PEOPLE often do a double-take when they find out Aslinah Aslam’s age when she founded Azaib Holdings – she was 25 years old. They are even more surprised to know that she started her chocolate manufacturing company with no practical business experience.
What Aslinah lacked in experience, however, she more than made up in “rempuh spirit”, as she calls it.
“In my early days, if phone calls and emails got me nowhere, I would personally turn up at the reception armed with product samples and my company profile. In business, you must follow up, push and rempuh (charge aggressively) till you break through!”
This never-say-die attitude has propelled the company’s growth from a home-based startup to an international player in less than a decade. Azaib has carved a distinctive niche with its Belgian chocolate-covered freeze-dried tropical fruits.
Aslinah’s foray into business was sparked by a weekend project helping an entrepreneur friend.
Then working as a bank officer, she found the experience of meeting a variety of interesting people completely different from sitting in an office processing documents.
“I told myself, someday, I’ll be an entrepreneur too.”
When her employer offered a Voluntary Separation Scheme in 2009, Aslinah saw the opportunity to put her plan in motion.
“I figured the severance package would come in handy as seed capital for my business venture, whatever that might be,” she says.
While scouting for opportunities, she heard that airport duty-free retailer Eraman was looking for a local chocolate supplier to showcase a Malaysian brand alongside their imported brands.
Aslinah happened to be a skilled baker whose creations, including chocolate, were a hit with family and friends.
After surveying the market, she brainstormed furiously to distinguish her product from the ones on offer. Her praline confections, sold under the Malsa brand, beat out three other competitors and won her an initial order of RM40,000.
With an order in hand, Aslinah needed a proper production facility; doing it in her family kitchen was out of the question. Friends pointed her to the National Cocoa Board, which had an incubator programme to help budding chocolate entrepreneurs.
Aslinah went ahead and rented its facilities in Nilai, which provide product development trial services for pre-commercialisation purposes, although it was a long drive from home.
“Since we could only use the facilities from 8am-5pm, I had to leave home at 5.30am so that I can maximise my time. If I’m late, rugi-lah. We do the production as fast as we can. Eat lunch also cepat-cepat, 10-15 minutes in rotation,” she shares.
She also rented a friend’s factory which had different machines.
“My friend’s factory could produce praline chocolates, heart-shaped and flower-shaped chocolates, while the Nilai facilities had bigger machines that could produce round-shaped chocolates in higher volumes.”
Even with all that going on, Aslinah made time to travel to Belgium for R&D purposes.
“I knew I had to upgrade my skills and continuously improve my recipe. What better way than to visit and learn from the top factories in the country synonymous with quality chocolates?”
Her unrelenting focus on perfectionism paid off in 2012, when a customer bought her products off the shelves from Cold Storage. The customer, an international trader, was so impressed that she tracked Aslinah down and offered her the opportunity to supply to China.
Thus, Aslinah snagged her first overseas order of RM150,000.
No guts, no glory
While luck played a role in the company’s expansion, a deciding factor in Azaib’s story is its founder’s initiative.
Aslinah recalls the time she sealed her spot in a Matrade’s women entrepreneurs programme.
“I was a nobody then. But when I spotted the CEO in the canteen, I brazenly walked up to him and told him I’m a growing SME who just broke into the China market, and needed support to expand. I told him, ‘I have applied for the women entrepreneurs’ programme, can you please look at it?’”
The reward for a thick skin was priceless.
“The programme gave us the opportunity to attend international trade shows, where we learn about pricing, sampling, marketing, quality standards, negotiation skills, which markets are hot, what’s the next big thing. I found the learning so invaluable that even after the programme, I allocate a part of my annual budget for trade shows because I believe the investment is worth it,” she says.
Her participation in a trade show in Thailand in 2012 led her to what eventually became her core product.
She noticed that the Thais were promoting their local fruits aggressively and a light bulb went off in her head – why not incorporate tropical fruits into chocolate products? Malaysia had a wealth of delicious fruits that would complement chocolates, and more importantly, give her brand a unique selling point to stand out in the competitive landscape.
Unfortunately, she hit a stone wall. Commercial freeze-drying technology was not yet widely available in Malaysia and buying a machine, costing over RM1mil, was not a viable option.
If she wanted to go ahead with her plan, she would have to source freeze-dried fruits from outside Malaysia.
“I wasn’t happy about it but I had to act on the opportunity while I had first mover advantage,” she admits.
Azaib shipped out its first batch of chocolate-wrapped fruits in 2012 using imported freeze-fried fruits.
A year later, Aslinah received a big order from China for freeze-dried durian. Fortunately, by then, she had also found a local company with freeze-drying facilities.
“It was uncharted territory, but I thought the risk was worth taking because the freeze dried fruits could be used for our chocolates too. I was excited that I now had a real chance to support local farmers,” she says.
With help from the Federal Agricultural Marketing Authority, she linked up with farms in Pahang that supplied her with fresh fruits, which were then freeze-dried and coated with chocolate in her premises.
Since that initial order in 2013, freeze-dried fruits has spun off into a profitable secondary line of business.
Aslinah could finally afford to buy her own freeze-drying machine in 2017, when orders exceeded RM80,000 per month.
Azaib currently operates out of two leased facilities. At Kimar, Batu Caves, which also serves as the headquarters, cocoa butter is melted before it is coated around fillings and packed into pouches. The plant in Sungai Buloh focuses on freeze drying fruits both for in-house products and for original equipment manufacturer (OEM) customers.
Combined, the two facilities produce 2 tonnes of chocolate products monthly.
From achieving a modest revenue of RM350,000 in its first year of operation, Azaib is targeting sales of RM3mil in 2019. Export contributes 80% of Azaib’s revenue, with China and Singapore making up its main markets, followed by the Middle East and Asean.
While overseas prospects are bright, Aslinah is keen to widen her products’ local distribution beyond high-end retailers.
“In a way, overseas market is simpler because transactions are in cash. All you have to worry about is delivering your goods to the location,” she explains.
“The local market involves complex activities like branding, marketing and network building. Getting a trustworthy partner is critical because managing the local market is a completely different ball game.”
But having a local presence is important.
“When you’re locally strong, it helps with branding because it creates a different kind of visibility, like a premium real estate. For example, I got my first break into China because my chocolates were displayed at Cold Storage,” she says.
In between overseeing her operations, strategising her company’s growth and hitting the trade show circuit, Aslinah is also a highly-sought after speaker on the subjects of export market and women entrepreneurship.
After eight years in the industry, she has learned valuable lessons and thinks she has something to offer new entrepreneurs, including her take on what they should do, what kind of market research to conduct and where to get certification.
“I love to mentor young entrepreneurs and help them grow,” says the eldest of five siblings.
Aslinah describes her parents as her greatest strength. She credits her father, a company driver, for instilling the value of diligence and her mother, a homemaker, for educating her on financial smarts.
“People are amazed at how my parents could send all their children to college and buy a double-storey house on a driver’s salary. Mum was a financial whiz, always reminding us to save money, avoid debt and invest in assets. Sometimes, she would even eat our leftover food to avoid waste.”
Her company’s name, Azaib, and her chocolate brand, Malsa, are in honour of her parent; they are her mother’s name and an inversion of her father’s name, respectively.
“I am who I am because of them. It’s the least I can do to show my gratitude.”