A CHART FOR SUCCESS
LOW POOI CHOON, MANAGING DIRECTOR OF SUNSHIP GROUP, SHARES WITH MICHAEL OH THE CHALLENGES OF DEVELOPING ONE OF MALAYSIA’S LEADING SHIPPING AND LOGISTICS COMPANIES.
Low Pooi Choon, Managing Director of Sunship Group, shares with ThePeak the challenges of developing one of Malaysia’s leading shipping and logistics companies.
Looking back, what do you consider the defining factors for your transformation of Sunship Group to a major logistics service provider in Malaysia? An amalgamation of leadership, foresight, calculated risks, good relationships and partnerships, and a stroke of luck – being in the right place at the right time and good networking led to what the group is today.
Container shipping started in Malaysia in 1973 and I was one of the pioneers recruited to welcome the first container ship to Port Klang. In 1985, long before global freight forwarding became the in-thing, I knew that we had to expand from just shipping to become an integrated logistics provider. My proposals were initially rejected by my previous employers, not because they didn’t want to but because it was not part of their global core business.
In 1994, when Sunship was formed, my dream was realised. The timing was perfect when SDV Transport (now known as Bollore Logistics) came seeking partnerships in South-East Asia. Malaysia was its first target for its global expansion plan. Today, the network within Bollore stretches to 106 countries with 600 offices. This offers the opportunity to have a global network and to add value to customers.
We branched away from traditional container shipping and expanded to specialise in project cargo, ships and space chartering and RORO Service, adding value by providing door-to-door services and even, at times, door-to-line services. We forecasted that the shipping agency business would be a sunset business. Owners will merge or sell out, and we were right. Today, only 12 container shipping lines control the global container liftings as against
104 then. Our move to concentrate on conventional, RORO shipping paid off when Proton and Perodua started their exports.
We decided to look east and west, partnering with the French and Japanese to position ourselves as a global player. Our partnership with Bollore and Toyota’s shipping subsidiary Toyofuji Shipping, forming Toyofuji Logistics Malaysia (TFLM), further combines the strength and capability of organising the full range of transport and logistics function, coordinating the handling of not just cargo but automotive.
We’re also proud that UNTAED appointed Sunship to source and deliver resources during the handover after the independence of East Timur in 2002. Also, after the 2004 tsunami in Aceh, we were appointed by the International Red Cross to assist source and deliver aid to the affected sites, providing the total package from sourcing to final destination logistics. Considering the business you are managing, what do you regard as the crucial factors for you to stay on top of your game? By being on top of the latest news and trends, one is able to anticipate how to steer the group in the right direction. Rejuvenating constantly, mentally and emotionally, is also a key ingredient to staying on top of the game. Being the National Vice President of the SME Association Malaysia and the Deputy Chairman of the Shipping Association Malaysia, as well as sitting on the board of Port Authorities in Malaysia and representing Port of Marseilles in ASEAN, also lend me a competitive edge to anticipate the needs of the Industry.
Knowledge is power; with that, one is able to diversify and accommodate according to local and international economic environments and business trends. Further, as a personal practice in life and in business, it is always good to formulate short-, mid- and long-term plans and goals. Looking into your crystal ball, what do you foresee are the game-changing challenges facing your industry? China has become the top global player in logistics. Malaysian ports used to rank themselves among the world’s top 10 but have fallen since China’s boom. Regionally, Thailand and Singapore have been picking up as well, so, in South-East Asia, Malaysia has lost its competitive edge in terms of accessibility, free trade and pricing. The shipping industry itself is shrinking, with many conglomerates selling out or merging in an attempt to strengthen their positions, expand their networks and reduce costs. In Malaysia itself, Sunship is one of the very few companies left that does shipping representation, as most shipping companies are doing it themselves.
Our national economic policies are relatively weak and inconsistent, and the lack of and unfair distribution of governmental incentives have made it difficult for many SMEs to survive. There has also been a major brain drain over the decades, where many educated young professionals would prefer to migrate and work abroad. Our young millennials require more motivation and skills set.
Sunship has also been fortunate to have strong partnerships and a reputation built up over the years in the industry. Our group network spreads globally, which allows us to capitalise on the expertise of skilled intellects for their respective environments. We pride ourselves on the motto of ‘Think Global; Act Local’. Single out a leader in the corporate world you wish to emulate. Robert Kuok. Even with his success, he is still humble and generous. I had the pleasure of reading his biography, and I admire how successful he is and how much he has contributed to Malaysia, Asia and our society. Even at 94, he is still willing to do his part to help Malaysia. In terms of his business, he began by trading agricultural commodities before diversifying into industries that are inter-connected. At his peak, he began giving back, helping out many throughout his lifetime. Sunship would like to emulate him. As managing director, what excites and worries you most? Exploring new territories and outdoing ourselves. We started diversifying since 1997 and have no plans to stop. Every accomplishment I have been able to see makes me proud. From a humble beginning to what I am today, I would love to see continuity and stability even after I am not around. I am excited to see young blood learning each day, making their own mistakes and learning from them, and then to eventually succeed, continuously evolving and reinventing the wheels to suit the times.
Of course, that is also a worry as most millennials have a laidback attitude. Older generations like myself have seen poverty and know what it is like to be hungry. We learned how to adapt and have a clear direction in what we want. Most millennials have grown up with a shielded, comfortable life, and I hope that they will eventually find a way to success. What are your strategies to make Sunship the most successful company in your industry in Asia and globally? We would not claim to be the most successful but we are one of the more successful ones in our industry, and we did it by hard work and planning. By establishing more strategic partnerships and alliances from the east and west to forge forward, targeting niche markets to gain competitive advantage and streamlining finances, Sunship is able to stand uniquely as a significant player.
Michael Oh is chair and CEO Coach of Vistage International Malaysia, a global CEO resource and network of chief executives.