Yusuf Taiyoob started from scratch selling cashew nuts and spices, and today, he has an empire built on dates. His secret ingredient? Customer trust, he tells CHONG KAH YUAN.
WITH a record of 4,000 tonnes of dates in sales annually, Yusuf Taiyoob Sdn Bhd is the country’s leading importer and distributor of dates, supplying to more than 3,000 retailers and distributors in the country.
The success of the company did not happen overnight, but through years of effort which outgrew a shared retail space into a warehouse, which can hold up to 9,000 tonnes of products in storage.
Before Datuk Seri Yusuf Taiyoob made a name for himself as the “King of Dates” in the kurma (dates) and foodstuff industry, the company’s founder and managing director was like any other humble businessman making a living from day to day.
What separates the 59-year-old from others is his burning drive and persistence. His multimillion empire was not built overnight.
“I dived into the business world in 1979 after leaving college. I was selling perfume at the Penang International Airport and manufactured my own perfume on a small scale for the tourist market.
“Business was profitable for the first couple of years, until the shop had to be relocated. Profit took a turn for the worse and I decided to cut my losses then,” he recalls in an interview at his office in MWE Plaza at Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, Penang.
Starting from scratch again was not easy. With minimal capital, he used whatever available resources he had, including using a small space at his grandfather’s business premises in George Town.
His grandfather dealt with raw materials for incense and joss stick, but Yusuf wanted to set out on his own.
“I started from selling cashew nuts and spices such as saffron. I took in more products which could be sold, and discontinued those which were not profitable on a trial and error basis.
“I remember the hard days when I had to beg people to buy when the products hardly moved and there were no brand to my products.
“Now it’s different as we take cash, but vendors back then were only willing to do business on a 90-day credit basis. Some even played the disappearing act and I had to pick up the losses,” he shares.
But the self-made entrepreneur knows that customer trust was crucial, which he insisted on as he knew quality came before profit.
“The stock cannot be kept long or the quality changes.
“It is an honour when they come all the way to look me up because of the trust, and I wanted to build on that,” he adds.
Yusuf’s steady persistence, quality assurance and price won over customer rapport in about half a decade.
As the country’s economy in the 80s gradually focused more on manufacturing, Yusuf seized the opportunity to pull away from his competitors by setting out his brand name, Yusuf Taiyoob.
Yusuf’s move in 1988 was timely as the income level in the country had risen in tandem with a modernising economy, which built up the purchasing power of the population for speciality products such as Yusuf Taiyoob’s nuts, spices and dates.
Thanks to growing demand, his Penang-based company and brand picked up pace and grew into a prominent importer and distributor, both locally and overseas.
“At that time, the dates used to come in gunny sacks. We opted for a more hygienic practice by importing it in 10kg cartons. They all had our trademark.
“The whole commercial landscape was changed and the benchmark was set to provide good quality dates with a more hygienic practice,” says Yusuf.
After more than 25 years since Yusuf Taiyoob was founded, the sale of dates today contribute to half of the company’s revenue, with about 50 varieties of dates sold annually.
The company has also diversified into other halal products such as beans, pulses, seeds, spices, vinegars, olive oils, cornflakes, canned lychees, almonds, nuts, dried fruits and even baking ingredients, all of which generate the remaining 50% of the company’s revenue.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Yusuf says he is targeting for the company turnover to reach RM200mil within the next five years.
He is planning a large scale expansion for the distribution outlets, warehouse, products and manpower engagement, involving an investment of more than RM50mil.
Expansion of their Bukit Minyak warehouse will take place after Ramadan.
“Our 2ha facility and cold storage in Bukit Minyak warehouse is the main distribution centre.
“For future growth, we are looking to extend into a two-storey warehouse to create more space for storage at a 2.8ha vacant land located beside the warehouse.
“The new building plan also include a small gallery for retail, packaging area for new products, cold storage area and a loading and unloading area,” he says.
The company has an existing sub-warehouse and distribution outlet in Kota Damansara, Selangor, and recently invested RM15mil to add on a distribution outlet in Shah Alam, Selangor and Johor Baru in Johor.
He says another RM5mil was invested for three outlets in Penang, all of which are under renovation now, with one located in the city and two others in Bayan Baru area.
“All five are expected to be operational by the end of the year, tapping into the small and medium income market.
“With better accessibility, small time traders can pick up the product and become an agent.
“There is consumer trust and it is easy to sell our products which are recognised in the market, rather than other unknown brands. We are working towards opening at least an outlet in every state,” he says.
Yusuf adds that consumers and peddlers can purchase the products at wholesale prices, which are almost 40% lower than the retail price with a minimum purchase of one carton.
The company will focus on enlarging its market share in the country as domestic sales contribute about 80% to its annual revenue while the remaining sales come from exports to Thailand, Brunei, Indonesia and Singapore.
He says the company is allocating RM20mil to produce a range of new products in fast-moving consumer goods (FMGC) and natural health care next year.
It will also be forming new teams to market the new products which will see an addition of about 50 new staff to the current 70 employees. With Ramadan approaching, daily customer traffic and demand has also increased by a hundredfold for Yusuf Taiyoob’s products at wholesalers and hypermarkets.
Yusuf says the retail price of most of the dates are the same as last year as the increase in cost and price have been kept minimal by importing in bulk despite the weaker currency.
“About 3,500 tonnes worth of dates fly off the shelves during Ramadan. They are imported from Tunisia, Oman, Egypt, Dubai, South Africa and Saudi Arabia.
“One of our company’s premium dates is Kalahari Medjoul from South Africa which needs to be kept below zero at -38°C. The price has hiked up 8% this year due to higher price at origin,” he says.
The premium product is a bestseller which usually runs out of stock before Raya. Yusuf Taiyoob started importing the product seven years ago.
“We bring in a limited quantity, about 100 tonnes. It will be available on a first-come-first-served basis since we don’t want to keep the products for too long,” he says.
Innovation is also key as Yusuf Taiyoob also introduced a type of dates imported from United States for sportsmen due to the high fibre and potassium content which can provide energy boost all year round.
Through decades of emphasis on quality and reasonable prices, Yusuf says the brand has ensured that customers keep coming back and company sales grow by 10% to 15% annually for all products.