Text by Ellfian Rahim
Datuk Sydney Tan, the powerhouse behind the popularity of the Maxxis tyre brand in Malaysia, held the idea of one day becoming a medical professional close to her heart. As a child, Datuk Tan was diagnosed with lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease that causes her own immune system to attack her body’s healthy tissues. “I was diagnosed when I was nine. All of a sudden I couldn’t walk and was in a wheelchair, and my dad had to carry me up and down the stairs even when I was 12 years old. It made me feel so helpless. My mum and dad were always so strong, and they were there for me even though they both had to work. I owe them a lot,” Datuk Tan recalls.
“So, I really wanted to study medicine. My illness made me see how medicine can alleviate pain and help people. I too wanted to help others. But while undergoing a pre-med course, I got an insight into how life would be as a doctor, particularly since I wanted to specialise in cardiac medicine – there would be absolutely no work-life balance!”
After also discovering that becoming a medical professional could expose her to the risk of triggering her long-dormant medical condition, she decided to take a different path in her tertiary development. “I eventually completed my studies at Emory University in Georgia in the US, but you know what? Before I switched my major to investment banking, I was actually in the university’s chiropractic school.”
This was perhaps the first serious adjustment Datuk Tan had to make in her life. An even bigger one was waiting, though. “A few months short of my 27th birthday, I was roped into the family business. I was about to do investment banking at that point but my father was adamant I joined the business that he started with his brother.”
That business was Kian Hon Tyres, a nationwide automotive tyre and servicing company, with branches in Penang, Perak, Selangor and Kedah, and two Maxxpit concept stores that offer car care services for off-road vehicles, trucks, lorries and passenger cars. But up to that point, Datuk Tan didn’t even know the brands that her dad did business with – all she knew was that he sold tyres.
“We’re from a Teochew family,” she continues, “and I’ve always understood that my dad was a traditionalist. Initially, he wanted my younger brother to take over his business, but he was way too young then. So, it was left up to me as I was the eldest child. But I think my uncle was more of a mentor to me in the early days. He’s the one who drove the business as he’s in charge of sales and marketing, while my father took care of operations. My uncle has an absolutely different character from my dad and looked at everything in a more strategic fashion. My father was more of the force behind the training of our staff, and making sure the business day-to-day follows a set routine.”
Even at this early stage, however, Datuk Tan was keen to innovate some age-old business processes. “I wanted to get into the sales and marketing aspect of the company, but I spent my first few months there revamping the human resource system instead. I brought in HR software to automate this function because we run, among other things, a rethreading plant, on top of our many branches, so there were a lot of different shifts, overtime approvals and such to keep track of. And all of this was initially done manually by my mom!”
Datuk Tan also remembers introducing email to the company. “It’s true, in this industry, even today, only those below 50 years old would be communicating this way – everyone else still prefers calling and communicating with me and my people on the phone. And we used to deal only with walk-in customers at our outlets, a totally face-to-face kind of relationship.”
What was it like, however, for this ‘lady boss’ when it came to dealing with customers expecting a man to run a tyre business? “Well, it’s easier now compared to 10 years ago… I mean, I still find myself the only female at the table when we host clients or business partners for dinners and such,” continues Datuk Tan with a wry smile.
A Woman Running a Tyre Business
Datuk Tan was also fortunate she met her true mentor – Dr Wally Chen, principal of Taiwanese tyre manufacturers Maxxis International – soon after she joined the business. Maxxis first started making bicycle tyres back in 1967 and, today, it is one of the world’s top 10 tyre manufacturers. “He took me under his wing and began assigning tasks for me, like organising conferences for the brand’s distributors. Thanks to him, I learned a fair bit about what makes the tyre industry tick and how to properly market a tyre brand.
“In 2015, I became the corporate brand ambassador for the Maxxis brand in Taiwan and, later, the brand’s Asian marketing director. Throughout my time working with Dr Chen in Taiwan, we exchanged a lot of ideas for the brand’s future advancement. And he would bring me along everywhere he goes so that I could understand the industry more clearly through his eyes. That was the best way he knew how to teach, and I am so fortunate because of this.”
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There have been times when Datuk Sydney Tan received what felt like privileged treatment. Just because she’s a woman in a male-dominated industry. “I feel really uncomfortable when this happens. But I learned to voice out when situations like this happen. But this leads to the other issue that haunts perhaps every ‘lady boss’ type out there. – That their male audiences fail to take their observations seriously! And this is unless, of course, a male counterpart defends her position and supports her opinion…
Datuk Sydney Tan, Maxxis International
“Fortunately, this has just made me stronger and taught me to persevere. These days, if I think that something should be done a certain way, I stand by it and do not feel like I need to prove myself anymore!” That’s why when her own company – Walson Tyres – began a professional relationship with the Maxxis brand, she felt that she had to assemble a new team who shared her confidence in the brand, rather than simply transfer employees from the business that her father and uncle started earlier.
“Perhaps I can ‘feel’ people better because I am a woman,” says Datuk Tan. “For instance, I’m sure I resonate with how my employees feel. I even make it a point to get to know their families. When I show empathy in this manner, and this is something I grew to learn along the way. You learn who the right people are for the many different tasks in your organisation. Starting my own company with a team that I carefully put together is definitely better than trying to innovate a legacy with people who are not ready to accept change.
“With Walson Tyres, I put transformation and reform to the fore. I’ve grouped my people into smaller ‘tribes’.Groups of seven or eight people – each accountable for themselves. So, they’re closer, know each other better and excel together. Smaller teams are also more agile, make better and faster decisions, and share a shorter and more effective information flow.
“Meanwhile, the many shops you see across the country selling Maxxis tyres are not quite franchises in the traditional sense. But are dealers who run their own businesses. Think of this as a B2B network. So, partnering up with companies staffed by tyre professionals is what we do. The whole process is just people selling to other people. This is how I understand business.”
The Future of Women Entrepreneurs
Datuk Tan believes that by doing things this way, she’s managed to humanise the Maxxis brand a bit more. Ultimately, she wants her customers to feel that she and her company genuinely cares about them. “Only then can we also refer to our business network as the ‘Maxxis family’. After all, we’ve established a global network where the entrepreneurs in it know each. In fact, Dr Chen is a staunch advocate of this way of doing business and I’ve even helped him publish a book about this.”
By dedicating her heart and soul to this more social way of doing business. Datuk Tan feels that she’s now finally come to inherit its great DNA properly over the years. “And you know what? I’ve seen its principles influence me and my family in how we work so closely with the Maxxis brand and principal. You don’t see this in other brands. Humanising a brand is just one of the ways that I have tried to influence the tyre business in a newer and more revolutionary manner. Hopefully, this will help inspire lasting change in the process.”
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