Article 48 – Learning from your associates

by Tan Thiam Hock

GOCHI-SAN is going back to Japan. After six years of heading the Malaysian operations for the biggest Japanese cosmetic company, he has been reassigned back to headquarters. I will miss my golf buddy.

Our motley foursome including Loo-san, Robert-san and Tan-san have been diligently playing a monthly game for almost five years. Gochi competes with Loo in the luxury segment and competes with me in the mass segment. Robert was a customer to both of them but shares an occasional cigar with me.

Despite being competitors in the marketplace, Gochi and I rarely talk business on the golf course or over meals. We do share some market information but we never discuss about our brands and their performance. We compete for talents and market share in our daily working life but there is a certain mutual respect of not crossing the line of decency. We make sure a professional boundary exists, separating competition from friendship.

When you are on your own and just starting out, I cannot emphasise enough the importance of making friends with all your stakeholders, from suppliers to customers, from shareholders to bankers and from direct competitors to indirect competitors. The key benefits derived from such relationships extend beyond the ease of doing business. You actually learn a lot if you care to shut up and just listen carefully.

I learned about the intricacies on distribution of consumer goods from salesmen, wholesalers and experienced sales managers. I designed my distribution network by copying the best practices of Procter and Gamble and Unilever. I adopted the marketing structure and brand activation practices of L’Oreal. I then studied the financial statements of the two largest cosmetics companies in the world and build a business model with similar margin segmentation on cost of goods, advertising and promotions and net margins.

With a totally 100% Malaysian workforce, I now have the lowest cost in operations with an organisational structure able to compete with the biggest MNC competitors. But all these efforts would have come to nought if I failed to activate my sales and marketing plans in the market place.

Looking back, I must thank my friends who have helped me activate my plans along the way. It had started out as a mutually beneficial business relationship, evolving eventually into two parts, professional business relationship and personal friendship.

The late Tan Siang Lin of Mediacompete introduced me to the world of branded contents and national TV advertising. Kanesan, my university buddy, introduced me to the close-knit world of editors and newspapers. Freddie push Mawi to me. Mawi piqued Yasmin Ahmad’s interests into producing a series of TV commercial for our brands. Yasmin brought her muse, Sharifah Amani, into our fold and the rest as they say is history in the making.

Anthony coordinated a major TV and radio campaign for our fragrance launch through Astro and AMP Radio. It was one of the most successful mass fragrance launch in Malaysian history. Linda insisted we should sponsor cheerleading competition among schools. Silkygirl is now the No.1 cosmetic brand recall among schoolgirls in Malaysia.

Rahman had the courage to allow a series of 2-minute Mukhsin advertorials to be played on TV3 just before the movie premiere. We sold 1 million bottles of Silkygirl Magic Powder in the first year. When Ho Kay Tat decided to relaunch The Sun as a free paper, we were among the first advertisers to do the front page wraparound ads with an annual calendar on the inside. We had the loudest colour ads at the lowest cost for the following 12 months.

Charlie fought with the editorial layout teams to wrap their words around our products which was plonked right in the middle of the page. It completely revolutionised print advertising in newspapers and challenged the agencies and media owners to create a higher level of creative ads for their clients.

There were many more friends who have helped me survive in business over the last 27 years. Some will remain as business friends and some have become personal friends. From experience, it is much easier to work with friendly parties, even direct competitors as long as there is mutual benefits to be derived from the relationship. From mutual interests, a friendship develops over a period of time. When there is mutual respect, you have earned the trust of a true friend. And that lasts forever.

When you are the boss, do you treat your staff as friends? Are you able to draw the line between professional relationship and personal friendship? I have had the pleasure of having long-serving staff working with me for over 20 years. I am delighted when my ex-staff still regard me as a friend and I am gutted if any ex-staff bad-mouth the company when they leave. I will always wonder what I have done wrong that has caused so much bitterness in that person.

For employees, you decide your own career path and only you and you alone can make that decision. When a friend decides to switch jobs, my first concern is whether he will be happy with his new job. It is always more fun having a happy friend around you. I do not need to know why he decided to do so. I am happy if he is happy.

The recent two-part article on an Internet portal by an ex-colleague of Kay Tat supposedly explained why Kay Tat left Star Publications. Obviously no more a friend, his editorial piece crossed the line of decency and betrayed the trust of a long working relationship built over many years. Using such bitterness to build popularity for his new column is at best, sensational journalism which is more suited to gutter politics. He will make new friends there.

Meanwhile, I am planning a farewell golf game for Gochi-san before he leaves for good. He will be surrounded by friends who will wish him only happiness and good health always.

Advertisements