STARTING your own business takes a great deal of hard work, but having a stroke of luck goes a long way too.
When Corporate Excelsior (M) Sdn Bhd group managing director Chong Chee Hing graduated as a civil engineer in 1987, he found himself in the middle of the country’s financial crisis.
He never thought the bumpy start to his journey would lead to an award-winning construction materials company.
Corporate Excelsior (M) Sdn Bhd was the recipient of the Gold Award in the Best Brand category (above RM25mil) at the Star Outstanding Business Awards (SOBA) 2016, held earlier this year at Connexion@Nexus, Bangsar South, Kuala Lumpur.
Today, his company is a market leader with its Polymix brand of dry mix products, and has a presence in more than seven countries.
Perhaps it is because Chong is never one to settle in a “comfort zone”.
After two years of working as a civil engineer in a Japanese firm, Chong grew tired of his first job and set his sights on something else.
“At the time, Hong Leong Group was having a recruitment drive; I applied and was placed in Hume Industries as a sales engineer,” he said of his first step into the precast industry in 1989.
In three years, he rose to become a team leader and remained the top salesman for four consecutive years.
His knack for speaking and his sales prowess soon preceded him, and the company often placed him on stage to address engineers in technical product seminars.
“This was the start of my public speaking experience, and it was a true morale booster which built my confidence.
The opportunity was something Chong always remembers to this day, and he encourages the same of his sales team.
By the end of his fourth year with Hume Industries, Chong was rolling in big orders in millions, at which point, he started to feel disillusioned.
“Being a top salesman was not enough, I felt I was constantly talking about prices and how much discounts to give.
“I wanted a career that was more technically-inclined. There had to be something better that I could do with the knowledge from my studies,” he said.
Chong then applied to work in Singapore, but landed a job with Ssangyong Cement based in Malaysia instead.
“The construction industry was in the midst of a shift then, where traditional ways of building were being replaced.
“Mixing cement and sand became a messy job of the past, and everything started coming in pre-packed forms.”
He was supposed to helm the Malaysian side of the business to implement the replacement move in the local market.
“This was a complete switch for me, from big precast items to cement-based products.
“I was also told to be ready for sales orders as low as RM500, instead of the millions I was used to.
Chong came back armed with only one handphone and set up office; he became the country manager of CemtecAsia (M) Sdn Bhd.
He said the company recorded exemplary growth after a mere two years.
“After four years with the company, I felt it was time to move on again.
“I was good with what I did for a foreign company, so why not do it on home soil?” he expressed.
Together with another Malaysian colleague, they drew up a business plan that attracted both local and foreign investors, and started Master Plaster Sdn Bhd, an integrated dry-mix mortar plant in Semenyih that was then the largest of its kind.
“That was during the beginning of Putrajaya, and the large sum of orders propelled our business.
“We grew so fast that we attracted a German company which bought into the company just after our second year of operations,” recollected Chong.
The company evolved into MC Bauchemie in 1999 where he served as general manager in charge of sales for another five years.
Chong made strides in that role, some of which included supplying dry mix mortar to Putrajaya as well as the construction of the Serdang Hospital, and the implementation of a fully automated conveyance system for the application of dry mix mortar.
Another five years went by before Chong decided he wanted to make something of his own.
Corporate Excelsior was established in 2004 along with the Polymix brand.
“It was on a spur of the moment that my chemist and I decided to be independent.
“With no investors, we pooled together some money and started a very small plant in Bukit Beruntung,” said Chong, adding that this decision took place over a tea session.
“We were aiming to handle about 1,000 to 1,500 tonnes of business per month, which we felt we could get by comfortably.”
His former company handled more than 2,000 tonnes.
“As luck would have it, Malay-sian companies were investing heavily in the national housing bonds in Thailand.
“I worked hard on the projects and up till today, Polymix is still the only foreign brand accepted in Thailand for their national house projects.”
Needless to say, the projects took off and soon enough, the company ran out of capacity.
“A local developer we were supplying to, which was working on 25,000 units for the housing project in Thailand, suggested that we start our own plant in Thailand.
“It was just sheer luck that we found a local Thai who owned a dormant plant that suited our needs. We entered into a partnership and that took off, too,” Chong said.
The company then became the sole supplier of its key product, Skim Coat, for all 11 Malaysian listed developers that were operating in Thailand then.
This meant that Polymix was dealing with a vast amount of volume, and the company soon needed to expand again.
Chance brought Chong to the good graces of the founder of Malaysian Sheet Glass, who offered him a 8.1ha industrial land in Kuala Bikam, Perak, equipped with a plant and vast amounts of glass sand.
No doubt, he felt it was luck again that he was offered the land at RM1mil.
“It was on one condition though; besides using the sand for my products, I would have to make sand that was good enough for industrial use. He wanted to ensure that the sand and minerals were put to good use.
Chong said it was never about the money for both of them.
“I simply replied with another condition, that he stay on as an adviser and shareholder.”
The company shifted all its manufacturing operations there, and Polymix is currently into its 14th year of establishment.
“Our growth has been spectacular. We recorded RM3mil sales turnover for our first year, and now we’re near RM70mil.
“That’s about 30% growth over 14 consecutive years,” noted Chong.
Within six years of establishment, Chong said the company had become a market leader for its dry mix product, and its competitors are large multinational corporations.
“We’re like the underdogs of this industry,” he said with a laugh.
“This is what all of us are very proud of.”
Chong said to continue being the lead, they need to sell solutions instead of products.
“It’s a competitive world. As a market leader, we must be able to constantly create something our competitors don’t have.
“At the moment, we have one that nobody else carries, it’s called the Thin Render Premium,” he pointed out.
The product is something that works so efficiently that Chong said they have yet to receive a single product complaint.
“We supply to 80% of all the high-rise buildings you see in Malaysia.”
Not intending to boast, Chong said it was necessary for one to do something beyond the norm, no matter what field they were in.
As a very hands-on businessman, he makes it a point to visit construction sites to identify problems in order to see what solutions can be created.
“I insist all my salespeople do site visits every week, with or without problems. We go there and speak to the workers; these are the people who are actually working on your product and they can provide the best feedback,” Chong explained.
To succeed, he said, they needed to be the first to respond.
“We understand the problem and tailor-make the solution. This is not something which everyone does, and if you can do this, you can be the best,” he concluded.