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Monday September 23, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Monday September 23, 2013 MYT 1:59:55 PM
by alvin ung
A local manufacturer of hand-wired tube guitar amplifiers shows how you can win big, even if you are small.
PERCHED above a motorcycle shop – flanked by a massage parlour and tuition centre – is a company that sells globally acclaimed products made in Klang Valley and Kelantan. In just one year, a thousand of these heavy boxes have been couriered to seventy-plus countries, and counting.
The buyers – predominantly Americans – are obsessed by it. “I don’t need another one. But I’ve just ordered one. My wife is going to hang me,” wrote Cobra8272 in an online forum.
The people who buy these things do it by faith. They don’t get to touch it though they can listen to it on thousands of YouTube clips. “Please do not call or sms for sales inquiry, we won’t entertain you. We do not accept walk-ins,” warned the website.
To no one’s surprise, when I arrived at the address in Bandar Sri Damansara, Kuala Lumpur, there was no sign of the shop. Two grease-stained men were dismembering a motorbike on the ground floor. Finally I saw a small sign in a stairwell: “Ceriatone.” I pressed the buzzer. The metal grille inched open. No one greeted me. So I walked in.
At the top of the staircase, I walked into a corridor strewn with heads. Inside two rooms, laid out neatly on metal racks, were the body parts. The whine of an electric saw sliced through the air.
“When Datuk Seri Idris Jala said he wanted to visit our shop, I told him not to come,” said Nik Shazwan Nik Azam, popularly known as Nik. Azlin, Nik’s wife, rolled her eyes: Nik was about to deliver a lame joke. “We were afraid he’d arrive flanked by police outriders, and we’d get arrested, hahaha!”
Welcome to the world of Nik Shazwan, 37, the managing director of Ceriatone Amplification Sdn Bhd, the purveyor of high-end, hand-wired boutique guitar amplifiers that are prized around the world for their tone, reliability and affordable prices. New York session guitarist Nicky Moroch, and Broadway producer-cum-vocal coach James Lugo have bought Ceriatone amps.
This may mean nothing to you, but the people who buy tube guitar amps are among the most finicky and techie customers in the world.
They form forums to discuss Ceriatone’s amps. They rip apart the amps, study the boards, compare circuit designs and scrutinise the soldering. They create countless YouTube clips to compare Ceriatone’s US$1,000 amp with a rare classic amp made by Howard Dumble that costs US$60,000. The forum members enjoy the painstaking, detail-oriented detective work that goes into identifying and authenticating the make and model of transformers and components. They scrutinise the idiosyncrasies of how the “amp head” is constructed.
They talk about tone the way a sommelier talks about wine.
There was one thing consistent as I read through hundreds of Internet comments spanning many years: the Ceriatone is often compared to the Ferraris and Bentleys of the guitar amp world.
I told Nik what I discovered, and how impressed I was with the rave reviews. He shrugged. “Everything on the Internet gets amplified, especially in this part of the world. We always battle the perception that we are Asians. Americans think we are part of China. They think we do the same thing as China,” Nik said.
Born in Kelantan, Nik double-majored in ECE (electrical and computer engineering) and psychology, at Carnegie Mellon University in the United States, where he picked up the guitar and fell in love with vintage guitars and vintage tube amps. He joined forums for vintage amp hobbyists. After graduation, he returned to Malaysia in 1999 to work for Telekom Malaysia. He quit after 10 months, joined a few friends to start an IT company, and sold vintage amp components on Internet forums and eBay.
“I didn’t have a business plan to start my company. It just happened there were lots of people who were rebuilding vintage amps in the US. And they were looking for parts,” Nik said. The hobby was all-consuming. He scoured the whole of Malaysia for amp boards, resistors and capacitors. Meanwhile, thanks to the forum, he obtained the schematics that spurred him to start building amps. In 2002, he married Azlin Ariff. Their version of a weekend date was to hunt for old amp parts in Jalan Pasar, Kuala Lumpur.
“Why are you so obsessed with vintage stuff?” I asked Nik, as we sat on a couch while Azlin, 36, perched on a computer workstation one foot away. We were surrounded on three sides by circuit boards. Azlin fielded the question before Nik. “Nik has an old soul stuck in a 20-year-old body,” she said.
In 2003, Nik started Ceriatone full-time and built his first commercial model, the Ceriatone 18W, based on a famous Marshall amp. “Everyone on the forum was crazy about the amp,” Nik said. The Americans snapped it up. He sold an amp a week. He added staff. By 2006, the amps were selling in Britain, Sweden and France. Azlin quit her job and joined him as general manager.
Today, she handles the stuff that Nik can’t do or won’t do well: orders, procurement, inventory, accounts, supervision of staff, shipments and liaising with local vendors. Azlin’s job is to free Nik to develop new designs, e-mail customers from midnight till dawn, and test all the amps.
“Each amp is going out to make music. It’s going to bring happiness to someone,” said Nik, who has tested thousands of amps. “The rave reviews from customers make my day.”
On a whim, Azlin swivelled around, fired up the PC, and clicked on the Ceriatone Facebook page set up by a fan. Together we read the most recent posting which went up minutes earlier. “I love the tones I’m getting out of this baaaaby,” someone wrote.
“The feedback is immediate,” Nik said, as he beamed at his wife.
“We haven’t spent a single sen marketing our products,” Azlin said.
“It’s hard to go global. But once we have a product that’s good, it’s easy. Our amps are not mass-produced or rebranded stuff. If you have a good product, you have a niche,” Nik said.
Today Ceriatone remains the sole manufacturer of hand-wired tube guitar amps in Malaysia, maybe in South-East Asia. They have sold about 10,000 amps and kits since 2007.
“What’s so significant about what Nik’s doing?” I asked Datuk Seri Idris Jala, the CEO of Pemandu.
“I refer to Nik in the same breath as Sime Darby and Petronas,” said Idris. “You need success stories of companies and people in Malaysia who can look at the market abroad and create products that beat the competition. Nik shows us that you don’t have to be big. You can be small and win it out there.”
I asked Nik: “How can you be small and win big?”
“You’ve got to compete based on global standards. If you’ve to be supported by the Government, it’s a sign of weakness. What I can’t stand is how mediocrity seems to permeate everything. We see this in the education system, in business and politics. Serious work is being given to non-capable people who will stoop down to minimum acceptable standards,” Nik said.
We paused. A few feet away, a young man from Kelantan was soldering capacitors to a board. At Ceriatone, new workers practise soldering for three months before they are allowed to work on an actual amp. Nik’s most experienced staff take years to master “lead dress”, an intricate technique for running wires in the amp to minimise noise and enhance tone.
“You’ve got to maintain the quality. You’ve got to think, I want to be the best, or at least, be similar to what other people deem to be the best,” Nik said.
“And you have to sustain that quality,” Azlin added.
“Yes, it’s going to consume your life. I’ve no time for such things as a normal social life. The last long vacation I had was…” Nik said, his voice trailing off.
“…three years ago,” Azlin chipped in.
“Your life is defined by what you do. So you might as well do your best,” Nik said. He explained that he was influenced by the culture of ultra-hard work at his alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University, and its philanthropist founder Andrew Carnegie, who once said: “my heart is in the work.” At the same time, Nik reminded me of the quintessential craftsman from Kelantan who will do whatever it takes to produce a wau or a wood carving – except Nik was doing it with tubes and transformers.
Days later, I asked Idris, who has ripped apart German and US-made guitar amplifiers, what he thought of people like Nik who have gone global with their products.
“Nik is a world champion in what he does. Nik has studied all his competitors. And he has produced amps that are similar – which are anytime cheaper and better. Malaysians must stop arguing about the small pond. We must excel in products and services in the big ocean,” said Idris. “The amp is so good, and so loud, it could bring my house down.”
Alvin Ung is a facilitator, executive coach and author of the bestselling book Barefoot Leadership. To view more videos, photos and insights on Nik and Ceriatone, visit www.businesscircle.com.my. The column and multimedia content are a collaborative effort between the columnist and the Economic Transformation Programme.
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