No one, it seems, is more startled by Chiau Haw Choon’s success than he is. At the age of 34, not only is he Group Managing Director of Chin Hin Group Bhd, which means he’s in charge of Malaysia’s only building materials conglomerate to offer solutions across the value chain, but he’s also about to compete for this year’s EY World Entrepreneur Of The Year (WEOY) award in Monte Carlo in June (after being named EY Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Malaysia).
“I don’t think I was surprised by how well Chin Hin Group has performed,” he muses. “We’ve worked very hard to grow the business, after all. The surprise has been more about me: at 17, I would never have believed a person who started so late in life could ever become Bursa Malaysia’s youngest head of a public-listed company, or even the youngest EY Entrepreneur Of The Year winner in the award’s 16-year history in Malaysia.”
It is belief, however, that has played a major role in Chiau’s personal journey: not just the ability to believe in himself, but to place his faith in the importance of mentorship, of holding true to the values of integrity and trust, and in moving onwards and upwards. His story is one of a young man who believed he could – and did.
Born in the small town of Megat Dewa in Kedah, just outside Alor Setar, Chiau spent his earliest years tumbling around his grandfather’s hardware shop – a modest two-storey shophouse built along the road, in which the family both lived and worked. “We’d keep all kinds of building materials there – bricks, cement and wood – and the storage area ended up being my childhood playground!” he recalls. Perhaps a little unusually for a family business, Chiau’s father – Datuk Seri Chiau Beng Teik – never explicitly introduced his eldest son to his line of work, despite having begun working at own father’s shop in 1975 at the tender age of 13.
Instead, Chiau was left to learn through observation, watching as his father took over the shop and ventured into the business of trading building materials and cement transportation in the mid-1990s, eventually evolving it into a cement distributor trading company. “My father is very hardworking, and seeing him move into cement trading – the fact that he made that transition – inspired me and made me realise I could also achieve a lot of transitions in life. That’s why I later ventured into all kinds of different businesses. Another value I’ve inherited from him is his entrepreneurial spirit. To me, it’s about being a risk-taker, and taking that leap to expand and grow a business.”
With the company progressing well, Chiau’s father made the decision to move to Alor Setar with his young family – a shift that was almost the 11-year-old Chiau’s undoing. “Remember, I’d really been living in a kampung,” he says, “So, when I arrived in Alor Setar, I was so excited. To me, it was a big, bright city, and I was incredibly curious about everything I saw.” By 13, he’d dropped out of secondary school and for three years – by his own admission – Chiau was completely out of control, engaging in gang fights and experimenting with drugs and alcohol. “My parents couldn’t control me – I never listened to them. I’d disappear for weeks or months. I once spent five days in the police lockup when I was 14 or 15.
“Can you imagine that at such a young age, I was so rebellious? I’m the eldest in my family, just like my father. We’re the ones who are supposed to bear responsibility for the family as a role model, but I certainly wasn’t one. My entire family thought there was no way I’d ever return to a normal life. At that time, my limited vocabulary never included responsibility, values or integrity – all I knew was just ‘have fun’.” Concerned about his limited language skills – at 16, Chiau was unable to speak even basic English – his mother convinced him to attend a six-month study course in Singapore.
“I had nothing to do in Alor Setar and I was mostly thinking of myself – perhaps I could play around in Singapore. That was my motivation! But at the tuition centre, I met a teacher who was extremely patient with me and enthusiastic about what they taught. Every time I met with them to study basic English and Maths, they’d spend another one or two hours sharing the Gospel with me. I was intrigued – not so much by the stories, but why my teacher was so passionate about it. One day, I thought of visiting a nearby church and, there, I found peace. It was a feeling I’d never had in my life. I asked myself what life I wanted to continue with when I returned to Malaysia and, after a lot of self-reflection, I wanted to have a new life.”
The path back to normality was, as Chiau puts it with a grimace, “… a struggle. At 17, I was accepted into a Singaporean secondary school. I was the eldest in the school by far! All the other students were only 13 or 14. But I was fortunate enough to be put into the Express stream and completed my studies in four years.” He subsequently headed to Australia to study for a Bachelor’s Degree in Finance and Marketing at Deakin University, and was in his final year when he received a call from home with unexpected news.
“My father wasn’t feeling well, our family business was now in crisis and I was the only person capable of taking it on – my mother wasn’t in the business and my three siblings were only in secondary school. There was no other option at the time and that’s when a sense of responsibility hit me.” Was he intimidated by the prospect, given that he was only 23 at the time? “If it had been the size it is today, with over 1,500 employees, I think I would have been nervous. Back then, though, we were just a small trading company with 70 people, and my thoughts were to at least sustain the business – I never thought of growing it. It was a crisis that also brought opportunities for me.”
After joining Chin Hin Group in 2008, Chiau set about transforming the company from a family-owned business to a professionally run corporation, effecting several major changes over 11 years. “By the time I’d returned, my father had already grown our trading business into a SME company, but when I looked at it as a cement trading business, I felt it wasn’t sustainable. Imagine a shop that sells a single product – it relies on a sole supplier. What if, one day, that supplier decides to sell to other customers? It was a big risk for us. But the business was also an opportunity to supply to contractors and hardware shops, so my first move was to transform it into a one-stop building materials distribution company.”
Although Chin Hin Group is now recognised as one of the country’s top three building materials traders, offering over 1,000 products to around 4,000 customers in 11 branches and four warehouses across both Malaysia and Singapore, it stocks a combination of its partners’ products and those manufactured in-house. “Selling building materials my entire life wasn’t something I wanted,” Chiau remarks. “That’s why, for our second transformation, I ventured upstream and repositioned the company as an integrated building materials provider. We now have seven manufacturing divisions that we either acquired or started by ourselves, from which we’re able to produce everything from roofing to the foundations of a house.
“I think that’s very bold. Normally, a building manufacturing company will produce bricks or roofing – but I’m a very ambitious man and I want to produce everything.” There’s no denying that he’s got ambition by the bucketloads – enough to fill several cement mixers, in fact, as more changes were still in the pipeline. “When Chin Hin Group was listed two years ago, I wanted to reposition ourselves as a total building materials solution provider. Again, it was about sustainability, which was why – for the transformation third phase – we moved downstream into property development, building modular home systems, and solar engineering, procurement and construction.”
Perhaps what’s most remarkable about Chiau’s achievements in pushing the company forward is the fact that he claims not to have been operating from a long, complex game plan. “A decade ago, I never had that vision to be a total building materials solution provider. I could see us becoming a one-stop building materials distributor, but I kept repositioning the company as we moved upstream and then became focused on providing solutions. Just as I learned that life could change along the way, I realised the strategy of our company could too.”
Having had the reins of Chin Hin Group thrust into his hands at such an early age and, subsequently, outperforming all expectations, one wonders when Chiau realised that he had an aptitude for handling the business. “I wouldn’t say my skills lie in finance or marketing,” he says thoughtfully. “It’s much more about the people in my company that I’ve convinced to join me and believe in me – they’re the experts. It’s just that I’m able to create a platform to empower or push people, and that’s something I’m good at doing. The way I manage a business is all about empowerment and holding people accountable, so I’ve also set very strict policies surrounding character and integrity.
“Those who report to me must have my trust and, to have that, they need integrity. If you ask around our industry, it’s something we’re famous for. We don’t bribe our customers, suppliers or anyone else. I feel very strongly about that. If you don’t have a system, you have no control – and without integrity, we could never have grown to the size we are now. We would have collapsed halfway there.” It’s also worth mentioning that Chiau has been equally determined to stick to his guns about running the business as a meritocracy, despite its original family-run structure. “It’s not that I’ve purposely avoided hiring family members. I’ve set a standard of hiring those who are talented, so I treat everyone the same way.
“My sister is working her way up in Chin Hin Group’s property division, but she can’t lead it until she proves herself capable of doing so. I made it very clear to my siblings that if they don’t have that ability, they’ll have to follow the CEO of their division. Over a short period of three or four years, our profits grew from MYR2 million to MYR10 million purely because we attracted so much talent to our company. If you don’t have a culture of meritocracy, good talent won’t want to join you. The top 20 per cent who contribute 80 per cent of the results won’t join a company that doesn’t want to reward those who perform.” Quite understandably, Chiau remains performance-focused, given that his upcoming plans will require everyone in the company to pull their weight.
Its property business alone boasts a gross development value of around MYR800 million, with projects including Novum in Bangsar South, AERA Residence in PJ South and a mixed development in Sri Petaling. “We also want to expand our building modular system, which I believe is a game-changing technology in the construction industry, enabling houses to be built faster and cheaper. We have our Starken AAC – lightweight block solutions that transform houses – which we plan to expand by 120 per cent in capacity, as we’ve invested MYR100 million into a second factory in Johor. Then I’d like to continue contributing renewable energy to our country through our solar EPC, as it’s a business that’s still growing and I’m really passionate about.”
Impressively, he’s retained enough energy to attempt the dizzying climb to an altitude of 5,200m at Everest’s Base Camp this year, although he’s not aiming for the main prize – yet. “I won’t head to the top of Everest in the next one or two years, but definitely in the future,” Chiau smiles. “It can be a big vision, but just like the way I’ve worked on transforming Chin Hin Group, I set higher, more challenging goals as I go along. That’s how life progresses – so I’m focusing on Base Camp first, and then I’ll want to head to the peak.”
TEXT RENYI LIM
ART DIRECTION PENNY CHEW
PHOTOGRAPHY GERALD GOH / IMAGE ROM
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANTS SAIFUL AZWAN & GEORGE CHONG
PRODUCTION SUPPORT METAL BEES