Baking up a storm

  • Retail
  • Sunday, 25 Sep 2016

Noraini Ahmad was a clerk at an insurance company whose love for baking and cooking led her to start a side business that grew into a cookie factory and assorted businesses. I knew I was meant to do something like this, says the CEO of Noraini’s Cookies. ZIEMAN reports.

MOST people know Noraini Ahmad simply as Noraini Cookies. That’s because the 60-year-old has been making and peddling her own brand of cookies, called Noraini’s, for more than two decades.

Noraini’s makes more than 17 types of cookies, which are available through retailers like Tesco, Carrefour, Giant, Mydin and Jusco. The company is known for its signature jam tarts, as well as cookies like Double Chocolate Chip Stripe, Chocolate Nestum, Rainbow Sugee and London Almond.

The story of her company, says Noraini, “is all about hard work, determination and persistence.”

When she first started out, Noraini specialised in making homemade Malay and Nyonya kuih (bite-sized snacks and desserts). This was back in 1984, when she supplied school canteens and cafeterias.

Noraini making sure that things are shipshape at the factory.
Noraini making sure that things are shipshape at the factory. 

Her home-based business brought in a monthly income of about RM4,000, but a chance meeting with a chef from a five-star hotel changed the scale of her operations. The chef asked her to make kuih for his hotel kitchen. She jumped at the chance.

Before long, Noraini was supplying 14 hotels in the Klang Valley and Selangor. She also catered to political conventions at the PWTC. Her orders grew to such an extent that she was making up to 10,000 pieces of kuih a day and raking in around RM20,000 a month in sales.

“I made the kuih from my small kitchen at home with the help of friends who were housewives. That was our humble beginning,” recalls Noraini, who at the time was still working as an insurance clerk.

She says she got tired of making kuih after a number of years and started to venture into making Raya cookies and cakes.

When representatives of a leading shopping mall asked her to supply them with Raya cookies in 1994, Noraini quit her insurance job and founded Noriani Enterprise.

She invested RM25,000 into the company, set up shop near the Paya Jaras night market in Sungai Buloh, and started baking and selling. She also decided to supply the vendors that mushroomed every year along Chow Kit Road and Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman during Ramadan.

There are about 22 workers at the factory.
There are about 22 workers at the factory. 

This turned out to be an inspired decision, even though it was for just one month of the year.

The first festive season sales saw her taking in RM70,000 in sales. The figure rose to RM150,000 in the following year.

In 1997, as her business grew, Noraini relocated from the shop to a factory lot in Kampong Sungai Pelong in the Petaling district. Unfortunately, soon after that the country was hit by the Asian economic crisis of the late 90s and business was badly affected.

She almost closed shop.

During this time, Noraini came up with an alternative business plan. She set up a kiosk at Plaza Angsana in Johor Baru and sold freshly baked cakes and confectionery. The response was good, and she made sales of more than RM1,000 a day.

The kiosk proved to be a hit in the next four years, prompting her to set up more such outlets. She also supplemented her income by opening a restaurant that specialised in a variety of laksa and traditional Malay dishes.

Getting the right manpower is a constant struggle, says Noraini.
Getting the right manpower is a constant struggle, says Noraini. 

Noraini sustained herself in this way until conditions had recovered sufficiently that her cookie factory in Selangor could resume production.

In April 2003, she established Noraini’s Cookies Worldwide to regroup and start anew. She decided that baking cookies mainly for the Raya season wasn’t going to cut it anymore.

“I wanted my customers to taste my biscuits all year round. That meant I had to give my best. I laboured over R&D each time. Some of the recipes took a long time to develop. Our kuih bangkit, for example took almost a year,” she says.

In line with the plan to market her products more widely, Noraini undertook a branding exercise in 2004. She introduced better packaging and came up with an official company logo.

She also approached the supermarkets and hypermarkets to pitch her cookies. The rest, as they say, is history.

Noraini’s company now operates from a four-block office cum factory in Bandar Pinggiran Subang in Shah Alam, which she bought for RM1.6mil in 2008. The factory, which has a fully automated baking oven, has the capacity to churn out more than a tonne of biscuits a day.

Currently, Noraini’s exports to five countries — China, Indonesia, Brunei, Singapore and Cambodia.

The company makes 17 types of cookies.
The company makes 17 types of cookies. 

“Our company has evolved over the years. From just making biscuits, we have diversified into producing pancake pre-mix and other packaged food products like laksa Penang, kari ikan, instant porridge, pastas, lasagna, white coffee, instant noodles, frozen food, spices (pre-mix), canned food and a few OEM products,” says Noraini.

After 32 years in the business, she is still not showing any signs of slowing down. Noraini is still working round the clock researching and perfecting recipes, supervising her 22-odd staff at the factory and attending meetings with small entrepreneurs.

“It took us a long time to get where we are now. We are in a better position today because we were the pioneers among the Malay entrepreneurs in this area,” she says.

“When we finally produced the biscuits from our factory, we made sure to comply with the Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) in order to market our products globally,” adds the mother of five.

According to Noraini, her cookies are popular because they contain no additives, meet international standards, and are halal and nourishing. She says the export market is important for her company as the local scene can be very competitive.

“It’s tough competing with local manufacturers and easier to penetrate the overseas market as they are receptive towards Malaysian products. Our problem used to be the packaging, but we have improved in that department.

“But we always have problems getting the right manpower. Building a successful business and making it lucrative is indeed a big challenge.

Noraini says her factory complies with the internationally recognised Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP).
Noraini says her factory complies with the internationally recognised Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP).

“Along the way, I’ve learned that to stay ahead, you must have good products and a solid business formula. You must also be mentally and emotionally strong during the trying times. When our business suffers financially, we can’t afford to quit. We have to think about how to sustain it,” she states.

Noraini recalls how her first shipment overseas ran into problems.

“Since we didn’t have any experience, some of the cookies got broken during shipment. It was very frustrating, and we had to face the consequences. But we did not give up and worked on the problem.

“Thank God, it’s never happened again,” she says with a sigh.

Noraini is optimistic of recording a growth of 10% this year with the introduction of new products. She is not keen to divulge the sales figures, however.

“We have been experiencing a fall in revenue for the last few years. We hope by introducing new products, our sales will pick up and our brand will remain competitive in the market,” she says.

Noraini’s sons are now slowly taking the lead in several areas of the business, which includes subsidiaries, overseas partnerships and an outsourcing arm.

Looking back, Noraini says she’s glad she took the decision to pursue her entrepreneurial dream.

“I think one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life was to quit my insurance job after delivering my third child. Since I’ve always loved cooking and baking, I decided to do something to earn some money so that I would not be bored.

“I just knew that I was meant to do something like this,” she says.

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