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Boy, it’s been a ride


Tan with packets of Rotiboy buns featuring the smiling boy logo.

Tan with packets of Rotiboy buns featuring the smiling boy logo.

It started out as a small neighbourhood bakery in little Bukit Mertajam, but Rotiboy has grown into a phenomenon that has expanded to distant shores. MEK ZHIN reports.

NOBODY likes to be led by the nose, but perhaps we should make an exception for the Rotiboy bakeries and the bun they are famous for. After all, just one aromatic whiff, and you know there’s a Rotiboy nearby.

And for some, resistance then becomes futile.

The fact that the company has baked over 400 million Rotiboy buns worldwide since it started operating suggests that customers have been perfectly happy to follow their noses these last 17 years.

In fact, that single product has became so popular that people now call any bun with a crispy coffee-flavoured top and fluffy white bun with buttery centre Rotiboy rather than its generic name of Mexican bun.

Founder and managing director Hiro Tan says he never imagined the business would grow into what has become today — a multi-store franchise with a presence in various countries in Asia.

“When I started Rotiboy, it was because I had a dream of building something that would mean something more than myself. I also knew since I was a teenager that to help others, I first had to help myself,” he explains.

Tan, who studied economics in Universiti Malaya, had worked as an insurance agent, property agent, airline station manager, tuition teacher and even tried his hands at mushroom farming before he decided to start Rotiboy Bakeshoppe.

Rotiboy’s signature Mexican bun.
Rotiboy’s signature Mexican bun.

He describes everything he has gone through as a good learning experience, but in the end it was his family that gave him the inspiration to start Rotiboy — the logo for the company was inspired by his nephew whom Tan’s brother had teased as ‘naughty boy’.

Tan was supported in the business venture by a sister who had the recipes and experience in running bakeries and his brother who always had an interest in baking.

Rotiboy first opened its doors in 1998 in Bukit Mertajam, on the Penang mainland.

“The bakery was doing all right but I felt it was going nowhere after four years. So right after the turn of the millennium, we made the decision to pack up and move to Kuala Lumpur,” recalls Tan.

They started their new shop in USJ15 but things were not going great either with sales amounting to only RM60 a day.

Industrial mixers lining the wall in the factory. This spick-and-span baking room (below) is calm and still prior to the workers arriving.
Industrial mixers lining the wall in the factory. This spick-and-span baking room (below) is calm and still prior to the workers arriving.

It was then that an opportunity to move to Wisma Central, which is next to KLCC, came along. And with it, the change in fortune. Demand soared and business was brisk. Tan remembers it as a period when they had to wake up at 2am to 3am every day for preparatory work before opening the shop at 7am.

“After six months, we moved into a double lot,” he says.

“The four of us — me, my brother, mother and an Indonesian lady — went on like that for one to two years,“ he adds.

According to Tan, his brother had to sell his car to raise capital for the move to the larger lot. Why his brother’s car instead of his? Because it was worth a little more than Tan’s.

Rotiboy attracted its first investors at that point. They took a 21% stake in the company, which went on to open its first branches — in Mid Valley Megamall, and three days later in KLCC. They attracted so many customers and queues formed were so long that they were the stuff of legend.

The queues for Rotiboy in the early days was the stuff of legends.
The queues for Rotiboy in the early days was the stuff of legends.

The company experienced rapid growth, and Tan says that some 90% of their revenue back then came from the Rotiboy bun alone.

“The investors organised the foundations of the franchise programme but they later opted out of the company,” says Tan.

From 2004 onwards, Rotiboy began to expand into overseas markets starting with Singapore, then Surabaya, Jakarta, Bangkok, South Korea, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Production-wise, Tan says, their factory in Rawang serves as the nerve centre, preparing and shipping out the dough in batches for all outlets, except Indonesia which has its own production centres.

“We can prepare 100,000 bun doughs a day, though we have yet to hit our maximum capacity,” he reveals.

In years gone by, Tan says, he ran the business almost like a hobby and was not too particular about results and profits.

“I made the best of every opportunity that came my way but never actively sought them out. However, in recent years I have come to realise that I should work towards building a world-class company, hence I am building a team of like-minded individuals who share my values,” he says.

From just one neighbourhood bakery, Rotiboy has grown to become a big franchise with international reach.
From just one neighbourhood bakery, Rotiboy has grown to become a big franchise with international reach.

Tan’s current focus is on Rotiboy’s latest frontier, China, where the F&B sector is fiercely fought over. He believes, with the right positioning, he could take his business to greater heights — citing a figure of between 200 and 300 outlets.

Despite the various challenges, Tan says business has remained on the uptrend with total sales volume of Rotiboy going up, except now the company is not as heavily reliant on that one product anymore. Today, it only makes up about 60% of total revenue.

These days a Rotiboy outlet is no longer necessarily just a bakery: The company has set up concept cafes in some places, and there’s even a mobile van that’s doing the rounds in the Klang Valley. It may seem like a throwback to the old nostalgic days but the idea has proven to be a boon for business.

“The truck is certainly helping with exposure, and I see plenty of potential in it, which is why we have a few more in the making,” Tan remarks.

He admits that while the long queues at Rotiboy bakeries are a thing of the past, sales is still rising. This he attributes to their positioning as a value for money brand.

Tan believes he has been blessed throughout the span of running Rotiboy.

Tan sees potential in the mobile truck version of Rotiboy which makes the rounds in the Klang Valley. — Photo Rotiboy Malaysia FB).
Tan sees potential in the mobile truck version of Rotiboy which makes the rounds in the Klang Valley. — Photo Rotiboy Malaysia FB).

“I believe that God has given me the necessary gifts to fulfill my dreams, which includes the responsibility of taking care of others such as my employees, their families and those in need,” he says.

This sense of responsibility is mirrored in Rotiboy Bakeshoppe’s vision which is to be an outstanding global brand that touches the lives of all the people in the world through its products, services and values.

“Rotiboy’s aim is to put people first, whether it be our employees, customers and even business partners. It is something I believe in. I have received help unlooked for at certain points in my life, and now I look to giving back to those I can and to pass on the kindness,” Tan concludes.

Central Region , SMEBiz , Focus , Rotiboy

   

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