Digital News Asia (DNA) continues a weekly series that profiles the top 50 influencers, movers and shakers who are helping shape Malaysia’s Digital Economy. These articles are from Digerati50, a special print publication released in January 2014. For information on customised reprints of Digerati50, email [email protected].
Darkest hour came with scuttled investment in China
‘Be honest with yourself and all the people you meet’
MANY entrepreneurs would be happy hitting RM59 million (US$18.7 million) in revenue, but Liew Choon Lian (pic), group chairman of the MDT Group of Companies, knows he is far from his stated goal of wanting to become the first Malaysian MSC-Malaysia company to hit RM500 million (US$158 million) in sales. The target for 2014 is RM100 million (US$32 million).
He declared this bold target during the inaugural Local Advisory Panel (LAP) meeting held in Cyberjaya in 2010. The LAP consists of Malaysian tech entrepreneurs who advise the Government on the execution of the final phase of the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC Malaysia) vision.
Liew describes his core business as providing system solutions in IoT (the Internet of Things) applications, security, track and trace, access control and monitoring services.
He spends a lot of time in Japan which serves as his headquarters. His familiarity with Japan and fluency in the language started when he was with Fuji Economy USA Inc as the vice president of worldwide operations in the mid-1990s.
He launched his entrepreneurial journey in Japan in 2000, getting Japanese investors and customers on board for what he felt was the hottest space at the time – display technologies. MDT now specialises in the RFID (radio frequency identification) and wireless sensor market, which it branched into in 2005.
Having been an entrepreneur for 14 years, Liew is motivated by his corporate mission “to ensure each and every one of my staff become millionaires.” This keeps him motivated and driven to learn new technologies.
A strong believer that any engineering-based company must have its own core technologies and intellectual property (IP), Liew ensures MDT invests at least 20% of its revenue into research and development. One of his subsidiaries, MDT Innovations, filed 16 IPs in 2013 alone.
In total MDT has 32 filed and registered IPs covering Malaysia, Japan, China, Australia, Indonesia and New Zealand.
Customers from outside Malaysia – especially from Japan, China, Indonesia, India and Australia – contribute a big portion of revenues. As Liew explains, these markets are generally more receptive to new technology and have bigger budgets.
As with many entrepreneurs, Liew has looked to China as a potential market. But this was where he suffered his darkest moments as an entrepreneur.
“We set up a joint venture with a Beijing company to manage an 860-acre RFID Technology Park in Binzhou, in Shandong Province, with the support of local and provincial governments, including 100 acres owned by MDT’s Malaysia subsidiary, in December 2006.
“Everything came to a halt when the Secretary [Communist Party Leader] was transferred to another city. We decided to withdraw immediately, but only got back 20% of our investment by giving up the 100 acres allocated to us,” he says.
It comes as no surprise then that Liew lists honesty and responsibility as among the most important traits an entrepreneur must have. “Be honest with yourself and all the people you meet; be responsible to your company, your staff and customers; and put your heart into your products and services,” he says.
Out of that China experience came one of the two key lessons Liew has learnt in his entrepreneurial journey. “I have myself to blame for trusting the wrong partners and causing the company to suffer financial losses,” he says.
The second lesson has to do with his carelessness. “In my excitement, I used to tend to reveal our technical details and product features to the market earlier than I should. Competition from ‘me-too vendors’ could have been avoided, while some mega projects we were working on could have been cemented before others had a chance of taking them away from under our noses.”
While the RM500 million revenue target looks to be a real stretch goal, perhaps it is his ability to recognise and rectify his own weaknesses which could provide the springboard for Liew to eventually hit that magical number.
Of course, being in a niche that will be driven by the adoption of 8.5 billion smartphones by 2019, creating demand for apps that depend on sensor networks, also helps.