Sarawak’s tycoon Datuk Tiong Su Kouk learned from a young age that wealth and success comes only from tried and tested hard work.
AT his gala birthday party on Sept 27 in Sibu, Sarawak’s tycoon Datuk Tiong Su Kouk was inundated with loud praises and exclusive gifts from business partners, Chinese associations and relatives from near and afar.
But the well-crafted gift of “Three dollar notes and 40 cent coins” from Tiong’s 2,000 employees in his listed company CCK Consolidated Holdings Bhd was the one which stood out among the glittering jewellery, bright Chinese paintings and flattering messages.
The four rusty copper coins and three one dollar notes bearing Queen Elizabeth II’s portrait, which were legal tender in 1950s British-ruled Sarawak, symbolise the beginning of Tiong’s rags-to-riches story.
The astute businessman is known in Sibu to have built up his huge business empire from a mere $3.40 at the tender age of 14.
Tiong, 73, is one of the top five tycoons in Sibu, which is famous for “nurturing” Malaysia’s top timber businessmen of the Foo Chow clan. The clan’s ancestors braved rough seas to land in Sibu to open up virgin jungles in 1901.
But unlike other tycoons, this Foo Chow who loves to sing the Mandarin song Unity is Strength at gatherings, began his career at a wet market selling fish and prawns.
The National Hawkers Association of Malaysia, which took pride of its own fellow hawker’s success and generous donations, has crowned Tiong “The Father of Hawkers”.
“I came from a family of nine siblings. We struggled with the meagre income from my father’s fish stall. So, when he was offered a manager’s job elsewhere, he told me to take over his stall and passed me $3.40 in a sachet,” says Tiong at Sibu’s CCK headquarters, which houses a large photo gallery of his achievements in the past 50 years.
“I was a bit bitter then. Why choose me among nine and make me stop schooling at 14? Perhaps it was because I was a fast and hardy rubber tapper (from age eight to 14). But looking back, it was a blessing in disguise. I am the greatest achiever in amassing wealth. I might not be where I am today without making a sacrifice early,” adds Tiong in Mandarin, at a three-hour interview with the Sunday Star.
After netting success in fish trading, Tiong went into the frozen seafood business at the age of 27. His seafood products are still a common sight in the market and supermarket till today.
Ten years ago, he ventured into the poultry industry and prawn farming. His food products have entered other areas in South-East Asia, China, Australia, even Europe and the United States.
Apart from the food business, grouped under CCK listed in Bursa Malaysia, Tiong ventured into boat-building some 40 years ago under the name Nam Cheong. Today, this Singapore-listed company is a leading global marine player and Malaysia’s largest builder of offshore support vessels (OSV).
Under his privately held S.K. Tiong Group of Companies, Tiong has a hand in housing and commercial property developments worth over RM2bil in the country. This group is also an agent for national car Proton and various brands of beverages in Sibu.
Recollecting his early days, Tiong said he used his “two hands and brains” to do business. He was perhaps the first fishmonger to “customise” service for his customers to suit their needs. This was perhaps why within a short time, the young fishmonger became the biggest seafood trader.
With success came recognition. For the past 20 years, Tiong has been an active community leader, holding top posts in many associations. He headed the Sarawak Chinese Chamber of Commerce and was deputy president of the Associated Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Malaysia (ACCCIM). He was also a member of the Government’s special economic consultative council when Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was prime minister.
Tiong, known for his business acumen, is seen as a good boss. He showed compassion to his staff who did not have a roof over their head in Sibu, and sold them houses at cost price. His name also appears in many charitable bodies.
Tiong was conferred the Panglima Jasa Negara, with the title “Datuk”, by the King in 2001.
The friendly and unassuming businessman, who describes himself as “happy as an angel”, shares his success recipe and life philosophies. Below are the excerpts:
How did you break away from the wet market?
I worked very hard, 16 hours a day for 12 years in the wet market. So when a foreigner recently asked me which university I graduated from, I said: “Market University.”
In the market, I customised my service. When someone wanted to cook curry fish for a family of four, I would pack the right type of fish for her. When I delivered the fish to her home, it came with curry powder and vegetables.
But as fresh seafood gets stale fast, this trade could only expand to a limit. So I went to Japan to learn the food freezing technology.
I started the first frozen seafood outlet in Sibu at 27. It was tough selling. People said frozen foods were stones, not edible. For three months, there was no business. To win customers over, I gave them (the food) for free. I said: “If edible, come and buy. If not, you can forget me.” After that, there were no more issues with frozen food.
Please talk about your food business and CCK.
My food products are sold in Malaysia, Australia, Hong Kong, Europe and the US, among others, via more than 70 retail outlets. My target is to have at least 100 outlets. I am also importing food products.
In terms of food processing, I have two factories in Indonesia and a chicken meat processing plant. I have a large prawn farm in East Malaysia and we export frozen prawns and related products.
The current slowdown has affected our business slightly, but not much, as food is a necessity. The share price of CCK at around 75 sen/unit is low but as the company is solid, I am not concerned. I don’t buy or sell CCK shares.
(CCK posted a net profit of RM5.75mil and revenue of RM245.53mil in the first half of calendar year 2015. Its net asset per share stood at RM1 as at end-June 2015).
How is Nam Cheong Ltd doing?
Orders for shipbuilding have been hit by the plunge in crude oil price.
Some customers have delayed their buy orders but none have cancelled their orders. During this period, we have to be understanding towards our customers. Due to bad market conditions, we may hold back any expansion plan.
However, I believe 2016 will be a better year for Nam Cheong, as the market is likely to improve in the first half of 2016.
(Nam Cheong posted revenue of RM518.9mil and net profit of RM49.8mil in the first half of this year.)
Please tell us more about your property investments.
I have never encountered any major failure in my property investments in my buy-low sell-high strategy. Currently, I have housing and property development projects in the peninsula and Sabah and Sarawak.
During 1997/98 Asian financial crisis and 2008 slowdown, I picked up cheap deals. When I could make reasonable gains, I let go. Before the current down cycle struck, I had sold a property project in Iskandar Malaysia. I am holding back on my hotel project in Danga Bay, Johor Baru.
But my commercial projects in Kuching, Kota Kinabalu, Miri and Johor Baru will go on because there is still demand.
I think property prices have not hit bottom yet. We may see the bottom in one to two years.
I have plans to list my property business. We need to face pressure in order to progress and work efficiently. When we list our entity, the management will be centralised, we will have to be more disciplined, transparent and accountable.
Like in the case of Nam Cheong, we had to comply with rules on corporate governance. I am proud that Nam Cheong won the The Most Transparent Company award (in foreign listing) in 2013.
What is the recipe for your success? Did connections and politics play a part?
I work very hard. I am sincere and trustworthy. Hence, professional bankers trust me and give me financial support. As a businessman, I have also shown that I am sharp, able to make the right decision and act fast.
As a boss, I am lucky to have the strong support of my staff. They treat the company like their family. Every year, they celebrate my birthday. I am very touched by their gesture. I remember during the anti-Chinese riots in Indonesia in 1998, the staff there put up a 24-hour vigil to protect the factory.
I daresay my business has largely depended on our own hard work – not politics, though I have friends who are influential politicians.
For chicken farming, you have to start work at midnight. And in shipbuilding, it is work 24 hours. You have to follow the rules of work, not politics. Businessmen cannot rely on political support too much. It is too risky to do so.
And as a person with little formal education, how do I overcome obstacles? I hire the right people to help me. Some are experts with doctorate degrees. Their advice help turn me into an expert like them. With these people around, I have become a Zhuge Liang (the legendary genius and military strategist who masterminded the rise of Shu Kingdom in the Romance of Three Kingdoms).
What are your greatest achievements in life and business?
In life, my greatest achievement is having my family living harmoniously together. I enjoy reunions with my siblings and friends.
In community service, I am proud that I was the first Foo Chow in the world to become president of the Foo Chow associations at the local, national and world levels simultaneously. I am also proud that I spearheaded the construction of the World Fuzhou Heritage Gallery in Sibu. It is the first such gallery outside China and it houses antiques and exhibits depicting the history of the Foo Chow in Sibu, their early hardship, customs and culture.
In business, I am glad to have two listed companies and see my staff working happily. A few years back, when I moved house and offered to sell my old house to any staff without a house, there was no taker. Everybody has a house. That was one of the happiest moments in my life and also my pride.
Since 1986, I have donated millions to help the financially backward Foo Chows in China. This was the wish of my late father.
Is there any advice you wish to give to young entrepreneurs?
There is no golden advice. Just do it. Build your brand name. Don’t be afraid of failure. As the Chinese saying goes, failure is the mother of success. Once you earn the first pot of gold, the next is easy to come by.
Who will be the successor to your business empire?
Whoever has the most wisdom and best performance will take over the lead role. Although as a Chinese, I am inclined to follow the Chinese custom and tradition of handing over the baton to the eldest son, this may not necessarily be the case. It’s all based on merit.
I have three sons and a daughter. My sons, as well as my son-in-law, are in CCK and Nam Cheong taking up important positions. They will be judged by their performance. But they should know that whoever takes over the leadership, he will have to face the greatest pressure and responsibility while enjoying the most prestige and happiness.
As a successful businessman at 73, what else would you want to do?
I still have to do some work for society. I am doing a lot of charities. About 19 years ago, I set up a RM10mil foundation to help schools, poor students and the under-privileged. I plan to give out more as helping people makes me happy. But business-wise, I still have a vision. I like to look out at the world from my Singapore office. I hope one day my food products and ships will be seen in all corners of the globe.