Finance graduate ventures into the greener side of business

LUN Yan Tau is one man who knows his grass.

Name the hot areas where these herbaceous, narrow-leafed monocotyledons (grass to the layman) can be found and the 45-year-old will tell you what’s growing.

“At Dataran Merdeka, you will find carpet grass (zoysias), which comes in several varieties like matrella, japonica or tenuifolia. You will find the same in SP Setia Bhd developments. With Sime Darby Property and Perdana ParkCity Sdn Bhd, it’s cow grass (axonopus compressus). In football fields, the preferred variety of grass is the zoysia, ideally left to set for a month or so for the roots to grip the soil. This is so if Ronaldo comes to play, it can withstand his kicks. Otherwise, cow grass will do as well. I know of one case when they planted a football field with paspalums. It didn’t work because this variety is meant for seaside areas due to its ability to withstand salt,” Lun says authoritatively.

And did you know even grass is subject to royalties?

It's harvest time! Lun shows off a zoysia 'swiss roll' ready to be laid
It’s harvest time and Lun shows off a zoysia ‘swiss roll’ ready to be laid.

The Bermuda TifEagle, developed by Dr Wayne Hanna at the Coastal Plains Experiment Station in Tifton, Georgia, and touted as the new standard for golf greens, is one such high-class grass. Prices for this category of green can start from US$2 (RM6.50) to US$5 per square meter.

“If you think you can cut off a chunk of this grass from a golf course and plant it in your garden, think again. They can take you to court for intellectual property infringement,” says Lun.

Believe it or not, grass determines ball speeds in games like golf and football. The former, says Lun, has been instrumental in the constant creation of new breeds for putting greens. In general, short grass is the greatest aid to ball speed. In major golf tournaments, he has seen the greens being cut to as low as 3mm to 5mm.

“At this kind of length, the grass will surely die because it is cut very near to the roots. Usually it has to be replaced after a tournament,” says Lun.

Having made a living by selling grass, the director of Four Seasons Turf Farm Sdn Bhd can truly say the grass is very green on his side of the fence.

Per year, the family-run landscaping entity reports turnover of RM2mil to RM3mil just for the grass division alone, laying down up to 10 million sq ft of turf per year.

Four Seasons operations manager Hee Soon Kiong showing how the 'slab system' works.
Four Seasons operations manager Hee Soon Kiong showing how the ‘slab system’ works.

“We can make more, if we focus our efforts,” says Lun optimistically.

In fact, between 2004 and 2010, Lun’s company was the biggest single supplier of turf grass in Malaysia.

“The driving force behind the grass industry is linked with property development. In Johor, for example, the turf business was sparked off by the Danga Bay development. In Seremban, it was credited to KLIA, Cyberjaya and Putrajaya,” says Lun.

Mass gatherings, such as the Bersih and Reformasi rallies, have also indirectly “contributed” as turf had to be replaced after the crowd dispersed. Though, grass can be stepped on, calling on a bunch of plant shoots to withstand being trampled by 10,000 to 20,000 people is another matter altogether.

However, the major force which has given grass growers like Lun the opportunity to grow can be traced to the rules under the Town and Country Planning Act which stipulates the compulsory greening of a finished project by a developer.

“As I can recall it, this came into active effect sometime in 1988 when my father, Hon Kee, a former construction contractor, first went into grass planting for a project developer. He had to dig up other people’s grass from the nearby villages because there was no supplier to be found,” says Lun.

Hon Kee, who already had a side business in landscape shrubs, saw the romance of rolling green lawns as a potential income earner and immediately put his green thumb to use. Roped in as assistant was Lun, who having started helping at his father’s nursery at 13, was already an old hand with a hoe.

Nurturing future grass experts - Julia Sahira, 25, a UPM graduate pursues her fascination for turf grass working for Four Seasons.
Julia Sahira, 25, a UPM graduate pursues her fascination for turf grass working for Four Seasons.

“The company was officially founded in 1990. We started from a single 5,000 sq ft site in Bukit Lagong, Selangor, which gradually grew to 4 acres. Our biggest contract camein 1998 when the Thai Embassy commissioned us to green their compound with the zoysia matrella. In one transaction alone, the bill came up to RM25,000. It was a big step for us because it meant we could pay our overheads for the next five months,” recalls Lun.

The Luns started with a work force of five. Today, it is 60 strong. Planting area now covers a total of 60 acres and their business is split 50% towards developers, 30% for supply of grass to landscapers and 20% to home owners.

Current retail prices for their varieties of grass are from 60 sen per sq ft for cow grass to RM2.50 per sq ft for the zoysia tenuifolia variety. Prices have definitely dropped over the years.

“In the beginning, grass was a luxury item reserved for the rich. Then it became a fad in the 1980s with the mushrooming of golf courses. At that point, the prices were still high, between RM2 to RM5 per sq ft. When homeowners came to us, they only bought grass by the single slab. Then, they went home and did the planting themselves. With the rules, it became affordable as new houses came ready with grassy patches. Today, it’s like selling bricks,” says Lun.

In today’s market, developers of double-storey projects will have between 200 and 500 sq ft of ground to cover. With bungalows, it’s about 3,000 sq ft.

This is where the ability to supply an instant lawn helps growers like Lun stay in competition.

“We were the first to come up with the plastic slab system,” says Lun.

Beautiful but deadly - These charming purple flowers have the potential to devastate a grass harvest.
These charming purple flowers have the potential to devastate a grass harvest.

This is where grass is planted within a square of plastic which can be easily lifted off the ground, loaded onto a lorry and laid on site like a tile, a method which has worked very well for the cow grass and pearl grass varieties.

For the zoysias, investments in cutting machinery, at about RM40,000 per unit, enables him to roll the sod, with the grass tucked and protected in between the layers like a swiss roll only to be unfurled on site.

To ensure bumper crops, Lun works very closely with Dr Sugumaran Manickam of University Putra Malaysia to come up with effective planting and harvesting methods.

“To me, there is no right or wrong way. My focus is to grow fast and sell fast,” he jokes.

Surprisingly, despite the popular demand for these swathes of green, Lun’s greatest challenge remains in the fact that none of his customers are interested in grass cutting.

“I have introduced them to the best lawn mowers, but they’d rather pay an odd-job worker to cut the grass with brush cutters that not only damage the grass, but pose a danger to bystanders due to the flying debris,” he laments.

Readying sod patches for planting.
Readying sod patches for planting.

He also thinks it is not very cost-effective for grass growers to consider the introduction of professional grass cutting services for home owners unless one is looking at large grounds like those found in turf clubs.

“It is not worth the time to send a man to do the job for just a 500 sq ft area,” he says.

Hence, his quest to produce a grass that does not require regular cutting.

“I have a secret plot where I am doing experiments,” reveals Lun.

However, the product will not be available so soon as Lun will have to wait for the growth of this new breed to stabilise before it is introduced to the market.

Meanwhile, he suggests the old school way of maintenance.

“Parents can get the kids to mow the lawn for extra pocket money. It’s also a good way to get some exercise,” he smiles.

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