A monster success
Sharmila Valli Narayanan
DATUK PANG TEE Chew, or better known as TC Pang, knew exactly when he wanted to become a businessman: he was 10 years old and helping his grandfather in his small coffee shop after school. The young boy realised that running a business was exciting. `My grandfather priced his coffee at 10 sen, which was cheap even by the standards of those days. Customers would often sit with their coffee for hours. I asked him to increase the price but he refused because he was afraid of losing his customers and making them upset. And grandfather only sold coffee and tea – nothing else,’ recalls Pang fondly. The young boy learnt two valuable lessons that helped shape his future business philosophy: one had to work very hard to succeed and in order for a business to grow, it had to diversify.
The eldest son among six siblings, Pang came from a poor family. His father, Datuk Pang Chin Tin, who founded the company, decided to take the plunge into the business world by opening a second-hand car dealership company. Pang, who was just 14 years old then, would follow his father around, observing and learning from him on how to deal with business and people issues.
Chin Tin went into the food business by chance. A friend had mentioned that food manufacturing was going to be a huge business in the country. He seized the chance and without any experience in the industry, with limited capital and with no market or industry knowledge, started a factory in 1971 making instant noodles. The first Mamee-Double Decker factory was in Ayer Keroh, Melaka. For many years, it was the only factory operating in that area.
Chin Tin had taken a huge risk but was determined to succeed. He roped in his son. Pang, then 19 years old, went to Japan for two years to learn about food-processing. On his return, he started off as a salesman in the factory. As a salesman, he had a lot of time to study the market and observe trends in the noodle business. These were difficult times for the company, as it was hopelessly out- gunned by its competitors, one of whom was a huge multi-national company. Pang realised that they were never going to be able to compete with the `big boys’. To make an impact in the market, they had to be different. `I realised we had to find a differentiation in the noodle market to create a place for ourselves,’ says Pang.
While in Japan he noticed that the noodle snack – where the noodle was eaten instantaneously like a snack – was very popular. No one in Malaysia had ventured into it. He decided the company had to go where no other noodle maker had. Despite discouragement from their main supplier that the idea of a noodle snack would never work in Malaysia, Pang pushed ahead with his plans. He was confident his idea would work. `I knew the market very well because I had studied it and knew what was missing. I was also very determined to make it a success,’ says Pang. He looked to his father as his role model. `Determination is very important in ensuring success. My father’s success story is due to his determination and his resolve to never give up.’
Pang engaged an advertising agency to come up with an advertising strategy to market his product. After much brainstorming, they came up with the name Mamee Monster Snack. `We chose the name “Mamee” because in Chinese it means a satisfying meal. The name was easy to remember, sounded like the word “mother” and, therefore, had some emotional binding,’ explains Pang. The product also had a friendly blue monster on its packaging to attract children. Launched in 1975, the product was an instant hit. It helped to turn the company around and ensured it had created its own unique place in the market. More than 30 years after its launch, the Mamee Monster Snack continues to thrive. Pang is proud of the fact that children who grew up eating it now have children who are also fans of the snack. `Mamee Monster Snack is not junk food, it has nutritional values. The fact that it is allowed to be sold in Australian and Singapore school canteens is testament to this,’ says Pang proudly.
Ever mindful of the need to diversify into other products, the company launched other products such as the Double Decker prawn crackers. Pang next turned his attention to potato chips. In his travel overseas, he noticed that potato chips were a favourite snack in the West and because of the huge volume, it was considered a major product category. Pang decided to venture into it. Pang learnt that a special kind of potato called the chipping potato was needed for potato chips. None of the local companies that produced potato chips used this type of potatoes for their products. Pang invested a lot of money to ensure he got a steady supply of chipping potatoes from Australia. After doing intensive market research, the company produced a potato crisp that was less salty. Mister Potato Crisps is the product that transformed the company into a world player. It became an instant hit. Today, it is sold in over 80 countries and is the number two brand in the world for potato crisps. Pang had built his first truly global brand.
Differentiation is a favourite word of Pang. In order to be successful, he believes that the product has to be different to stand out. The company was the first to come out with instant cup noodles in the market. The idea was so successful that the competitors, including the market leader in the category, had to come up with a similar product.
`For us to be successful locally and globally, our products need to have at least one of these four qualities,’ says Pang. `The product has to target a niche market. if not, it has to be innovative. If it is not innovative, it must have differentiation. If it doesn’t have any of these, then, at least, it must be competitive in terms of pricing.’
To stay ahead of the competition, the company must take risks, advocates Pang. `If people in the organisation don’t take risks, then everyone becomes complacent and when that sets in, the company will never improve.’ By taking risks, he means calculated risks – studying all the options and conditions and going into a venture based on instinct and information at hand. `Sometimes, our risks can backfire. I myself have taken risks that have not worked out. You learn from your mistakes and move on from there to become more efficient.’
Pang believes continuous learning is important, especially for business leaders. That’s why he took off 10 weeks to go to Harvard Business School to do an intensive business course. `Leaders should take a sabbatical to enhance their knowledge and build their network,’ he advises. `Harvard was a good learning environment; it is one of the best places to build your business network and to learn management skills. The time and money I spent there was really worth it.
`It was difficult to take 10 weeks off but I had to do it,’ he continues. `Besides, I always believe that in any organisation, the CEO cannot be indispensable. When I was away, my company ran smoothly. That means I have been successful in training the management to run things in my absence. A CEO who does not have a team to run the company when he is gone is a failure because he did not train those under him!’
Although he is a great admirer of the Western management style, he firmly believes Asian companies should hold on to their core Eastern values such as taking care of employees, be willing to share one’s knowledge with everyone and for the leader to be accessible to everyone. `In the West, most often, the CEO lives in an ivory tower and many of the employees, especially those in the lower rungs, hardly see him. My employees can see me all the time … I am hardly cocooned in the office. I eat with my employees – from my managers to my driver. I can learn things from my driver – what’s happening in his social world that may have an impact on our business,’ says Pang.
`T C Pang has come a long way from the first time I knew him,’ says Omar Shaari, the Managing Director of Dentsu Utama, who has known him for more than 20 years. `For one thing, he is much more knowledgeable. As a businessman, he is very fair to others. He is open-minded and willing to listen to other people’s point of view. He is also very compassionate. Charity is something close to his heart and he does his charity work without seeking any publicity.’
`My father (he is currently the chairman of the company) taught me to be humble and not have any “ego” about holding on to power at any cost,’ says Pang. `He said the most important thing in life is to leave behind a legacy of caring and sharing.’
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