Every fortune on Earth was built on a pittance. For Malaysian technology tycoon Lim Kim Heng, a mere US$0.70 was the price of entry to a 32-year journey that took him from near bankruptcy to heading up the country’s largest consumer electronics and whitegoods chain. “I first got my start in consumer electronics in 1986,” Lim says.
“The economy was in crisis and I almost lost everything. With my last 70 cents, I bought a pack of curry rice.” Inauspicious as it may seem, this investment was the catalyst for one of Malaysia’s great success stories. The curry rice was wrapped in newspaper; crucially, it was the employment section.
“I noticed a job vacancy at an electrical shop. I got the job, worked hard and got promoted. But I felt my hard work wasn’t appreciated, so I decided to look for opportunities elsewhere.” When a friend called to let Lim know of a shop for rent, it was the opportunity he’d been waiting for.
“It was an electrical shop – actually, only half a shop lot – in Pandan Jaya,” he recalls. “Without hesitating, I made the decision to take it on and start my own business.” Together with his two brothers, he opened the first Senheng Electric store in 1989.
“When you’re new, you don’t have a brand. Customers don’t know who you are, nor do suppliers. It was such a challenging time,” he reflects.
I wanted customers to be able to shop at one of our stores or online and not notice the difference.
Lim’s hard work and effective funds management carried the fledgling venture from half a shop to two locations in just seven months. Four years later, he owned 26 stores. After a decade, Senheng Electric had become the number one consumer electronics chain in Malaysia.
It’s still top dog today, with more than 100 branches across the country and sales exceeding US$339 million. That’s a lot of curry rice. According to Managing Director Lim, the secret to 32 years of successful growth is innovation. The company has undergone six major transformative exercises since 1989, each introducing a new innovation to the business model.
From its fixed-price policy and the creation of the senQ brand to target an entirely different demographic, to the more recent ‘seamless business’ cross-channel integration of online and offline channels to enhance the customer experience, Senheng has practised what it preaches – that innovation is the only way forward.
“The industry has evolved from what it was when I started,” Lim explains. “Technology has understandably become integrated in the business. It’s impacted everyday operational processes that are incredibly important to customer satisfaction.”
Innovative technology has always been a passion of Lim’s and this is reflected in the changing face of Senheng. In 2017, he launched a US$2.4 million business model called SEAMLESS, which sought to drive customer traffic online.
“I wanted customers to be able to shop at one of our stores or online and not notice the difference,” he says. “At the same time, I wanted to streamline our operations behind the counter, from inventory to payment methods to logistics.”
SEAMLESS was a hit: in just a year, revenue was up 26 per cent. The business model was such a success that Lim became a fixture at business forums and summits around the world to share his insights and thoughts with the business community.
“They call me Guru Lim in some places,” he laughs. “But for me it was about survival. Innovation is crucial to stay afloat in the direction retail is heading.” This dedication to innovation was a lifesaver when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of Malaysia.
Lim provided resilient leadership, launching a series of programs designed to blunt the impact of the crisis and help Senheng emerge stronger. “The pandemic forced us to think outside the box with our business approach,” he says.
The result was Telemarketing APP, a communication platform that enabled the business to keep its members engaged and part of its embrace of the digital future. “There’s no turning back,” he insists. “We’re plunging headlong into an era of digital-first, and the pandemic only accelerated that.”
In some alternate time line, a Malaysian curry rice vendor used some other section of the paper to wrap their wares that fateful day in 1986. The Lim of that world might have revolutionised some other industry the way he’s transformed retail consumer electronics in ours.
Through innovation and technology, the hallmarks of the products it sells, the business has adapted better than most to an ever-changing market.
“Senheng is not a retail company. It’s a technology company,” Lim stresses. “The new retail landscape has arrived in Malaysia and SMEs need to digitalise if they’re going to succeed.”
Proudly supported by: