IT is probably apt to call Azri Zahier Azmi a material guy.
Right from the time he was a kid, he has had an expensive taste.
While in Year Five, he wanted a RM200 Deuter bag for school but his parents refused and gave him RM30 instead for a schoolbag.
But his desire to bergaya (be stylish) was so strong that the then 10-year-old decided to earn that money by cleaning tables at a food stall and selling durians from his grandfather’s farm.
At that tender age, Azri had already learnt the art of psychology. He found that people had a soft spot for children.
“People felt kesian and took pity on me - a young boy selling durians alone by the roadside - so I knew people were willing to pay a higher price for my durians although the stall next to mine was selling at a cheaper price,” Azri, now 27, shares.
Realising how important knowledge was in doing business, he learnt all he could about durians so that he could ‘advise’ his customers on which fruits to buy, based on their preference. Impressed, they kept coming back.
“At 11, I was already handling RM1,000 to RM2,000,” says Azri, now an entrepeneur whose business includes agriculture, education, trading, construction, food and beverage.
Money is a powerful motivator, he says, and his motto has always been biar papa asal bergaya (you can be dirt poor as long as you are stylish).
“My mother is a teacher and garang gila (very strict) , so I always had to excel and be the top student in school,” he adds.
When Azri got a place at SM Sains Raja Tun Azlan Shah in Taiping for his secondary education, he kept a low profile as far as making money was concerned for the first two years because he was a junior.
By Form Three, as a senior, he could do “pretty much anything” so he started selling keropok and lollilops to the other students.
“I bought big packets of keropok for RM4.50 and sold them for RM9 making 100% profit on each pack.
“That year (in 2002), I bought myself the latest Nokia phone which very few people had because it was expensive.” Azri’s enterprising ways followed him all through university.
At Universiti Malaya while pursuing his Asasi Sains foundation course, he ‘sold’ the idea to other students to “Suit Up” for their annual dinner because one of his friend’s father had gotten hold of hundreds of suits for free and didn’t know what to do with it.
So Azri and his friend brought those suits in.
“We sold the suits for RM50 each and got them for free. About 80% of the students bought suits from us. We made thousands!”
Azri initially pursued a degree in Applied Chemistry but found it wasn’t quite his thing, so he switched courses.
“The lecturers at the Alam Bina (Built Environment) Faculty drove BMWs, Porsche and luxury cars, so I knew that was the faculty for me because these lecturers put to practice what they’ll be teaching us,” he says.
Because he switched courses, Azri lost his PTPTN student loan but the enterprising student found other means to finance his education and lifestyle.
He joined the university debating team and took part in every debate he could because there was a daily RM60 allowance and attractive cash prizes ranging from RM8,000 to RM27,000.
“I treated debate as a business and there were very frequent debate competitions. UM became the best team in Malaysia while I was there. I won the best speaker award too,” he says.
In his second year at university, he was already able to buy a new Proton Savvy for himself.
Not content with just the debate “business”, Azri ventured into other businesses.
He printed a bulletin for a coalition of candidates running for student elections and made RM5,000.
He also took up a class in photography and spent weekends shooting wedding photos, charging couples RM1,500 to RM3,000 per session.
“My girlfriend who is now my wife had to come with me, otherwise she would not be able to see me during the weekends because I was so busy,” he says.
Despite being busy with his money making ventures, Azri managed to achieve an impressive GPA of 3.7, graduating with a degree in Quantity Surveying in 2010.
But within months working as a quantity surveyor, he felt the RM2,000 salary was not enough.
“There was a lot of paper work to do and I thought ‘I don’t need a degree to do this’,” he says.
So he applied for a job with Petronas, sat for the test and went for the interviews. He was told he was successful but was kept waiting for months for his offer letter.
Tired of waiting, Azri decided to go into business with his older brother, setting up a company and an online platform farmbook.my to bring farmers, fishermen, cattle breeders together to trade online.
He was shocked when the Prime Minister launched it at MAHA 2010.
Buoyed by euphoria and optimism, Azri turned down the Petronas offer letter when it came through even though his mother and girlfriend begged him not to.
Then things started to falter.
Farmbook. my was not generating traffic.
“Farmers and breeders are just not technology savvy. They are not on the Internet. They don’t even have email so how are they going to trade using e-payment?” he says, in retrospect.
There were bills to pay, overhead costs, an office to maintain and staff salaries to pay.
“I was broke. I dug out coins from my piggy bank till I literally didn’t have 10 sen left.
“It was the fasting month, I was renting a place at Solaris so every evening I would walk 40 mins to the Wilayah Persekutuan Mosque to break my fast.
“My girlfriend thought I was becoming religious but I was going there because I could eat for free,” he laughs.
Azri says the experience taught him that business is not just about having the skill but also “how strong your heart is” in facing hurdles.
Not one to stay down for long, he was able to pick himself up.
He joined a friend to do trading for an oil and gas company; and when his loan for an agriculture venture was rejected by Agro Bank, he saw an opportunity there.
“I knew the reason the bank rejected me was not because I was not qualified but because the officers there don’t really know about agriculture. So I put in paperwork to train the bank staff in agriculture,” he says.
Azri borrowed RM50,000 from an uncle who runs an agriculture technical skills college in Malacca. He grew some crops and built a freshwater fish farming pond on his grandfather’s land in Kg Gajah Perak which had oil palm as well.
The effort paid off when the bank sent over 30 officers to his place for a short course. His uncle helped out by sending over four lecturers to train the bank officers.
Azri made a bit of profit from it. Spurred by this, he set up iGROW, an Agro-Entrepreneur Institute offering a one-year course in agriculture where students would get the accredited Skills Certificate Malaysiaon completion.
Azri’s uncle also gave the assurance he would mentor and guide Azri.
Within a short period, Azri’s college, which employs 12 lecturers, is already doing well. About 200 students have already graduated from the institute.
In 2012, Azri, again motivated by money, entered the Rural Business Challenge - a competition for young entrepreneurs in rural areas - which carries a RM2mil development grant as the prize. He however lost.
“I thought this confirms my belief that only government cronies and Umno people win,” he says.
Although his uncle told him to forget the competition, Azri tried again in 2013.
He was shortlisted and got to present his business direction to a panel. This time, he was successful and won the RM2mil grant.
Seeing the tourism potential in his area, he used the money to build 13 chalets.
Unfortunately, as soon as they were ready in December, the massive floods hit Perak and his chalets were flooded and all bookings were cancelled. He is still in the process of restoring the road around the chalets.
Asri has also embarked on a modern agriculture venture with a group of businessmen who specialise in technology. They are now building vertical agriculture structures which use hi-tech computers to control the temperature for optimum growth of produce.
The VCube as they have named it, he says, is able to grow 5,000 sq ft (464.5m) of produce in a 1,000 sq ft area.
Azri says they have successfully tried it out with tomatoes and capsicum.
He sees a huge market for VCube and plans to get the company publicly listed. The factory is in Kulim.
One of Azri’s goals was to drive a BMW at the age of 26 and he has achieved that.
“People judge you by what car you drive, the clothes you wear and your appearance,” says Azri, who keeps a moustache to make himself look older which helps when doing business.
His advice for the younger generation is not follow the path of others.
“Don’t buy a house first because the loan ties you down and you end up paying a lot in interest.
“So buy a good car first because image is important in business. When a businessman sees you driving a cheap car, he will not want to do business with you,” says Azri, who has experienced this when driving his Proton Savvy.
He says networking is essential in business and “who you know is as important as what you know.”
Azri says young people should also read a lot and not throw a fit before they know all the facts.
“And dream big. Do not bother if people laugh at your dreams or call you a ‘joker’ or say that you are cocky or lame. Dream big and go after your dreams. I did.”