From construction to eye-care

Working with people: Tan (right), seen here with his daughter, Optimax chief executive officer Sandy Tan, invests heavily in developing talents.

Tan Boon Hock is an outsider to the healthcare industry but seized the opportunity to carve a niche as an eye-care specialist provider.

MAKING the best of every opportunity that comes along is something that Optimax Eye Specialist Centre Sdn Bhd managing director Datuk Tan Boon Hock has learnt to do.

Tan, 61, has grown the eye care service provider from a single centre in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur in 1995 to six centres today. To top it off, he has also added an eye hospital to his cap.

But he didn’t start off attending medical school or anything like that.

In fact, Tan started his life as an entrepreneur after working with a mechanical and electrical (M&E) contractor.

“I gave tuition to help support my family during my secondary school days. One of the student’s father was a M&E contractor and he hired me after I completed my secondary school,” Tan says.

After a year, he was encouraged by his employer to start his own venture. Having learnt the ropes, Tan felt confident enough to stand on his own two feet.

In 1984, he founded his first firm, Sena Letrik Sdn Bhd.

A bigger centre: Optimax has been operating its own Penang-based eye hospital since 2014.
A bigger centre: Optimax has been operating its own Penang=based eye hospital since 2014.

With a staff of three, he started out doing subcontractor work, from cabling to erecting streetlight poles.

“It is a dirty job, involving road digging and working late nights. It is also a messy job. You might burst a pipe. And we usually work from 1am onwards. These are jobs that many more established contractors were not interested to do. But we took them on because we had to start somewhere,” Tan explains.

He also did not have much capital to begin with and faced difficulty in getting materials on credit.

Despite going through a rough start, Tan was fortunate enough to have the support of his former employer.

“My former boss was so helpful that when I needed to take goods on credit, he told the suppliers that he would pay on my behalf if I was unable to pay,” says Tan.

Eventually, the company managed to establish their credibility and the tide turned in their favour.

They got more work on infrastructure projects, from lighting for stadiums to airport runways. Some of these projects were valued up to RM30mil. Tan’s company also expanded to about 30 staff.

But another business opportunity came about while running Sena Letrik.

High tech: They invested about RM3.2mil in this laser system used for refractive applications.
High tech:They invested about RM3.2mil in this laser system used for refractive applications.

“While focusing on my business, I also meet many people who share their insights with me. Among them, I met doctors who shared with me about the emergence of excimer laser technology, which is used for eye correction and that got me excited,” he says.

Excimer laser is a form of ultraviolet laser, which is commonly used in the production of microelectronic devices, semiconductor-based integrated circuits and in eye surgeries.

He may not be an ophthalmologist, but being the entrepreneur that he is, Tan saw the opportunity for such technology to treat short-sightedness. He quickly looked into ways to turn this into a viable business plan.

Knowing that reputation and trust play an important role in healthcare services, Tan began his new venture into healthcare by signing a franchise agreement with a UK-based eye clinic that has expertise in this field.

With an investment of over RM2mil, Tan set up Optimax.

The company’s agreement with the UK eye clinic helped build Optimax’s human resource. Local ophthalmologists were trained by the UK franchisor.

Meanwhile, Tan put in a lot of effort to create awareness on Optimax and its offerings among the public.

“It is challenging as this technology is quite new in Malaysia and we have to create awareness via events where users share their experiences,” he relates.

But Tan’s dip into the healthcare line has bode well for him.

By 2010, Optimax had expanded to eight centres with about 100 staff. However, two centres have since been closed down due to the lack of suitable expertise.

But Tan is looking at expanding Optimax’s network again. Plans are afoot for five more eye care centres by end 2017.

As Tan has invested heavily into developing the talent pool at Optimax, his staff were able to operate the centres on their own within a year.

All he needed to do now was sit back and let his team run the show. While most would have indeed taken a back seat to enjoy the spoils of their success, it is not so for Tan.

“I will continue to take risk when there are opportunitites,” he says.

Given his strong entrepreneurial streak, Tan kept looking for opportunities. He eventually learnt that there was a growing demand for healthcare services with the opening of new township developments and rising affluence of the Malaysian society.

His next move was to build hospitals.

“There are many regulations relating to the construction of hospitals, and over 60% of it involves M&E works, which involves things like equipment to control the air quality and various other medical equipment,” he notes.

Banking on his expertise in M&E, Tan again capitalised on an opportunity and started his own hospital arm, Optimax Healthcare Services Sdn Bhd.

He started construction on a hospital in Rawang in 2010. The project costs about RM80mil. After construction was completed in 2013, he sold the hospital to another local healthcare services provider.

He also bought over a bungalow in Penang and refurbished it into an eye hospital which Optimax has been operating since 2014.

Early this year, Optimax Healthcare commenced construction of a hospital in Kluang, Johor. Upon completion in 2019, Tan plans to lease the building out to a healthcare services provider.

Tan’s ambition does not stop there. He is also eyeing an opportunity to build another hospital in Mount Kiara, KL. Plans for the project are underway, pending approval from the relevant authorities.

“We are very selective of the location and the features of the hospitals we build. In the event there are no interested parties to lease it, we will operate them on our own,” Tan concludes.

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