Julia Chong left a high-flying life to start a venture that would help the less fortunate
LIFE couldn’t have been more different for Julia Chong when she decided it was time to move on from her corporate job and live out her dream to help the less fortunate.
Her friends, naturally, thought she was mad.
Chong was at the pinnacle of her career. She was the managing director of a multinational corp (MNC) overseeing operations in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Indo China. She had personal assistants and a driver at her disposal and was living the high-flying life.
But she gave all of that up in 2006 to start The Truly Loving Company Sdn Bhd (TLC), a social enterprise that focuses on household cleaning products.
Suddenly, Chong found herself having to wait in line to meet her buyers, sitting on the floor of warehouses to count stock and playing promoter for her company’s products at supermarkets on weekends.
“It makes you miss all the ‘trimmings’ or perks of a job,” she smiles. But there were no regrets, she adds.
TLC markets a range of products under the TLC brand name through retail outlets. But unlike other corporate companies, 100% of TLC’s dividends go to charities. The company uses a corporate profit model to build a brand to generate long term, sustainable income for charities.
Chong’s dream to help the less fortunate was inspired by her late husband who had spent many of his Sundays helping out at an orphanage.
One Christmas, he suggested that their family shared their turkey dinner with the orphans. That meal was an eye opening experience for Chong – she learned to recognise her blessings.
“I vowed that one day, I would use my resources and skills to help the disadvantaged and less fortunate,” she shares.
Unfortunately, her dream had to be put on hold when her late husband suddenly died of a heart attack in 1999.
For the next seven years, she focused her energy and resources on bringing up her two teenage children and continued to develop her career. When her children completed their tertiary education, she knew it was her turn to do what she wanted.
But it was, by no means, an easy decision to make.
“Of course, we had concerns about starting our own business. But the more I analysed it, the more reasons there were for me not to start. So I just dived in,” she says.
Going by her experience, Chong says people generally have the heart to do charity. But most, like her while she was working, don’t have the time for it. So she figured that she could enable consumers to contribute to charity by using everyday cleaning products, whereby the profits will go to charity.
In previous interviews, it was said that Chong and her partner pooled together more than RM1mil to kickstart the company.
She leveraged on her 30 years’ experience in the household market and network to develop products for TLC and emphasised that quality was of utmost importance.
“If there’s no quality, people will only buy the product once. We can’t shortchange our customers just because we are doing this for charity. Our products must be able to stand against the competition. We don’t want to just fly the charity flag. The brand must be able to stand and deliver on its quality.
“We use the same OEM (original equipment manufacturer) as the big boys. So our quality is the same as other established brands in the market. But our pricing is affordable and we have a brand purpose,” she says.
Chong came to realise that most of her experiences in running MNC’s and large companies were quite irrelevant when it came to running a SME. The challenges in establishing TLC required unique solutions, she notes.
Ten years ago, the concept of social enterprise was relatively unheard of in Malaysia. People didn’t understand what the company was trying to do and many wondered if there was a catch.
“They were sceptical about our mission and cannot believe that a company will give away 100% of its dividends to charities.
“Even renting our first office was difficult. When we told them we are a social enterprise, they rejected us because the word charity sounded as if we were unable to pay rent. We were forced to pay a deposit of six months’ rental while other tenants paid only three months’ rental. We were new and didn’t have a track record,” Chong says.
Additionally, people tend to associate things that are sold in aid of charity as being of low quality. The only way to overcome this, she says, is to get the product into their hands.
But introducing a new brand into an established and competitive industry like the household cleaning products was difficult. TLC didn’t have large advertising and promotion budgets that Chong used to have when she was in an MNC and fighting for shelf space in supermarkets and hypermarkets was a real war.
Getting a good distribution network was another big challenge due to the high listing and merchandising fees required and the high margins that they need to provide.
“Even if you can afford to pay the fees, it is difficult to convince retailers to list and carry a new brand when they are assured of higher volumes and returns from the more established brands,” she says.
TLC resorted to using the least expensive “go to market” solution when it started. It went to smaller chains and mini-marts.
That turned out to be a mistake. Its products barely left the shelf and the return rate was high.
“The type of consumers who will use our products were more discerning consumers and they don’t shop at these places. So we had to find a way into the supermarkets and hypermarkets,” she explains.
There have been countless times when others have told Chong and her partner to pack it up. Chong herself has thought of throwing in the towel more than once.
“But both of us decided that we will fine tune our operations and move forward. Mistakes are like road bumps. It makes you slow down. But then you learn from the experience and move on and be more aware of the other road bumps ahead. You must have the determination to not give up,” she says.
TLC established its own sales team in 2009 to look into distribution and to push the brand awareness in the market. And this helped the company turned around. Chong notes that a new company like TLC needed a team that was committed to the growth of the brand and having their own sales force was arguably one of the most important steps that the company took to grow.
“A lot of credit really goes to my team for their relentless pursuit,” she says.
Chong also notes that the company was fortunate to have also collaborated with some of its partners that supported TLC in its early days, which enabled the company to come through some very difficult days.
“We were supported by some benevolent media owners, production houses, advertising agencies, research companies, printing companies, manufacturers and large corporations who believed in our cause and wanted to see us succeed. In some cases, we even did some barter trading with them,” she laughs.
The company was awarded the Prime Minister’s CSR Awards in 2009 under the “Small Company CSR” category, which gave the team a much needed boost to keep going. It also gave the company credibility, raised its profile and opened doors.
On a growth path
TLC continued to build its brand through roadshows, guest talks, interviews and promoter activation programmes. While their efforts were both expensive and time-consuming, Chong found that consumers became loyal users as the products are good and it was an opportunity for them to support the less fortunate.
In 2011, it launched its TLC Green range of products with formulations that contain biodegradable and natural plant-based ingredients. The company maintained its affordable pricing to encourage consumers to also support the protection of the environment.
The company continues to innovate its products with its OEMs to meet consumers’ needs.
TLC also introduced its products to the Singapore market two years ago and consumer acceptance there has been encouraging.
But Chong is not looking to expand to other markets for the time being. She says there are still plenty of low-hanging fruits to harvest from the Malaysian and Singaporean markets alone.
The company has come a long way. Today, TLC products are merchandised side by side with globally branded items at hypermarket and supermarket chains such as Aeon, Aeon Big, Cold Storage, Giant, Jaya Grocer, Tesco, Village Grocer and Mydin.
While Chong is happy with the market acceptance of its products, she says that there’s much more for the company to do.
“I don’t count what we’ve achieved. I just keep doing it because this is my passion and my vision. I think what we are doing is, maybe, only the tip of the iceberg in terms of delivering purpose in the community. I hope to help more charities and the environment,” she says.
TLC has been registering double-digit growth since 2009 while the industry is growing at 2%-5% per annum.
“Can you imagine how many more charities we can benefit if TLC can capture just 5% of the RM1.3bil household cleaning industry in Malaysia?” she asks.
The company currently has a team of 15 people, half of which make up the sales team.
It outsources most of its operations such as manufacturing, warehousing and logistics so that the team can focus on managing the business.
Sixty-five-year-old Chong doesn’t believe in retirement. “You only tailor your job to suit your age,” she says.
“The journey with TLC has made me resilient. When my team and I had to face daily rejections, it can be demoralising and one can hit a lot of low points. It hasn’t been easy.
“Fortunately, the experiences and the learnings gained from dealing with and overcoming such challenges has enabled my staff and I to chart the way ahead for TLC,” she says.
This venture, says Chong, has been the best thing she’s done with her money.
And in continuing to build the business, “every brick that we build has to be solid,” she says.