SHE may have taken over the reins from her husband, but Datin Cindy Choh, 52, is capable in her own right to lead Proguard Technologies (M) Sdn Bhd onwards and upwards. She was, after all, there at the birth of the company and has seen it through every difficult moment as much as her husband.
In fact, it was Choh who gave Proguard a start and a lifeline in its early days, enabling the safety equipment manufacturer to grow into the established outfit it is today.
Choh’s husband, Datuk Lee Ngai Mun, 53, had registered the company and kick-started the business in 1988 with RM560, leftover cash from Choh’s hospital bill.
And when the company hit a rough patch, it was Choh who gave up her jewellery to pay off some of its debts.
Safe to say, without Choh, Proguard would not have been where it is today – a fact Lee acknowledges.
“We started the business together,” says Choh, preferring not to distinguish too much between who is in the driver’s seat of the company.
She took over the role of chief executive officer from Lee in 2002.
Why the change, though, when things were going swimmingly for the company then?
Because business was stagnant, admits Lee
“I’ve reached that stage where I can’t push the business as much as I used to anymore. So better to make that executive shift and see how it goes,” he says.
Choh was, naturally, reluctant. Since they were both already running the business together, there seemed no need for a handover.
But her husband insisted. If it did not work out, they could always move things back to the way they were.
He supported her as much as he could, with advice, encouragement and lots of ideas.
Pushing her to take the lead turned out to be a good thing for Proguard, notes Lee. Business picked up and soared once again.
The company started increasing its exports and business also grew domestically. As the manufacturer expanded, they also looked into other areas to strengthen the business such as research and development (R&D), human resource development and automation.
It has also been diversifying its product range. Proguard produces safety products such as safety helmets, earmuffs, visors, earplugs and brackets.
The safety helmet remains its core product. The company produces about 1.4 million helmets a year, but Lee expects production to increase to about 2.4 million pieces this year as demand from foreign markets increase.
Proguard exports to over 30 countries, including Germany, Japan, Netherlands, the US, Russia, the Middle-East and South-East Asia. It also carries out contract manufacturing work for large equipment companies overseas.
This helped to put Proguard on stronger footing as it marches on towards Lee and Choh’s aim to list the company within the next two years.
Last year, Proguard turned in revenue of RM56mil.
This year, it is projecting sales of RM60mil-RM65mil.
Meanwhile, Lee happily took on the role of chief operations officer instead, focusing on operations and product development.
“Before that, the fortune teller always tell me that I am a second-man. ‘If you become a second man, you will be very good’,” Lee jests.
“Yea, I’ve not let you down,” Choh laughs. “You are the man behind me...no lah, the man beside me,” she adds cheekily.
Giving her control was also Lee’s way of “a payback” for her contribution to the company.
“When we started the business, she was the one who gave me the money. During my bad times, she let me pawn her jewellery. So it is only appropriate to offer her the post.
“We’re husband and wife anyway. Her money is my money, my money...is also my money,” he laughs.
“She deserves the post. She leads very well.”
Choh performed so well in her role as chief executive officer that there was no need for a switch-back or a change after that.
If it is not broken, don’t fix it, he says.
Choh is also the group’s chief financial officer.
A good fit
Although Choh has helped to manage Proguard since day one, there were still some things that she needed to adjust to like making more finance-based decisions for the company.
“Sometimes, when they need to upgrade things like software and all that, the decision comes to me and I have to look at the quotations. And a lot of our R&D things have to be done in cash because we can’t take bank loan. So I have to ensure that the funds are available for them,” she says.
And if Lee needs money for product development, he needs to ensure they’ve got a solid proposal; no special treatment for the husband.
Fortunately, both Lee and Choh have a lot in common. They share the same values and vision for the company.
“A lot of people say husband-wife teams are very difficult but I find it very interesting. We built the foundation together. We share things together. Of course, I made some money for her and the company and I’ve lost some also. But this is life, you have to face some challenges,” says Lee.
Choh maintains a good relationship with her employees and her suppliers and business associates.
Yes, it’s a man’s world in the manufacturing line. But Choh has a handle over things.
“Your decisions have to be correct. You cannot make a mistake and you must learn to say no. Sometimes, give and take,” she says.
Dealing with suppliers was not much of a challenge as Choh believes that as long as Proguard maintains its good reputation, its partners will continue to do business with them. And she extends this belief to her customers.
“We must uphold trust. If customers want to buy from me, they need to make sure that they can pay us. Otherwise, we will lock their account. People say give them chance, but no means no. Ok lah, sometimes we do overwrite.
“But we make sure they pay according to their word. If they don’t pay, the trust is gone. We are very firm people. We don’t want them to misuse the trust,” she elaborates.
They also ensure that they run their business professionally. Proper declarations are made for their import and export transactions, their books are in order and operations are properly handled.
They even welcome any party that wants to audit the company.
“We’re not worried. Everything has been done properly,” she says.
Choh’s achievements were recognised at last year’s The Star Outstanding Business Awards (SOBA). She won the Female Entrepreneur of the Year title in the above RM25mil revenue category.
The win meant a lot to her.
“We were very excited. I couldn’t sleep for two nights after winning the awards!” says Choh.
Additionally, Proguard won the prestigious Malaysian Business of the Year award in the same revenue category at SOBA 2017. It also took home the Best Employer (Platinum), Best Brand (Gold) and Best in CSR (Silver) awards.
Lee and Choh have prepared the path for their children to take on the business in the future.
And it seems, the women in the family are perfectly comfortable taking the lead.
Their eldest son, Eugene Lee, 30, is currently the company’s general manager while their second son, Ehren Lee, is the marketing manager. But it is their youngest daughter, Amber Lee, who is still in the midst of completing her tertiary education, who displays the same finesse as her mother in wanting to drive the business forward.
“Our daughter is interested in the business. She’s also a very tough lady, like me. She said, ‘Mummy, don’t sell the company. I want to take over.’ Maybe, she’s the future CEO,” laughs Choh.
“Maybe she’s even tougher than her mother,” Lee adds.
Lee and Choh are also preparing the workforce at the company for the next generation.
“If the next generation is really interested, we will hand everything over to them and let them make their own decisions following their style. That is why, I now need to hire a younger team so that my son can lead them. It will be difficult for them to lead an old team. Old guys won’t listen to younger people,” notes Lee.
Having a younger team onboard will also enable the company to have a fresh approach to business, which could benefit Proguard.
“Young people have their own thinking. Maybe some are more daring than me or can move faster than me. We have had our time. We need to let go and let them handle it.
“Definitely, if we retire, our children will have to learn how to handle by themselves. We will guide them now but we don’t force them. We’ll let them carry out their responsibilities and face consequences. If you never fall, you never learn.
“And if they fall, they must recover fast. Don’t stay there and think about the past. Learn and don’t repeat the same mistakes. So far, everything is covered by mum and dad,” Lee says.
But as much as they continue to drive growth at Proguard, Choh emphasises that family comes before the company.
“We must make time for each other and have meals together. It’s about family values,” she says.
Choh seems to have found the balance in growing the company and her family. Lee is happy to say it’s all in her good hands. And if anything, he’s got her back.