#5 The Asian Mavericks – Leong JyhWen (Baba Gardening)
August 13, 2018
Mr. Leong JyhWen is the Chief Vision Officer of Baba Gardening, one of the most well-known gardening supplies manufacturers in Malaysia.
Mr. Leong is also a key mover in the organic farming industry in Malaysia. We chat with Mr. Leong on the origin of his business and how he grew it from a small workshop from his living room to a global exporter.
And also on how he thinks about the mission of his company and what is the future he envisioned.
This is his story.
When I was a young boy, I remember my father working as a hawker. When he was presented with new opportunities or new stalls (as there were no hawker centres at the time), our whole family had to relocate. We also sold different items according to the different needs of each new community that we moved to. We were not a well-to-do family, so my father began making leather bags while my mother did the sewing, and we sold them to our customers. I was still a little boy when I joined my father in selling these bags. We had needed plastic parts to make the leather bags, and the only way we could obtain them was to import these parts, which really increased the production cost. That made me think of building moulds and manufacturing the parts locally, which led me to join the plastic making industry.
As a matter of fact, I was afraid of becoming a businessman, because I saw how hard my father had to work. Whenever he set up a stall, our whole family had to go down to help. When he sold satay, the whole family helped him to skewer the meat onto bamboo sticks and grind the peanuts. When it came to selling leather bags, we had to brave the scorching weather and rely on the wholesalers and retailers. We usually waited for an hour before we were able to get small orders from the wholesaler. From then on, I vowed to never become a businessman; I only wanted to be a journalist.
After graduating from secondary school, I did not continue with my studies. A year later, I enrolled in a journalism programme. In less than a year, I was suspended from school before I could even finish my studies. I wanted to help at home when I started out, because after all, my family also operated a small factory business. However, I was not really interested in the job, so eventually, I went out to work. My first job was at a company that sold discount cards, which was the first company to provide the service in Malaysia. I still remember the first time I received my salary – I was holding cup noodles in one hand and crying because I had spent all my salary in advance. I was only 19 at that time.
Later, I was transferred to the headquarters in KL, which had a better working environment. I learned a lot in my 2 to 3 years at the company. Eventually, I left that job and came home when I was 22. At the time, I didn’t have a good relationship with my father as I had felt that I was more capable than he was. When father fell ill, my mother and younger sister asked if I could come home to help, which I agreed to after some thought. It was a time when we were still allowed to operate businesses at home. I remember there were 5 machines in the living room; we lived upstairs, and came down to work in the morning.
Since I had worked in other companies for a few years, I realised that running your own business was no easy task. It was harder than previously imagined. When I was home helping with the family business, I simply did what had to be done as the family business was not doing very well. We were making umbrella parts such as the handles, tips and caps as these items were imported from Taiwan to Malaysia. In those days, there were no more than 10 umbrella factories in Malaysia and Singapore. We basically made these parts and supplied them to the manufacturers.
While working in the family business, I learnt a very important lesson. We had a good relationship with our customers and we would visit them once every two to three weeks. Later on, I realised that our biggest competitors were really our customers and not other manufacturers, as the former did not want to rely on us as their only supplier. Some customers would even take our model to be produced at other factories, which led to greater competition. It was then that I thought of creating our own products, so we would not have to rely on others to supply our parts.
We often went to the garden centre to buy flower pots as my mother had enjoyed gardening. Back then, plastic flower pots were not popular and were considered cheap and of low quality. Clay and ceramic pots were commonly used in Malaysia and exported in large quantities to other countries, therefore, I started to think of making plastic flower pots. I didn’t think of it as a business opportunity then, I only wanted to make an improved plastic flower pot, one that did not fade in colour over time.
With the Ford van that I bought, I placed six flower pots that we made in the trunk and drove from Penang to Taiping and to Ipoh, trying to sell the pots from one place to another. Since Cameron Highlands had the largest market for flower pots back then, I also visited the area four times. I only made RM64.50, which was not even enough to pay for petrol. I was so determined to make good flower pots, but it ultimately meant higher production costs.
We did not persuade customer but we persuaded ourselves.
For example, after visiting Cameron for the fourth time, an old lady bought RM64.50 worth of goods from me. I realised that it was the wrong market, so I went to Kuala Lumpur instead. At the time, I had visited a garden centre in Cheras. The owner was keen to support me, so I gave her some goods. However, when I went to collect payment from her the following month, she completely changed her tune and complained that my flower pot was akin to a toilet bowl. She was unable to sell the pots and it dawned on me that business is not about doing what I feel is best, instead, I have to pay close attention to the market demand. After much research and observation, and slowly understand the market need. I slowly discovered that commercial growers and home gardeners had different needs and budget requirements, which led to the development of different products.
In those days, the cost of making plastic flower pots was much higher than that of ceramic pots made with clay, which was a readily available natural resource, whereas plastic was imported, thus increasing its cost. However, it was hard for me to understand why it was cheaper to have products created by machines instead of manual labour.
In fact, we did not take into consideration the ROI, or how long it was going to take. The only thing that mattered then was how to improve the product. Consumers had provided feedback that the biggest flaw with plastic flower pots was poor drainage. On the other hand, ceramic pots were porous, which keeps the soil moist and grow beautiful flowers. From then onwards, I started to study on calculation of water flow rate in the pot to optimise the drainage. So, we studied on the flower pot base design and the number of drainage holes to improve its drainage.
I put a lot of effort into developing its design. I was so passionate about the product and determined to create an excellent product. My only goal was to convince customers to purchase my product.
When you are operating a business, you will hear of certain industries that seem more lucrative or hear of the latest business trends. However, I believe what matters is not to know everything, but to do the one thing you know well. I still remember when we created this brand, we had named it Baba as it was easy to read and remember. My father was not a highly educated man, so that was the name he chose and it’s easy to pronouns. Nevertheless, as we moulded this brand to our values, our love for the business grew as well.
The road to improvement is long and weary and I think this principle applies to all businesses. I often tell my friends and consumer that joining the organic farming industry begins with a lunch. Since we sell gardening supplies, many of our customers are growers, and that was how we came to understand that large quantities of chemical pesticides & fertilizers were being used to grow crops. Once, during lunch, I had heard my guests share that crops like cabbages and watermelons were grown using chemical pesticides, which poisoned any pests that ate the crops. This was the only way these crops could be cultivated for human consumption. After lunch, I told my colleagues about it and everyone felt that we had to do something to change the situation. This incident led us to promote organic farming. Even up to today, we all think that joining the organic farming industry is our contribution to the society in order to make the world a better place.
At the beginning, we were very naive. We had acquired a piece of land and all of us had gone down to farm, trying to prove that if it was easy enough for office workers to do organic farming, then it would definitely be easy for the farmers. It took a while for us to realize that was not the case as farmers had found organic farming to be tough due to a few primary reasons. Firstly, whether it was viable, since farming with chemical pesticides was already difficult enough as it is, surely organic farming methods would pose an even greater challenge. Secondly, would the organic produce have a market? The farmers had much to consider and worry about.
I still vividly remember when a farmer visited our farm for the first time and we introduced him to organic farming methods. He was not interested then. However, after two years, he suddenly announced that he was going to embark on organic farming and shared with us that our perseverance in managing the organic farm for the past two years had led him to make that decision.
When we first started, our main goal was to educate the public. By inviting farmers and the public to our farm, we were able to help the consumers understand the many challenges that farmers face and get them to support local farmers. Since our objective was not financial gain, we were able to persevere throughout this journey. Some farmers who decided to give it a try found these methods feasible and shared their experiences with other farmers. Subsequently, we began hosting workshops at the farm and served the vegetables to the farmers. When they first tasted the dishes, the farmers were surprised that these vegetables did not need high-temperature cooking to bring out their natural sweetness. They even tasted delicious after an ice bath. This helped them to see the value in organic farming.
we did not have a specific goal on organic. I often told myself to excel at the tasks on hand during the process. Later, we also changed the company’s vision to be Sustainable Life’s Guardian. Everything that we did must contribute to the well-being of the environment and create a sustainable environment. It became part of our core beliefs, and not merely a KPI.
Undeniably, we were working hard to develop our horticulture products. We were aware that our profit was being used in promoting organic, however, we were still unsure if it could be turned into a profitable business model.
It is not to say that the organic farming business model is unprofitable. The current model that we are implementing is not just about financial gain. For example, if our only goal while operating a farm is to grow crops and sell it, we will be able to make a profit. However, Baba’s farm is mainly used for demonstrations and experiments, to try new things and methods that others dare not try so that we are able to prove whether these methods work effectively or otherwise. Due to this process, the harvest is not ideal, but then again, the goal of this farm is not to produce a good harvest. The second objective of the farm is to support farmers who are keen on converting to organic farming methods. After making the switch to these methods, some traditional farmers are unable to sell their organic produce as they have no channels to do so. At the beginning, we will help them by purchasing their harvest, repackaging it and then delivering it to the consumer’s doorstep. Eventually, when the farmers are able to find their own marketing channels, we will support other farmers who need our help. Thus, this model where we support new farmers is not a profitable one.
Eventually this is not even a platform. Basically, we focus on education. We organise farm visit weekly, organizing a teacher’s camp and entrepreneur camp every year so that the teachers, students and consumers are able to understand our cause for protecting the environment.
Although I don’t think the events will attract the same talent, it will still attract like-minded people. After all, they are willing to attend these events, as Baba employees are required to do volunteer work, such as hosting educational programs on Saturdays. My colleagues regularly visit different places to provide educational workshops for farmers and carry out other promotional activities, which goes beyond their job scope, such as being in charge of billing or international trade.
When we first invited the farmers over to join our educational workshops, they thought we were trying to sell them something. Instead of selling them products, we clarified that we were here to provide free workshops on how to make your own enzymes, compost and fertilizers, so that farmers would not have to purchase these expensive materials. The funny thing is, the farmers had shared with us how they have gotten used to purchasing their farming materials and that it was too much work for them to produce on their own, even though they enjoyed the workshops immensely. They even suggested that it was best for them if we were able to find these materials and sell it to them. So, I began to source non-toxic pesticides for the farmers and consumers, which turned into a new business opportunity. I find it interesting that this business started as a social welfare initiative. Nonetheless, it has also been developing very well. Slowly, the consumers and farmers have also begun to realize that if they alternate the use of organic pesticides and chemical pesticides, it will help to prevent insects from developing resistance against the pesticides. If we succeed in helping traditional farmers use organic pesticides once every month, this would likely result in a 50% reduction in chemical pesticide usage, which is a big contribution to the conservation of the environment.
My original intention was never to own a business, but to give back to the society. I am motivated when I am able to help the world become a better place and when I see my customers and colleagues improve from day to day. I think the same applies for all business owners. We are always helping our customers, colleagues and the world to become better.
Presently, we export our products to more than 30 countries. We are also educating dealers and consumers in different parts of the world on topics such as different ways to care for the environment. Based on each country’s needs, we have contributed to the wellbeing of each community. For instance, we have helped the typhoon victims in the Philippines by donating boats so they can start a new life. Additionally, we are also helping children who are out of school in Myanmar. Whenever we make a profitable business in any country, we must use a portion of that profit to meet the country’s need. The good caused were initiate by my team. Thus, this is attracting more like-minded people to join us.
If any of our colleagues has a new idea, we are always here to give them our full support and help them to succeed. For our annual strategy, the hoshin plan. We do it bottom-up, they would set their own KPIs, strategies and activities. Once the plan is laid out, they will set a budget and request for funds from us, and in return, we do our best to help them succeed. Thanks to all of them, we have been able to achieve new heights of success.
In retrospect, I would tell the younger me to not be too anxious to see results, instead, focus more on getting things done right. Last but not least, I would also encourage myself to work even harder.
那时候有一件事情让我印象深刻，我们和这些客人的关系非常的好，几乎每两三个星期都会拜访他们，和他们坐下来。后来我发现一点，我们最大的竞争者不是我们的competitors 而是我们的customers因为他觉得绝对不想you are the only supplier. 甚至有一些客人他会把我们的model 拿去给其他的厂家code你做，后来引发更激烈的竞争。那时候我就在想能不能做自己的产品，不要总是依赖别人supply 这个零件。
Stanley Lim has spent the last decade in the investment industry. Over the course of his career, he has kick-started a few businesses, worked in the family office industry and most recently in the investment advisory industry. He has been a writer and analyst for The Motley Fool Singapore from 2013 to 2017. He has written close to 2000 articles online, on investment education and market analysis. He is the co-writer of the investment book: “Value Investing In Asia”, published in 2018. Stanley is currently the chief editor of Value Invest Asia.