Dato’ Sri Michael Chong, one of Malaysia’s leading and well-respected entrepreneurs, has come a long way since the days of his first humble, nondescript showroom, Reko Used Car, which only offered a few units of used cars for sale. However, perseverance and faith has taken him to greater heights, ranging from owning a successful automobile business, Glory Wheels Sdn Bhd to his new venture in the food and beverage industry through Grand Saisaki Sdn Bhd. In this issue, Top 10 of Malaysia speaks with the affable, humorous and down-to-earth Dato’ Sri Michael Chong on his road to success as a dedicated entrepreneur.
Life has an amusing way of revealing the unforeseen future. Dato’ Sri Michael Chong was not born with a silver spoon. In fact, he was the eldest in the family and had to knuckle down to support his family. “I first had my encounter with business during university days when I was distributing Adidas shoes and other sports goods throughout the region. I went to all the shops that nobody knew existed. Afterwards, I started distributing folders and other stationery needed by my university faculties, clubs and societies,” reveals Michael. However, business was not lucrative enough and he had to come up with different ideas.
“My life was truly blessed especially when I married my loving wife who has since supported me through all the hard times and falls that I have gone through. And I am extremely thankful to her for giving us our two beautiful children, Aaron and Faith,” says Michael with an unmistakable sense of gratitude. Nobody would have imagined the kind of achievements that Michael has chalked up in view of his previous failures and hardships. “At one point, I was selling guavas at the night market because I had to support my family. Those were also the days where a graduate was expected to achieve greater things in life,” he recalls.
After graduating from the National University of Malaysia in 1983, life was one bumpy ride for Michael until he married his caring wife in 1985. “That was the year Reko Used Car was established as well,” he proclaims proudly. Starting with only two cars, a Mini Cooper and a Volkswagen, Michael and his wife would each drive them to the showroom and park them along the main road of Jalan Reko, Kajang. “Putting one empty petrol container on top of each car with the words, ‘For Sale’ written on them, was how Reko Used Car started,” says Michael with a hearty laugh. Gradually, Michael’s determination and vision finally paid off when sales increased and the inception of Glory Wheels Sdn Bhd in 2003 materialised to take over the corporate role of Reko Used Car. Two years back, Glory Wheels has expanded to Auto Arcade in PJ, where it houses more than 600 automobiles. Since then, there has been remarkable growth for Michael’s car business, with a wide selection of both new and used local and imported cars.
In the beginning of 2011, Michael’s persevering entrepreneurial spirit propelled him into the food business where he took over the Saisaki and Shogun food chain under his next successful company, Grand Saisaki Sdn Bhd. Prior to this, the Japanese restaurant chain was losing money even though there were sales. However, using his business acumen, wits and strong faith, Michael was able to not only pull Shogun and Saisaki out of the doldrums but made a huge success of them. “I was analysing the business for six months and told myself that I just need to increase the sales by 10% and reduce the cost by 10% and I should be fine,” he says. Amazingly, by changing some of the policies of the previous management, sales increased by more than 30% while the cost was reduced by 20%. “This is surely the greatest achievement I have achieved so far in my business history, especially for someone who has zero knowledge in the food and beverage industry,” he adds cheekily.
After just three months of running the restaurants, Michael’s biggest challenge in this industry came. “9th March 2011 really left a mark on me. That was the day the Tohoku earthquake left a trail of death and destruction when it caused powerful tsunamis to hit the shores of Japan’s Miyagi prefecture. The Government of Japan evacuated thousands of residents living near Fukushima and Onagawa nuclear power plants due to radiation leaks,” he recollects. For fear of the fishes in the affected sea being radioactively contaminated, people were avoiding Japanese food like the plague. Michael’s Japanese chain restaurant sales dropped by a shocking 60 to 65% and he admits that it was truly a big struggle for him during that period. “Nevertheless, I thank the Lord that everything went back to normal and business started flourishing again after two months,” says Michael.
Challenges are unavoidable in every aspect of life and Michael certainly had his fair share of it especially in his car business. The loan period for the car buyers was reduced from 7 years to 5 years and they were only able to get financing for up to 70%. “Actually, every day is a challenging one for me. Thankfully, I enjoy my work as I’ve a love for cars since I was young. This passion really helps me to remove any negative atmosphere. As for food, I love to see people enjoying good food, and this inspires me to continuously improve the restaurant. In short, when you take things positively and you do them positively, eventually the outcome will be positive,” says Michael.
When asked about what contributes to the successes of his company, Michael is quick to give credit to all his employees. “Every success that came my way in the business is due largely to my supporting and loyal staff.” With more than 400 people working for him, Michael is proud of the fact that he can remember the names of at least 300 of them. “I do not think I have great management and leadership skills but I lead by example. I am a very hands-on person and I believe that when I praise and acknowledge my staff personally, it makes a great difference.” He also adds that caring for his workers is a priority for him.
Having an innovative mind set is part of being an entrepreneur. When asked about the future plans for his businesses in Malaysia, Michael states that there are real limitations to his automobile business as it is very much a controlled one. However, he has a list of ideas lined up for his food and beverage business. “Grand Saisaki Sdn Bhd is running a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programme and we are really enthusiastic about giving back to society,” says Michael with a good degree of excitement. One of the CSR activities will be the Saisaki Festival which customers will be a part of this fundraising event in support of selected organisations. The festival is held in conjunction with the Spring Festival in Japan. “With the rise of competitors in the food and beverage market, we cannot sit and wait for customers to come. So this is one of the initiatives the company is going to take,” he says.
Even though Michael had to put in a lot of time and effort into his businesses, he is still very close with his family. “During the Reko Used Car period, my wife and I would be home before 7pm to have dinner together with all of the family members. We would go for outings and enjoy our time together during the weekends. That was when the children were still very young. As my business grew, so did they. They became busy with their school life and friends while I managed my businesses. Even now when both of them are abroad pursuing their studies, they never fail to call and talk to us about their lives. Of course, my beloved wife was the bridge that kept us strong as a family while faith made us stronger,” reveals Michael.
“As for young entrepreneurs out there, my advice is not to overtrade. Rome was not built in a day and neither do you make money overnight. Go into a business you can afford and do not bite off more than you can chew. Do not start a business which needs a million when you only have half of that. Overtrading leads to a vicious cycle of interest expenses which will impact the net profit,” advises Michael. This certainly is valuable advice from someone who has survived in the automobile industry for 29 years. “In 1996, when the bank offered me a 5 million ringgit overdraft facility, I declined it even though some of my friends were swift to take that offer in order to expand their businesses. Then came the 1997 financial crisis which caused most of them to fall into bankruptcy. That reinforced my belief that overtrading can kill,” says Michael with a sombre expression.
Michael says that his greatest achievement is when his presence is able to bless those around him, as small achievements are what make the bigger achievements what they are today. “As long as my workers are blessed, I will feel that I am successful. Don’t let anything in or of me intimidate you in any way because I want my life to be a blessing to you too,” says Michael with a broad smile.