IF there is one thing Lee Thiam Wah has learnt in his life, it is this: Your only limit is you.
Stricken with poliomyelitis at eight months old, Lee spent most of his childhood at home with his grandmother who took care of him while his parents worked to support him and his 10 siblings.
Unlike his siblings who pursued their education further, Lee had to stop schooling after completing his primary education as it was too far for him to travel to school due to his disability.
Bound to a wheelchair for life, Lee started a small business from home selling simple snacks to residents in the neighbourhood.
“Struck with this condition, I envied my siblings as I watched them lead normal lives – they went to school, played sports and hung out with friends while I could not do much else other than sit up.
“Coming from a low-income family, my parents kept themselves busy with work to provide for us, and as a result, they did not have much time for me,” said Lee.
“But I was lucky to have my grandmother, who cared for me and taught me the values of life.
“She told me, ‘You are only disabled physically, not mentally. You are smart and can still use your hands to do so much more. You will need to be independent and find a way to live or you will be left behind.’
“Her words stuck with me and since no one in the family has gone into business before, it prompted me to give it a go and earn a small income by selling snacks on our porch,” he explained.
Being frugal, he saved as much money as he could from his snack-selling business and by the age of 23, Lee managed to open his first mini mart called Pasar Raya Hiap Hoe in 1987 with his total savings of RM17,000 over the years.
“Given my short education opportunity, I did not have much knowledge about the other industries that I could explore. I settled on the retail industry because I found it to be the easiest to do as all I needed was products and then I could start selling.
“I read up whatever I could about the industry and learned from my experiences,” he said.
He never imagined that his perseverance would one day lead him to becoming the founder and managing director of 99 SpeedMart, a leading mini-market chain in Malaysia.
“Business was flourishing and in 2000, we decided to rebrand ourselves as 99 SpeedMart to give it a new and improved look.
“We chose the number 99 because it implies that even though we are not perfect, we still aim to offer our customers the best services and products we have at a competitive price.
“This also reminds us that there is always room for us to improve,” he added.
Today, 99 SpeedMart has a workforce of more than 10,000 Malaysian employees with outlets in Selangor, Kuala Lumpur, Perak, Pahang, Negri Sembilan, Melaka, Johor and Sabah.
In celebration of its 30th anniversary, 99 SpeedMart opened its 1,000th store in Section 13, Shah Alam last month.
“One of our challenges is dealing with the rapid expansion in various locations while catering to our customers’ needs. Customers at every location have their preferences for local products and this can be difficult to meet.
“To remain our customers’ first choice, we are working on scouting products from local distributors,” he said, adding that there are plans to tap into the e-commerce market to stay relevant.
In the next three to five years, Lee said 99 SpeedMart is targeting to open 2,000 stores.
“There are also plans for overseas expansion in the pipeline, maybe in the next five to 10 years.
“We want to focus on expanding and being the best mini mart locally,” Lee shared.
For details, visit www.99speedmart.com.my
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