthlessly.
As the president of Enterprise Asia, what excites and worries you most?
Trump worries me. We have all worked tirelessly for over three decades to define and champion globalisation, and, in the process, open doors for people in marginalised societies to move up economically. There are, without doubt, many teething problems, and these issues may never go away. But when you square the good with the bad, globalisation is clearly the best thing that has ever happened for all of us (safe for, perhaps, the discovery of fire, electricity and the Internet). American businesses have probably benefitted the most out of globalisation. If the new president is to push through even half of what he’s promised, we are going to be seeing protectionism on a scale never seen before since the WTO was signed.
On the plus side, this means Asian businesses should look beyond the US as a market and source for innovation. We have a unique window of opportunity, right now, to break the US’ stranglehold on innovation. There are many pockets of innovation that we could grow collectively. Biotech and pharmaceutical research is growing rapidly in India. China has doubled up on tech research and is funding innovation labs across the country. What we lack, perhaps, is the collective acceptance of ideas and innovations that originate from within Asia. The Europeans woke up one day three decades ago and realised they needed to champion indigenous innovation if they are to remain relevant. And they would have succeeded better than they have, safe for cross boundary rivalry and having to account for newer, weaker countries that joined the grouping. Now that we have learned from that lesson, we need to make innovation a collective effort – not a national priority, but a regional priority.
Our new product, a global innovation programme, will help escalate this regional cohesiveness. We will inspire, even coerce, companies, industries and governments to work with one another. The alternative is to be a rudderless ship in an ocean of protectionism and one-upmanship.
TEXT MICHAEL OH
PHOTOGRAPHY JASON LEE
Michael Oh is chair and CEO Coach of Vistage International Malaysia, a global CEO resource and network of chief executives. This article first appeared in the August 2017 issue of The Peak as part of our CEO Dialog column.