At the helm of SIRIM

By Sabry Tahir

Star Profile 

WHEN SIRIM Bhd chief executive officer Datuk Dr Mohd Ariffin Aton took office seven years ago, he did what probably the best a rookie could do: keep his mind open. 

Datuk Dr Mohd Ariffin Aton

“Apart from some friendly interactions with the former CEO, I knew about SIRIM as much as anyone else does,'' he said. 

He was a Government servant who had been personally picked by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad to head the corporatised SIRIM, whose role is mainly to assist small and medium-scale enterprises (SMEs) in the manufacturing sector to grow. His role was easier said than done. However, Ariffin has managed to helm SIRIM for the past seven years with three extensions, which is unusual for a Government body CEO. 

According to him, for the first few months at the national body for standard and quality, he studied the main area of SIRIM's focus and the people to support his mission. 

“When I looked at the people, I know I need to do a few things in order to achieve my mission here,” he told StarBiz in an interview. 

To Ariffin, who was formerly with Petronas, his main challenge in the early years were to “corporatise” the people.  

“SIRIM’s businesses are mainly service-oriented and they are based on knowledge - SIRIM is a knowledge organisation,” he said. 

People development was very crucial aspect over the first few years of corporatisation, he said. Through the years Ariffin and his team instituted many things to assist the staff to grow – as much as it wanted the local SMEs to grow. 

Among other things, he introduced dual career ladder – comprising managerial and technical ladders – and made SIRIM the first corporatised body in the Government to establish this dual scale. At SIRIM, the highest position for a technical staff is the senior vice-president, which formerly came under the managerial ladder.  

“If you promote technical workforce to managerial post, you take away from them their valuable assets – technical expertise. Worse still, they may make lousy managers,” he said.  

He also created a third ladder to accommodate the auditors and the consultants. 

Since he first joined SIRIM, Ariffin has cut down the manager count from 60 to 20 at present to manage some 1,500 employees. 

“If I leave SIRIM now, I am glad as I have been getting positive feedbacks. Clients see noticeable changes in the workforce – they say, 'Your staff are more professional',” he said. 

Ariffin said it took seven years for SIRIM to transform half of the workforce to conform to the work culture of a corporate entity.  

“It takes a longer time to develop good values. In 10 years we expect to have everybody transformed,” he added. 

On the Government's view of the privatisation of SIRIM, Ariffin said he felt that the Government had no intention to privatise SIRM. “In my opinion, SIRIM has a tremendous strategic value to the Government. I don’t foresee that the Government will privatise it in future,” he said. 

He said SIRIM's activities were very much socio-economic related and the Government expected long-term and indirect returns from its investment.  

“SIRIM evolved from a Government department to statutory body and then into a corporate entity. In this process, certain things cannot evolve further,” he said. 

With programmes like Incubator Programme, SIRIM’s focus now has been to assist the SMEs to grow into multi-million ringgit corporations and later contribute to the nation’s economic growth through taxes. SMEs currently make up about 70% of the corporate population. 

He added that apart from being prompt in delivering its services to the industry, the purpose of corporatisation was to create an independently operating and efficient corporate entity.  

“The main advantage of corporatisation is that we are able to decide on our destiny and we become more accountable on our operations,” he said. Towards this end, Ariffin said, among the major challenges were building SIRIM’s brand in standard and quality, competitive pricing of services and improving direct operating revenue.  

“Historically, SIRIM owns a big pool of senior and costly workforce. However, we have managed to utilise the senior staff to generate corresponding revenue to the company,” he added. 

It also stopped conducting low-end equipment testing to concentrate on high-end testing to increase SIRIM’s competitiveness. 

On his vision for SIRIM, Ariffin said he wanted SIRIM to be a name synonymous with standard and quality. 

In his day-to-day running of the company, Ariffin has adopted his own style of management, developed through years of managing people and through reading. 

He said he was impressed by Stephen Covey's ideas in his book called Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and gave the book to all his managers. 

“There are only seven habits to adopt. One of them is, you must be a good listener if you want others to listen to you,” he added. 

Ariffin, who is in his late fifties, loves to sing, especially Tan Sri P. Ramlee's songs.  

“Singing is a good way to relax. That’s why the Japanese invented karaoke,” he quipped. 

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