Follow your franchising heart

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Alex Butt Wai Choon (right) left the world of Microsoft and Bill Gates to enjoy success with the Signarama franchiseAlex Butt Wai Choon (right) left the world of Microsoft and Bill Gates to enjoy success with the Signarama franchise

By Zhen M

Following last week’s piece on Malaysia’s franchise industry, we take a look at how a toy pedlar switched to corn and built a franchise empire in a cup, and why two corporate bigwigs quit their jobs to also follow the franchise path.

Datuk Nelson Kwok, self-professed “professional corn man” and founder of Nelson’s, started his corn-in-a-cup franchise empire by accident. In 1981, a farmer stepped into his toy shop and asked him to sell his corn as a snack there. Deciding to give the farmer a chance, Kwok took the corncobs home and sampled them with his wife.

Impressed with the quality of the corn, the couple agreed to sell the corncobs in their toy shop as a snack for children. When the mid-1980s economic crisis hit, the couple discovered the near-constant profitability of food products.

And thus the Nelson’s franchise began. To ensure that high quality food is served at their franchise outlets, the Kwoks have also ventured into contract farming and manufacturing of corn and other agriculture-based products. Nelson’s has also spread its wings abroad  to more than 17 markets, including China, Indonesia, Turkey, Germany, Egypt, Middle East and the United States. With 675 outlets aboard, Nelson’s is arguably Malaysia’s most successful export franchise brand.

Datuk Steven Sim left his job as a marketing director at a multinational company, where he was earning a five-figure monthly income in the late 1990s, after spotting a gap in Malaysia’s food and beverage industry – the distinct lack of casual dining cafes. Together with three nephews, all of whom were trained bakers, he opened the first Secret Recipe cafe in 1997 with a start-up capital of RM150,000. According to Sim, it was self-funded and, until today, the business had never borrowed from the banks.

From a single family-run outlet in SS2, Petaling Jaya, the business grew into an international lifestyle cafe chain with 300 outlets in Malaysia, Southeast Asia, China and Australia. Secret Recipe’s secret recipe, pardon the pun, lies in its branding, product positioning and franchise expansion.

“Franchising is our platform to grow the business. Every day, we receive about 10 franchise requests. We took about three years to build the foundation. In 2000, the franchise was only open to my close friends and relatives because we wanted to make sure the business didn’t fall into the wrong franchisees. It took us another year before we started to open up to other people,” Sim said, adding that “we’ve been having double-digit growth for the last 12 years at 20 per cent year-on-year.”

Meanwhile, Information Technology veteran Alex Butt Wai Choon had spent more than 24 years building a successful career in the field, 17 of which were with Microsoft. Between 2000 and 2006, he was the managing director of Microsoft Malaysia and, under him, this outfit doubled its business and was Microsoft’s second most profitable subsidiary in the world. Under his tenure, Microsoft was also recognised with the coveted Hewitt “Best Employer in Malaysia” award.

In July 2006, Butt was promoted to general manager of Microsoft OEM business in the Asia-Pacific region, and, ironically, it was during this period that Butt decided that he wanted more than just a corporate life.

“After 15 years with Microsoft, I took a two-month sabbatical to recharge in the mountains of Colorado. During my three weeks there, I realised that, the more successful in corporate life I was, the more bolted down I was,” he explained, with a deep reflection expression.

Butt took three years to plan his exit – to build his financial safety net, emotional support system, and to find his own identity as “in the corporate world, the company defines your identity”. During that time, he went around the world to find a business model to carry out his post-Microsoft career. “It was very hard, but I finally found it – franchising of service-oriented products in Asia.”

He took up the master franchise licence for Signarama, the world’s largest sign franchise, for this region. The first store opened in Paya Lebar, Singapore in September 2010. He opened another one in Novena with plans to set up two or three more outlets this year within the island republic, with also plans to expand to Malaysia and Indonesia in the very near future.

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