Sometimes a little advice goes a long way. For Dato Francis Lee Kok Chuan, it was in the 1980s, while he was working in Melbourne as an accountant for Ernst & Young, that he received what he considers to be among the best advice he’s ever been given.
“A man must decide what he wants to do when he reaches the age of 40, with no turning back,” his brother-in-law told him. “I then knew I wanted to come back to Malaysia to work and establish my career here. I came back at the age of 35 and took a job at Berjaya Group,” he recalls.
Francis was Head of Internal Audit Department at Berjaya when the Asian financial crisis struck, and his career took another fortuitous turn.
His role included writing internal audit reports during that period, and the Chairman and CEO of Berjaya said to him, “Don’t waste your time writing reports that nobody wants to read. The whole Group needs all the help it can get and, since you are so good at recommending strategies in your reports, try running some of the companies in the Group.”
“The first two companies I managed were Starbucks Coffee and the Kenny Rogers Roasters chain of restaurants,” he remembers vividly. “Then I moved on to other companies in the Group, which is a large and diversified conglomerate with more than 30,000 employees, and eventually ended up with their motor division. It certainly has been an interesting and satisfying journey in my career.”
That varied experience paid off handsomely when the opportunity arose three years ago for a management buyout of Bermaz Auto. “My partners and I jumped at the chance,” says Francis.
“I had a look at the numbers and I managed to convince my partners that we could do it and the rest, as they say, is history. So I retired from Berjaya early last year and assumed the role of CEO with Bermaz Auto in January 2019.”
As a lover of all things motoring, Francis found himself in his element at Bermaz, which has fired his imagination for building a major force in the Asian motor industry. “It’s a very vibrant industry. It has had its ups and downs over the years, but as long as people love to drive a car, we will still be in business,” he insists.
“The naysayers say that the motor industry is a sunset industry, but they have been saying this for the past 20 years.” Francis has a clear vision of where he wants to take the business in the foreseeable future, notwithstanding the current COVID-19 crisis.
“I am currently tightening processes and functions in the Group to cater for our next phase of growth and expansion. After this, we can look at expanding our business for new brands or for any M&A that may come along as a result of this COVID-19 pandemic,” he says.
“I bring a different perspective to the Group, but what I would like to do in the next three to five years is to steer it into a large auto conglomerate, and to double our market cap.”
Francis regards the many suppliers working closely with Bermaz as a cornerstone of the business, and during the pandemic their relationships are more important than ever, he says.
“These are our lifelines, and we have established good relationships with our support teams, suppliers and dealer networks. And now even more so with this pandemic, we have to work together to get us through this difficult period.
“We sink or swim together, but we will all come out stronger, I am sure of that. Over the next 12–18 months, our key business areas of focus will be human resources, strengthening our dealer network and establishing a better workflow for the various divisions to ensure smooth operations going forward.”
Retirement for Francis? Out of the question, he says – he has too much to do and, besides, he loves the sense of achievement in running a successful business. “I am the one who will decide when I’m going to retire,” he chortles.
“By interacting with business people, mingling with my staff and seeing our business grow, I feel a sense of achievement. I also like going on short retreats with my partners to strategise about staying ahead of our competitors and growing the business further.”
Weekends, though, are reserved for his family. His is a holistic view of a genuine balance in life. “My weekends are definitely for the family. Now some of my kids are overseas, but I try to have a holiday with the whole family at least once a year.” Sounds like he still has both hands on the wheel.
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