Wheels In Motion

Interview by Renyi Lim.  Grab’s energetic Group CEO and Co-Founder, Anthony Tan, talks business philosophies, driving his company forward in the right direction and how to pack a punch in the...

Interview by Renyi Lim. 

Grab’s energetic Group CEO and Co-Founder, Anthony Tan, talks business philosophies, driving his company forward in the right direction and how to pack a punch in the ride-hailing ring.

It takes a lot to faze Anthony Tan, Group CEO and Co-Founder of ride-hailing app Grab, but funnily enough, it’s the simplest of questions that brings him to a halt: does he ever switch off? “Switch off?” he frowns, rolling the phrase around his mouth like something strange and unfamiliar. “I don’t even know what that means. I don’t see a need to switch off. My wife understands – we talk about work all the time, and if we don’t, we talk about anything that leads to work.”

Given that he’s in charge of a company that operates in 34 cities across six countries, has 630,000 drivers under its wing and boasts a total of 33 million users who’ve downloaded Grab across South-East Asia, perhaps it’s just as well that Tan enthusiastically throws himself headfirst into his work. We’ve managed to catch him as he zips between Jakarta, Singapore and Grab’s new, larger engineering offices in Beijing and Seattle – one of the many duties that comes with running the region’s number one transportation platform and mobile Internet company.

Blessed with impressive energy reserves and a keen competitive edge, Tan credits his family with shaping his work ethic. It’s not just his grandfather, Tan Sri Tan Yuet Foh – Co-Founder of Tan Chong Motors – but his parents, too. “I learnt frugality from them, which was very much my grandfather’s way. ‘Money is hard to earn and easy to throw away’ – that’s a very typical Hokkien saying. My parents also passed on the quality of hard work. There was a huge emphasis not necessarily on being book smart, but about working damn hard.

“I remember my father saying that work and joy should be present in your life, but when you’re working hard, you shouldn’t feel you’re making compromises. I completely agree with that. You see this consistently amongst top global entrepreneurs – this idea of loving what you do and being happiest doing what you love, which happens to be work. Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba Group, said that there’s no such thing as a work-life balance – only work-life harmony. And for me, this is harmony.”

Despite a punishing work schedule (or, from Tan’s perspective, a rewarding one), he’s a devoted family man. His charming wife, Chloe, is also present at The Peak’s shoot along with their infant son, who gurgles happily whenever he spots his father. “Look, this is work, but I have my family right here,” says Tan, gesturing towards them. Not only do they follow him across the globe wherever business takes him, he reveals, but they’ve also had a baby cot installed in his office. “Even the idea of integrating one’s family into the business comes from my parents. They brought us to work when we were kids – I remember seeing my father’s desk – so I’m sure my ‘mini-me’ will experience that too.”

As for his business philosophies, Tan’s first foray into entrepreneurship was trading and selling comic books at the age of 11, but it was his time studying in the United States that proved to be formative for him. “Although I’d learnt from my parents that business and government are very intertwined in South-East Asia, I could only see it in practice. At the University of Chicago, I studied econometrics, public policy and philosophy, so I began to understand the academia behind it: why there might be windows of opportunity for striking on certain hot topics, like ride-hailing or traffic jams across the region. It gave me a foundation to transcend and understand these issues.”

Sating himself on the works of Aristotle, John Locke, Thomas Hobbes and Confucius, Tan then made his way to Harvard Business School for a considerably different – but equally eye-opening – education. “I discovered that social good and the creation of economic benefit are not mutually exclusive. When I first arrived, this was a case that that really shook my paradigm: that you don’t have to make all your money first, then work out how to introduce philanthropy into your company just before you retire. If that’s going to be your business model, you can do good and create economic value simultaneously.”

Social impact, as Tan explains, now underpins the way his company operates and distinguishes itself. “It’s integrated into the core DNA of Grab’s business model. Our vision is ‘driving South-East Asia forward’, because it is our home. The bottom line is how we can better serve low-income populations here. At Grab, we constantly think about the social impact that we can make – not CSR for CSR’s sake, but how we can take a commercial business model and make it relevant to the region’s economic and social development.”

“Our vision is ‘driving South-east Asia forward’, because it is our home. The bottom line is how we can better serve low-income populations here.”

From taking its small but ambitious first steps in 2012 as MyTeksi, in an attempt to counter the difficulty of finding a taxi in Malaysia, the ride-hailing app has evolved into something far greater. Grab’s presence has spread to Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines, bringing numerous drivers and passengers together through a safe, reliable transportation platform. Under Tan and his Co-Founder Tan Hooi Ling’s leadership, the company’s reputation is one of dynamism, with a canny grasp of the regional market and a clear understanding of the South-East Asian mindset.

“We’re always focused on solving the real problems in our cities,” Tan affirms. “Passengers care about safety on public transport, so we take a holistic view to improving that, including driver screenings, defensive driving training, free personal accident insurance and the share-my-ride feature. For the first time in history, a homegrown South-East Asia tech company is poised to help shape the region’s future. We’re all really proud of that.

“For our drivers, we stand for the opportunity to make a better income to spend on education, housing and healthcare. This is doing good business because it has a positive network effect. If we focus on giving drivers more jobs, it reduces retention costs, drivers stay loyal, passengers get a positive experience and the network grows. For our customers, the biggest thing is time. Because of the efficiencies we create, people have more time in the day. And for the cities we operate in, we stand for less congestion, better traffic flow, and we’re nurturing engineering talent here and around the world.”

Despite having to deal with major issues such as initial hostility or suspicion from local taxi companies and legal wrangling over the regulation of ride-hailing services in various countries, Tan remains immensely excited about the incredible potential for growth in the region. “This is the perfect time to be in the tech industry. Right now, Internet penetration is only about 40 per cent in South-East Asia, and tens of millions of people are coming online each year. The consumer class is set to reach 400 million in the next four years. There is a massive migration to urban centres and those people will need to find a way to get around safely and efficiently.”

Of course, Grab is not the only company seeking to ride the swell of what promises to be an enormous wave. Other ride-hailing apps – most prominently, Uber – have been jostling for market dominance in South-East Asia, making a veritable spectator sport out of a massive gold rush. Much has been made of the rivalry between Grab and Uber, to the point that it’s been portayed as a fight between David and Goliath in certain media outlets. Tan, however, sees no reason for enmity: “I look at competition with a phrase from the Bible: ‘Iron sharpens iron.’

“I believe that more intense competition brings out the best in us – sometimes the worst – though ideally, we’re meant to harness it and emerge as winners. It’s not winning for the sake of winning, but going back to asking why we exist. It’s to serve our customers and our drivers by providing the most relevant services in a way that fits their price, time and profile.” Here’s the million-dollar question, though: without Uber, would Grab have been pushed as far to diversify, reconnect and reinvent? This, it seems, is where Tan’s competitive spirit blazes most brightly.

“At every stage, there was a perfect challenge for us to grow. I don’t think we could have handled a very sophisticated competitor or a terrible one in Grab’s early stages. When you’re in the ring, if you’re welterweight and you go against a heavyweight, it’s not fun. The dance has to be fun. When you’re in the same weight class, that’s when it gets exciting – it’s what you need. It’s great for spectators, for you and me, just to learn and feel that we’re challenged. Feeling that every move is watched and calculated with intelligence, where everyone is thinking very thoughtfully about everything we do.

“That’s the point we want to reach. I thank God every day for where we are, because it’s just so much fun right now. It’s the time when you’re literally on your toes – you’re moving like a butterfly or you’ll get killed – so you’ve got to be super sharp and intellectually rigorous over every action and word.”

“Call us stubborn or call us optimists, but every time we heard the word ‘no’, we believed it was one step closer to a ‘yes’.”

True to form, Tan has stepped into the ring with the intention of delivering a knockout punch. Determined not to let Uber’s deep pockets get the better of them, he raised a record USD750 million in funding for Grab last year, and has his sights firmly set on being battle-ready. “Our recent round of fundraising has made us the best capitalised technology start-up in the region, and brings our war chest to more than USD1 billion. We plan to use this new capital to continue growing our core transportation platform and to build GrabPay, our mobile payments platform, as well as focusing on Indonesia.

“We will also continue investing in stronger data science and machine learning capabilities – after all, technology has the potential to solve almost every problem, fill market gaps, and drive efficiencies and improvements. Additionally, we’re looking for potential investors who are aligned with our hyperlocal approach. There is no substitute for being a local in understanding South-East Asian needs, and more drivers and passengers choosing to use Grab as their first booking option is affirmation for potential investors as they determine valuation.”

The fact that Grab commands 95 per cent of the market share of third-party taxi-hailing apps demonstrates that it’s more than reaping the rewards of having localised expertise, as does GrabCar’s increasing market share in private car services (over 50 per cent and growing, for the record). Beside taxis and cars, there’s also a GrabBike motorbike service – incredibly popular in Jakarta, where the city’s surrounding population outnumbers that of Beijing – GrabHitch for carpooling and GrabExpress, an on-demand pick-up and delivery service. Plenty of facets to the company to keep Tan gloriously busy, which he’ll no doubt enjoy.

While Grab still maintains its sense of fun – GrabCar users in Malaysia were able to have boxes of yee sang delivered to their doorsteps for Chinese New Year, while Singaporean Grab users were offered the chance to book driverless cars last October, thanks to a partnership with tech startup nuTonomy – it’s entirely serious about the game they’re playing. The newly announced ‘Grab 4 Indonesia’ 2020 master plan, for instance, will see it pour USD700 million in the country over the next four years to support Indonesia’s goal of becoming South-East Asia’s largest digital economy by 2020.

“We’re developing technology for cities where infrastructure can still be influenced, or where the use of our data and mapping technology can play a role in shaping what cities will look like 10 to 20 years down the road. It’s about pushing through and not accepting the impossible – and just not giving up!” says Tan. “When many scoffed at the ‘lame’ idea of a taxi-hailing app, we kept pushing through and building. People said taxi fleets and drivers wouldn’t adopt our technology, but we believed in the idea and that if we showed them how our technology would improve their lives, they would adopt it.

“Call us stubborn or call us optimists, but every time we heard the word ‘no’, we believed it was one step closer to a ‘yes’.”

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