KUALA LUMPUR: Start small but dream big. That’s the advice from Asean’s top kebab seller to youth entrepreneurs who want to tap into the region’s increasingly integrated market.
Hendy Setiono was a 19-year-old university student when he sold his first kebab from a pushcart in his hometown of Surabaya, Indonesia.
Thirteen years later, he employs more than 2,000 staff who run his network of 1,200 Baba Rafi kebab outlets in Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia, as well as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and China.
Hendy was one of the successful Asean youth entrepreneurs invited to share their stories at a dialogue session, titled Youth entrepreneurs: The future of Asean, on Wednesday. The session was part of the Asean SME Conference and Showcase 2015, which ended yesterday.
With 60% of Asean’s population made up of people under 35, youths are not just a big market, but a key source of entrepreneurial talent.
The creation of a single market and production base with the rollout of the Asean Economic Community at the year’s end will also help small and medium enterprises expand into new markets in the region.
Asean economic integration, he said, meant that the door would be opened wider, making it easier to expand business beyond borders.
The audience was wowed by Hendy’s cheerfulness and optimism, and his story of a boy with big dreams who grew his business from humble beginnings, driven by a commitment to work hard and learn.
The idea to sell kebab – meat grilled on a skewer which is popular mostly in the Middle East, Eastern Mediterranean and South Asia – came when Hendy visited his father, an oil and gas worker in Qatar.
It was there that he tried kebab for the first time and realised that not many people were selling it in Indonesia.
“That’s when I had my a-ha! moment, when I knew this was the business for me,” he said.
With a US$400 (RM1,500) loan from his sister, he sold kebab from a pushcart with one employee, no business background and no training, just a dream to become an entrepreneur. As his business slowly but steadily grew in Indonesia, Hendy realised he was on to a good thing.
In his research, he found an article in the business publication Euromoney which ranked the seemingly humble kebab as the world’s fourth most popular fast food after burgers, fried chicken and pizza.
While the burger, fried chicken and pizza businesses were all dominated by global chains, there was none yet for kebab.
His first target of overseas expansion was Malaysia, where he faced his share of challenges. It was tough finding a suitable local partner because his brand was not known outside his country.
It was also a challenge to transcend Indonesian culture when training staff at the more than 30 Malaysian outlets, including Bangladeshi and Nepali workers.
Hendy said he wanted to grow his business into an Asean and global brand, but reminded others with big dreams that there was no shortcut to success.
“You must be willing to grow and learn during each step of your business before you can move on to the next one,” he said.