Women We Love 2024: Dr Alice Lee of Cosway On Staying Relevant and Staying Ahead With Big Data

The CEO of Cosway Group talks about staying on top of consumer demands in an ever changing market.
text by Daween Maan
Dr Alice Cosway

Dr Alice Lee, Chief Executive Officer of Cosway Group

Dr Alice Lee’s arrival at our photoshoot shifts the tone in the room; appearing just after her team of staff, you anticipate the advent of someone important. But as she walks around cheerfully greeting everyone individually, it becomes clear that while the Chief Executive Officer of Cosway Group is indeed important, she is not self-important.

Cheerful, thoughtful, and honest, the clinical geneticist who became the CEO of the Malaysian retail giant in 2018 shows without pretension why the switch into a corporate role in the 45-year-old company wasn’t so outrageous – she’s knowledgeable, passionate, and to say driven would be underselling it, because you get the impression that Dr Alice never runs out of energy.

“I have no idea where the start of the year has gone,” she laughs “But this time of the year is the peak season for us in retail. From Christmas to the Lunar New Year and then Hari Raya coming, we all have to bring our A-game in order to meet what the market demands.”

Those demands are ever-changing. As retailers come to grips with post-pandemic normalisation, inflation, economic stagnation, and an abundance of competition, Dr Alice admits that even with four hundred stores nationwide, their job has never been tougher.

“We really do need to go all out and fight for what we aim for. It’s not just the traditional retailers but e-commerce and drop shippers; everyone is competing for the same pool of customers. And because the amount of disposable income is shrinking, people are spending more wisely.”


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However, she points out three things that she believes give them an edge – a trait innate to herself, one emerging in modern business and the final inherent to Cosway’s entire business model.

“I’m not afraid to ask stupid questions,” she exclaims “I think, even if you’re the youngest person in the room, you need to dive right in and ask about the things no one else is. That’s how I realised that we actually needed to use the data we already had to drive our decisions.”

“We are a hybrid business model; we have our retail outlets and behind that, we have the multi-level marketing aspect that provides us with our member data. So, we were sitting on a vast amount of information and in 2018 we built a system to analyse that data from the entire supply chain as well as the shopping behaviour of every customer.”

This system allows Cosway to see real-time data at any point in time to know which of their two thousand products are selling, or not, and which stores are successful or unsuccessful.

“I know exactly how the whole of Malaysia is doing,” she explains, “which state is doing better than the others, which store is doing better, what is the demographic, what is their shopping behaviours — I know exactly what is trending and that lets me set targets. So, that’s what we do, we use big data a lot.”

The hybrid model means a large majority of Cosway stores are run by ‘Stockists’ who have a certain number of years, sales and members under them while the company covers the costs of setting up and supplying their ‘Free Stores’. She explains how this gives them different avenues for retaining and growing their customer base.


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“When we started doing a lot of digitalization, we started on social media as well. But very quickly we realised that because we are different from normal retailers, we had to approach it differently. Our frontliners, our business owners, have a direct connection to our customers who are their members, and they sign up with them because they’ve built trust. So, instead of depending on social media influencers, we have on-ground influencers who know the products inside out.”

“I tell them that I believe at our core, we are not selling products, we are offering a service. The product that you sell the customer is based on the problem that you are solving for them.”

Though her career has taken her from developing immunosuppression medicine at the Royal Free Hospital in London to founding ADCAS LifeScience in Malaysia before her current role – it is obvious that her past inspires her present, almost literally in the case of the company’s latest initiative: Cosway Mobile2u.

“I’m a Sabah KK kid,” she lights up. “And one of my fondest memories growing up was when the soft serve ice cream truck used to come to our taman. Everyday at 4 pm, all the kids would be waiting outside to hear the music from the truck so they could buy ice cream. That inspired me one day because even though we have our stores, there are a lot of areas in Malaysia where we don’t have a presence, especially in rural areas.”

“So instead of opening a store, which can be quite costly and risky, I thought, ‘why don’t we use a mobile truck’, just like the ice cream truck. So, we now have this shop on wheels, that carries the most essential products based on our data, directly to the customers who can’t come to us. It even plays its own music that my team wrote and recorded in our office,” she finishes proudly.

Dr Alice Cosway

Dr Alice Lee, Chief Executive Officer of Cosway Group

She also credits her past experience with one of her most useful personal traits: her thick skin.

“When you’re in medical school doing your MD and PhD, and you’re the only foreigner in the entire batch, you get a lot of naysayers. I wouldn’t call it discrimination because you’re already at the level where you’re with the crème de la crème, so you’re not that great anymore. Then you deal with experienced scientists and doctors who will really bring you back to earth.”

“So, I learned a lot from that environment, and when giving up is not an option, you learn to develop thick skin, and a strong heart, and you keep going. That’s why I’m always open to try anything; I always tell my team ‘Just try, whether it works or not, just go ahead and try.’”

With her focus on the future of the company, her goal is the same as it has always been: “I want Cosway to be a household name for many years to come.”

“Not just relevant to housewives and middle-aged people, but also younger people. That’s why we are always innovating with our products and packaging. I am also very big on sustainability, which is why we have an eco-friendly range where everything from the product to the packaging is biodegradable. We know it’s a trendy thing right now, but it is important for the future.”

“Also, for the next two years, we want to focus more on healthcare. We are seeing an increase in health consciousness, and people are willing to invest in their own health, so we are going to develop more supplements and products to offer our customers.”

Past, present or future, it seems that Dr Alice Lee is always exactly where she’s supposed to be, ready to dive right in and accomplish something important.

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