Digerati50: Making and losing a billion, at 37

 
Digital News Asia (DNA) continues its weekly series that profiles the top 50 influencers, movers and shakers who are helping shape Malaysia’s Digital Economy, from Digerati50 Vol 2, a special print publication released in February 2016. To download a special e-reader version, see the top of this page. For information on customised reprints of Digerati50, email [email protected].
 

  • ‘I have made more mistakes and screw-ups … than anyone in the company’
  • Sold majority stake in broadband provider P1 to ‘win’ in telco space
Digerati50: Making and losing a billion, at 37

 
IT would be safe to say that if there was a record book of corporate achievements in Malaysia, Green Packet Bhd founder and chief executive officer (CEO) Puan Chan Cheong, or CC Puan as he is known, would figure prominently.
 
After all, how many CEOs can share organisational core values with new staff by relating their personal and corporate history?
 
He also talks of his mom, “the pillar of our family,” who advised Puan and his nine siblings to be their own boss.
 
She led by example. Over 20 years, from tapping rubber for others, she ended up owning her own plantation. No surprise he describes her as “my hero.”
 
“I like to use these inductions as an opportunity for new staff to get to know me right away, and to point out that the only reason I am CEO is because I have made more mistakes and screw-ups, and both made and lost more money, than anyone in the company,” he laughs.
 
That includes having made and then losing RM1 billion. This happened after he listed Green Packet in 2005. Its market capitalisation at listing was around RM350 million, rising to RM2.7 billion by early 2007. [RM1 = US$0.24 at current rates]
 
With a 40% stake in the company, Puan had become a billionaire – on paper at least.
 
The term ‘unicorn’ had not been associated with billion-dollar startups then, but Puan can arguably lay claim to having created the first Malaysian unicorn, through the startup he cofounded and funded in 2000 in Silicon Valley with some tech friends who saw opportunity in the emerging wireless Internet space.
 
He achieved this even though the telco crash in the United States in 2001 hit them badly, with Puan and his shareholders considering shuttering the company.
 
However, it was then that Puan had his “moment of truth.”
 
Out for lunch with one of his engineers, he learnt that the engineer’s entire village in China had chipped in to help him get his PhD in the United States. “That conversation made me realise that I was impacting lives and that running a business was not just about making money,” he says.
 
Relooking the business, Puan decided that the best path to profitability lay in Asia and not the United States, and refocused the business to Asia, with Malaysia as its natural base. “I actually came home to give Green Packet its best chance for survival.”
 
This is why he wants his team to not just learn from his mistakes and to do things better, but to also have a higher sense of purpose.
 
Speed is also important. “I try to impress on them the importance of making decisions fast, as it gives them time to make adjustments if things are not working out,” he says.
 
His biggest decision came when he decided to sell a 57% stake in Green Packet subsidiary Packet One Networks Sdn Bhd (P1) to Telekom Malaysia (TM) in March 2014.
 
Losses in P1 had been a drag on Green Packet, pulling it into the red for the past five years. Puan realised that his best chance of winning in the mobile space was by adding the considerable resources of TM to P1.
 
He says he was “mentally prepared” for losing ultimate decision-making power at the wireless broadband service provider that was created in 2008.
 
“I have never worked for anyone before in my life, but this will be my first and last ‘job’,” he says.
 
It could also be his most impactful since TM has kept Puan as P1 CEO, well aware that its best chance of taking on the giants of the Malaysian mobile market lays in the entrepreneurial flair that Puan and his team at P1 bring to the table.
 
[Update: P1 has since been rebranded to webe digital Sdn Bhd.]
 
Relishing the challenge, Puan says, “We are going to reinvent what it means to be a mobile telco in Malaysia.”
 
And, yes, “Don’t be afraid to think big” is another mantra during his induction to new staff.
 

 
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