Taking on the big boys is by no means an easy task, as Teong Teck Lean found out.
Teong is Chief Executive Officer / Managing Director of GD Express Sdn Bhd (GDex), a home-grown and niche logistics company, located in Petaling Jaya. The big boys referred to are Federal Express Corporation (M) Sdn Bhd, United Parcel Service (M) Sdn Bhd and DHL Worldwide Express Sdn Bhd, to name a few.
However, Teong is quick to point out that it is not him alone who is responsible for the success of his company. He says, ‘I owe it to many people in the company, from the sweepers to the managers – without their support, I would be a nobody.’
Incidentally, GDex recorded a net profit of RM 2.6 million for the financial year (FY) ended June 30, 2004, which is double the figure for the same corresponding period last year. Prior to Teong and his team coming on board as active directors, the company, founded in 1995, was not heading in the right direction and was instead, making losses along the way. For the record, the breakeven for logistics companies on a national scale like GDex is usually five years, and it is believed that many local start-ups with deep pockets have failed – even after five years in operation.
In contrast, GDex has become the first local logistics company to obtain the ISO 9001 certification for 18 out of its total of 20 departments. Teong asserts, ‘The secret is customer focus and welcoming competition, not fearing it!’ He reminisces how he picked up the competitive spirit, ‘Our family was large. During dinner, one whole chicken would disappear from the plate at the blink of an eye. We had to eat fast, or else we would not get our share.’
So, how did a boy from the backwater of Kampung Merbau in Air Tawar, Perak manage to make such a splash in this competitive and technologically advanced industry? A peek into his background reveals some interesting facts about this 44-year-old affable man. One that stands out is that his mother, the late Siew Seok Kiew, was the matriarch of the family and had a great influence on Teong and his 10 siblings.
‘My late mother had a keen business sense which she instilled in me,’ Teong explains.
In fact, Teong’s mother made sure all her children were doing one task or another in her stable of business, which ranged from rubber trading, running a petrol kiosk, to animal farming – all in Air Tawar. ‘We had to do it or else she would beat us,’ Teong says jokingly. ‘My duty was to ensure all the livestock had sufficient food and maintain the tapioca plants.’
Admittedly, Teong’s mother had a stronger influence on him. He adds, ‘Although she was illiterate, she learnt to drive a car. Such was her determination in life. She worked hard until she got it right. My father, on the other hand, was a genteel person. He was the one who believed in social causes.’ In fact, it was his late father, Teong Lam Peng, in his capacity as the village headman, who built dirt roads in his kampong in Air Tawar.
In any case, Teong had a memorable childhood, mixing well with his neighbourhood friends, and learning to speak Tamil in the process. Although he has forgotten a good deal of the language, when encouraged he manages ‘engai neenga porenggai (Where are you going?)’
Even with all these tasks, Teong never neglected his studies. Together with his childhood friend Kong Hwai Ming, who is now a successful entrepreneur in Singapore, he did well in school.
Kong says, ‘Teong is a great guy. He does not take things for granted, even friendship. When he carries out a task, he ensures it is completed successfully.’ Primary schooling for Teong was at a missionary school, the Methodist English School. ‘I may be a Buddhist but I believe that learning a new religion other than my own will be good for me,’ he says. Upon completing his primary school, Teong move on to SMJK Air Tawar.
‘I had wanted to be an engineer.’ When asked why, he answer, ‘When I was 10 years old, a relative who was visiting us came in an Audi. In 1970, owning a car in itself was a big thing, and many had Morris Minors, including us. So, owning an Audi was certainly a luxury. So, that’s why I wanted to be in engineering.’
‘As soon as I completed the Malaysia Certificate of Examination (MCE), I went to Taylor College in Kuala Lumpur to attend pre-university. However, when my results came out, my friends persuaded me to come home to study Form 6. So, I joined the Anglo Chinese School (ACS) in nearby Sitiawan,’ teong says.
His initial experience at ACS proved to be dismal. ‘Compared to the fast pace at Taylors, I found it slow going at ACS,’ he says. Thus, he decided to move to Manitoba, Canada in 1978 to join his elder brother who was already studying at the University of Manitoba.
Naturally, Teong’s academic pursuit was in electrical and electronic engineering. He adds, ‘My experience in Canada was good. I learnt a lot about understanding and respecting different cultures.’
Another aspect of Teong that comes across as interesting is his enterprising nature. He was never one to follow the norm, even if it meant failure. He is certainly not a bore by any means. For instance, when the people in his hometown reach the age of 18, they usually prefer to get married and settle down. This did not suit Teong as he wanted to see the real world first.
Teong returned home to Malaysia in 1983 as an engineer. He then got a job with a United States multinational company, Texas Instruments, in Kuala Lumpur.
‘Back then, I was only 24 years old, and a greenhorn, and wanted to understand more of the rules and guidelines that governed our energy sector. So, after one year, I took a pay cut and joined Tenaga Nasional Bhd (then Lembaga Letrik Negara). Everyone who knew me thought I was a fool and called me stupid,’ he says with a hearty laugh.
Teong learnt all he could at Tenaga Nasional from 1984 till 1988. But then, Teong says, ‘In 1988, I decided I had enough and left – without a job in hand. I thought of taking a short break.’
Later, he tried his hand in commodity trading in Kuantan, Pahang, but failed miserably. He adds, ‘Commodity trading was unpredictable.’
From this, it opened a new chapter in Teong’s life. ‘While I was in the trading business, I came across several rich people with the means to invest. Since I already had their confidence, I thought of becoming a remisier instead,’ he said. In 1990, Teong became a trainee dealer at OSK Securities Bhd (OSK). The returns must have been good because he was with them till 2000, despite the 1997 financial crisis.
Philemon Soon, a communication specialist who has known Teong for more than five years, says, ‘He thinks thoroughly before he embarks on any action. He is disciplined, honest, focused yet generous. Teong certainly does not believe in wasting time unnecessarily.’
On the topic of family and love, Teong says he is very close to his siblings. As for his marriage, it was arranged by one of his sisters. ‘I am a shy person and quite conservative when it comes to matters of the heart. My wife and I went out for six years before it blossomed into marriage,’ he explains. Teong’s wife is a homemaker and they have two children – a girl, aged 14 and a boy, aged 11. In his spare time, Teong likes to garden and read management books.
After having successfully steered GDex to profitability, and perhaps a listing in the offing, what are Teong’s ideas on management?
He answers with a smile, ‘In our line of business, the software (the people) is important, so treating everyone individually, fairly and with respect is important. In any situation, there are always two sides, listen objectively and without prejudice. Do not be quick to judge. Everyone has his or her own psychological make-up and if one understands this well, one will be able to harness the right stuff from that person.’ Sound advice indeed!