The fact that employees at Forefront International are a tight-knit lot is probably nothing new. A steamboat lok-lok truck party, a Songkran-themed water fest, fun outings, games, trips – their activities are the stuff of legend.
These pursuits are important, said chief executive officer, Darien Mah, as they help build friendships among his employees.There is a big emphasis on people at the creative agency and considerable effort goes into improving job satisfaction for its staff. After all, Forefront has been a winner in The Star Outstanding Business Awards’ (SOBA) Best Employer category for four years in a row now.
But as Forefront continues to grow, maintaining the camaraderie at the office can be a challenge.
A Forefront employee proposing new initiatives to the company through the ‘CEO of the Week’ programme.
“That is constantly on my mind. I find it more difficult to maintain our culture as we grow. And we will continue to grow.
“But having more people also gives us the opportunity to know different people. It is a challenge but it is something that we can overcome and we are proactively solving and finding ways to keep that family feel,” Mah said.
Forefront started looking at its employees’ growth back in 2009 after Mah noticed a high turnover rate at the company. Management was preoccupied with trying to bring in more business and there was little focus on building the team.
“I didn’t invest a lot of time and effort into them. So they also would not invest a lot of time and effort into the company,” he said.
Additionally, good talents were leaving, making it tough for the company to produce quality work on time.
When Forefront relocated to its current office around 2009, Mah saw an opportunity to change its focus.
Inspired by some of the initiatives taken by its clients, Mah started to build a more positive work culture that would motivate the staff and encourage employees to see each other as more than just colleagues.
Forefronteers trying out bubble football during one of their monthly activities.
“We got to meet the EcoWorld team. That meeting actually gave our company a new lifeline and different growth altogether. We were still a smallish company and the CEO spotted our strengths and weaknesses and he gave us the opportunity. From one project, we went on to get a few more from them.
“They are a client that inspired us because of the way they handle their team and their people. They treat their vendors and agencies like partners. Datuk Chang Khim Wah gave us a boost in terms of morale and inspiration and in terms of doing creative work. He challenged us and by challenging us, we get to produce work that was outstanding.
“After that, he will give us the validation. He encouraged us and we got the strength to be better and we expanded. From there, we learn to not just look at work, but talent management. I wished that someone taught me all this earlier,” he shared.
With a more positive environment at Forefront, Mah found it easier to retain his employees and groom a team that would function together at work.
Today, some of its key staff remain in the company and have risen up the ranks. For example, one of its junior designers who joined the team in 2009 is now the creative director and its head of UX team was previously an intern.
Mah is proud to say that his team is, today, well sought after in the market.
Employees having a feast at the office during one of Forefront’s monthly activities.
“They have the skills and capabilities. They are self-sustaining and they can grow their own team.”
Among the initiatives that Forefront has started is the CEO of the Week programme. Mah explained that as the team grows, it is becoming more difficult for him to constantly think up new ideas for the company.
The CEO of the Week initiative enables Mah to focus on growing the business while providing a platform for the employees to step up in leadership to think of new ideas, initiatives, platforms or systems that would help foster closer ties in the office.
Some of the good suggestions that have been brought up by the various “CEOs” are still carried out till this day.
For example, its employee of the month award has been tweaked over time. Employees would nominate their choice for the award and write down reasons for their nomination.
“Previously, we only read out who the winners were. But now, we let the nominees read what is written on the sheet so that they can see that although they weren’t chosen as the winner, someone wrote a positive thing about them.
Mah (seated third from left) with some of Forefront’s key members on a visit to its London office
“Everything is about positivity. We create a culture of positivity through simple things like employee of the month. Most of the things we do, we do them a little more creatively. So all our monthly activities, we also try to get creative with them,” he said.
Mah still participates in many of the company initiatives to continue rallying his staff towards working together. Sometimes, their positive culture is extended to their working partners or clients as well.
Although many of his employees have grown much older from its early days, the 40-year old still sees good participation in many of the company’s activities.
The key thing, said Mah, is to ensure that the activities are fun.
“Ultimately, we want to feel appreciated, and know that the things we do actually makes a difference. I keep good communication with my key team. I bring them for trips and from there, we also get to be quite close with each other,” he said.
Mah recalled a trip to Europe in 2017 where he brought some key members from the company along to visit the team at its London office.
It wasn’t an extravagant trip of any sort. Mah booked a place on Airbnb which would allow the team to stay together and connect over the trip.
He noted that his team enjoyed the trip and was very appreciative of the opportunity to follow him. Additionally, many of them shared their experiences on social media, which Mah noted, helped boost its branding.
“That is one thing I constantly do. We will allocate some funds, even my personal funds, to make sure that our trips happen. I always want the team to travel and to be able to travel together.
“We also made some changes for our annual lucky draw prizes. Last time, we gave out tickets for the winner to go anywhere they wanted and they can go with their families. Now, we make it such that they travel with their fellow Forefronteers, your friends in the company.
“In a way, this encourages them to travel together. And I’ve gotten very positive feedback from this. So travelling together is now part of our company culture,” he said.
Forefront won the coveted Malaysian Business of the Year Award in the Up To RM25mil category at SOBA 2017. It also took home the Platinum award for Best in Marketing as well as Gold awards in Best Brand and Best Employer categories.