Growing People & Profits On A Fragile Planet

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One misty dawn in early February, we set off on a eight-man perahu and entered the Corridor of Life to spot one of the world’s most endangered mammals: the Borneo pygmy elephant.

“The elephants were here last night,” said Fernando Alvarasian Albrasin, 43, the tour guide, as he pointed to the riverbank of the Kinabatangan River in the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. We saw trampled grass, broken branches, pachyderm prints. But no elephants. Where were they?

Last month, fourteen rare animals were fatally poisoned just four hours away from where we were. That’s nearly one percent of the world’s population of 1,500 Borneo pygmy elephants, endemic to Borneo island.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to spot a few feeding by the river,” Fernando said. He stood at the helm of a boat, binoculars in hand, grinning broadly and skillfully weaving our green wooden boat down a tributary of the 570-kilometer river.

Besides hoping to spot the rare mammals, I was here on another mission: to find out how to transform a group of people with Standard Six education into a high-performance team in a world-class company. Take, for example, Fernando.

Five years ago, Fernando was hired at the award-winning Borneo Eco Tours (BET) as a maintenance worker. With six years of primary school education, he could speak two words in English: “yes” and “no.” His job was to dig holes and carry wood.

As he learned to repair boats, he became a boatman. As he read books and picked up English, he led guided tours within the lodge’s seven-acre property. He eventually became a certified guide, beloved by tourists for his big smiles and sense of humour. Fernando has conducted bird-watching tours for the president of WWF South Africa. He has met the legendary naturalist Sir David Attenborough.

In just five years working at BET, Fernando transformed from a tongue-tied laborer into a certified guide for international tourists. What’s even more amazing is that Fernando’s story is normal. There are dozens of people like him at BET. BET is one of those rare gems of a company that hires staff with rudimentary education and relentlessly develops them until they’re capable enough of running one of the world’s top ecotourism lodges.

“My vision is to create a business that can develop the leadership quality of my staff so they can satisfy world-class tourists who come to Sabah,” said Albert Teo, the managing director of BET. “We want to do this while making a profit. And we are committed to care for the community and our natural environment.”

For example, the Sukau Rainforest Lodge, which Teo started in 1995, has won praise from Conde Naste Traveller and National Geographic. The lodge reduces its carbon footprint by filtering river water and rainwater for daily use. Board walks are built for migratory pygmy elephants to pass through. Guides use electric motors on the eight-man perahu to reduce noise and smoke. Teo’s efforts have paid off in terms of profit. His company and the lodge have attracted a premium clientele: international travelers who are willing to pay extra to experience nature and do what’s right for the environment. They company grew 400% in a decade.

According to Teo, you can only pull it off when you’re vigilantly aligning the three key success factors: profit, people and planet. Most companies do one or two of the ‘P’s well. Very few excel in achieving all three. (To learn more about how Teo does it, see businesscircle.com.my to download an exclusive video.)

“Caring for the planet and people is only possible with profit,” said Teo in an interview conducted at his 20-room lodge in Sukau.

But beyond profit, Albert spends his waking hours thinking about how to engage with suppliers, distributors, customers, and the local community. Albert’s 100-odd full-time and part-time staff come from a dozen tribes, especially the Orang Sungai along the Kinabatangan river. To raise their confidence, dignity and English proficiency, Albert has developed a leadership development plan and a unique book-reading program that provides top performers with iPods, books, promotions, opportunities to travel to Kuala Lumpur to meet motivational gurus – as well as cash incentives.

“It is very important that people are equipped with tools and skills, otherwise you cannot run a company profitably. When they upgrade their skills, they can be promoted and lifted out of poverty,” Teo said.

Dr Sarinder Kumari, PEMANDU’s director of NKEA Tourism, has observed that ecotourism efforts, such as Teo’s, benefits all levels of society in Malaysia. Ecotourism, in particular, has huge potential in generating high-yield tourists who value Malaysia’s biodiversity. “The key thing is to balance the sustainability of the flora and fauna, while ensuring there’s commercial viability,” Sarinder said.

Last year, PEMANDU set up a ecotourism policy group called the Malaysia Mega Biodiversity Hub (MMBH), which is co-chaired by the ministry of tourism, and the ministry of natural resources and environment. Advised by NGOs such as the Malaysian Nature Society and the Worldwide Fund for Nature, MMBH is identifying ecotourism sites with beautiful natural environs, companies that practise environmental sustainability, as well as focus on developing local communities and high-quality guided interpretation. “Once we address these areas, we’ll be able to attract more tourists who will increase our income from the ecotourism sector,” Sarinder said.

These factors have turned out to be a validation of Teo’s strategy, which includes hiring locals, whenever possible.

That meant keeping a promise to Kari Ongong, the man who sold the seven-acre-land to Teo. After the lodge was completed in 1995, several of Kari’s family and relatives were employed as cooks, waiters, gardeners and boatmen. Those who were not used to the performance-oriented culture left shortly but many others who embraced Teo’s vision quickly learned conversational English, invested in binoculars, bought birding books, studied plant life and even learned to banter with European tourists.

“The company has pushed us to speak English and do wildlife research,” said Jaini Ahmad, 38, a Sukau native who started off as a general worker at BET. He was eventually promoted to lodge supervisor. “If the company sees that you are a fast learner, they will help to push you up. BET takes in mostly local people. They really want the community to benefit and to care for the environment.”

Albert also began inviting conservation experts to conduct research in Kinabatangan. Biologists and ornithologists have written books – and taught his staff – while staying at his lodge.

While saving the planet may seem a daunting task, BET has plowed back company profits into the community by providing water tanks to villagers, replanting trees along river banks despoiled by logging and oil palm plantations, and launching micro-finance projects. In 2012 alone, BEST Society, a community NGO funded by BET, organized medical camps to three rural villages along the Kinabatangan area. These altruistic efforts have gained him goodwill from the locals.

“Tourism has really benefited Sukau. Youths have jobs. And we’re grateful to Borneo Eco Tours for giving medical help to villagers,” said Halid Ramit, 63, a village chief. In the village of Sukau (population: 2,000), a reverse migration of sorts has been happening over the past ten years as seven lodges sprouted in the area. Young people who used to leave the village to seek jobs in Sandakan and Kota Kinabalu have begun to return to Sukau.

In December 2012, the United Nations’ General Assembly endorsed ecotourism as a powerful approach to alleviating poverty and protecting the environment. “Local ecotourism operations…can return as much as 95 per cent of earnings into the local economy,” said the Collaborative Partnership on Forests, which consists of 14 international organisations, including the U.N.

“Caring for the planet is the hardest part. We bring tourists to experience the wilderness; so we have to care for the environment that brings us profits.  Caring for the planet is so important that even when we suffer losses, our community and environment projects must continue,” said Teo, who was appointed in January 2013 as Fellow of Edith Cowan University for his contribution to social entrepreneurship.

“Before I joined BET, I was lazy,” said Fernando, as our boat drifted along the Kelenanap oxbow lake. A pied hornbill flew overhead. “It was only at BET that I learned to value nature, and to protect it,” Fernando said. He pulled out from his knapsack the books he was currently reading: a book on Borneo birds by Susan Myers, a book on the most popular tropical plants, and Napoleon Hill’s Ladder to Success.

Suddenly Fernando took a phone call.

“The elephants are in the Sukau river,” he said excitedly. With a quick U-turn, we traveled twenty minutes downstream, zooming past the mangrove and lowland forests  which the elephants, orangutans, hornbills and proboscis monkeys call home. The Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, or the Corridor of Life, covers 26,000 hectares. I also saw glimpses of oil palm estates which cover 1.3 million hectares of land in Eastern Sabah.

Fernando swung our boat into Sukau River. Within minutes, we heard snapping branches, rustling branches and small trees being uprooted. The trumpet of elephants punctuated the air.

From behind the mangrove trees, we glimpsed a grey bottom and a long tail: a baby pygmy elephant. Gradually more elephants emerged from the shadows. There was something awe-inspiring and holy about watching these elephants eat, drink and raise offspring in the wild. These weren’t zoo animals. These were God’s magnificent creations. And this was why we came.

We sat in our boat watching one particular elephant, a 40-year-old male, feeding by the riverbank until the sun went down.

“Profit is really important for any business. But at the end of the day, it’s not about profit anymore,” Teo told me in a final interview as dusk settled over the Kinabatangan river. Teo said that profit was a means for changing our human values and our attitudes toward how we look after a place and its resources.

“You can’t take your millions with you when you die. But if you plant trees, it is for a lifetime. And if you plant people, your legacy lasts even longer. The life you live is the legacy you leave,” he said.

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