By Alvin Ung
Perched above a motorcycle shop – flanked by a massage parlor and tuition center – is a company that sells globally acclaimed products made in Klang Valley and Kelantan. In just one year, a thousand of these heavy boxes have been couriered to seventy-plus countries, and counting.
The buyers – predominantly Americans – are obsessed by it. “I don’t need another one. But I’ve just ordered one. My wife is going to hang me,” wrote Cobra8272 in an online forum.
The people who buy these things do it by faith. They don’t get to touch it though they can listen to it on thousands of Youtube clips. “Please do not call or sms for sales inquiry, we won’t entertain you. We do not accept walk-ins,” warned the website.
To no one’s surprise, when I arrived at the address in Bandar Sri Damansara, there was no sign of the shop. Two grease-stained men were dismembering a motorbike on the ground floor. Finally I saw a small sign in a stairwell: “Ceriatone.” I pressed the buzzer. The metal grille inched open. No one greeted me. So I walked in.
At the top of the staircase, I walked into a corridor strewn with heads. Inside two rooms, laid out neatly on metal racks, were the body parts. The whine of an electric saw sliced through the air.
“When Senator Dato’ Sri Idris Jala said he wanted to visit our shop, I told him not to come,” Nik said, clad in t-shirt and jeans. Azlin, Nik’s wife, who stood next to him, rolled her eyes: Nik was about to deliver a lame joke. “We were afraid he’d arrive flanked by police outriders, and we’d get arrested, ha ha ha!” Nik said.
Welcome to the world of Shazwan Nik Azam, 37, the managing director of Ceriatone Amplification Sdn Bhd, the purveyor of high-end, hand-wired boutique guitar amplifiers that are prized around the world for their tone, reliability and affordable prices. New York session guitarist Nicky Moroch, and Broadway producer-cum-vocal coach James Lugo have bought Ceriatone amps.
Now I’m aware that this might mean nothing to you. Chances are you’ve never owned a guitar tube-amp. Neither have I. So we need to understand this: the people who buy guitar tube amps are among the most finicky, tetchy and techie customers in the world.
They form forums to discuss Ceriatone’s amps. They rip apart the amps, study the boards, compare circuit designs and scrutinize the soldering. They create countless Youtube clips to compare Ceriatone’s one-thousand-dollar amp with a rare classic amp made by Howard Dumble that costs US$60,000. The forum members enjoy the painstaking, detail-oriented detective work that goes into identifying and authenticating the make and model of transformers and components. They scrutinize the idiosyncrasies of how the “amp head” is constructed.
They talk about tone the way a sommelier talks about wine. “The Ceriatone sounds more Marshall vintage than my Marshall JCM 900 at similar crunch levels and is much more responsive. At low volume it is very pearly and jangly with a very long sustain,” wrote Brett Blackmore in marshallforum.com.
There was one thing consistent as I read through hundreds of Internet comments spanning many years: the Ceriatone is often compared to the Ferraris and Bentleys of the guitar amp world.
I told Nik what I discovered, and how impressed I was with the rave reviews. He shrugged. “Everything on the Internet gets amplified, especially in this part of the world. We always battle the perception that we are Asians. Americans think we are part of China. They think we do the same thing as China,” Nik said.
Born in Kelantan, Nik double-majored in ECE (electrical and computer engineering) and psychology, at Carnegie Mellon University in the US, where he picked up the guitar and fell in love with vintage guitars and vintage tube amps. He joined forums for vintage amp hobbyists. After graduation, he returned to Malaysia in 1999 to work for Telekom Malaysia. He quit after ten months, joined a few friends to start an IT company, and sold vintage amp components on Internet forums and eBay.
“I didn’t have a business plan to start my company. It just happened there were lots of people who were rebuilding vintage amps in the US. And they were looking for parts,” Nik said. The hobby was all-consuming. He scoured the whole of Malaysia for amp boards, resistors and capacitors. Meanwhile, thanks to the forum, he obtained the schematics that spurred him to start building amps. In 2002 he married Azlin Ariff. Their version of a weekend date was to hunt for old amp parts on Jalan Pasar.
“Why are you so obsessed with vintage stuff?” I asked Nik, as we sat on a couch while Azlin, 36, perched on a computer workstation one foot away. We were surrounded on three sides by circuit boards. Azlin fielded the question before Nik. “Nik has an old soul stuck in a twenty year old body,” she said.
In 2003, Nik started Ceriatone full-time and built his first commercial model, the Ceriatone 18W, based on a famous Marshall amp. “Everyone on the forum was crazy about the amp,” Nik said. The Americans snapped it up. He sold an amp a week. He added staff. By 2006, the amps were selling to UK, Sweden and France. Azlin quit her job and join him as general manager.
Today, she handles the stuff that Nik can’t do or won’t do well: orders, procurement, inventory, accounts, supervision of staff, shipments and liaising with local vendors. Azlin’s job is to free Nik to develop new designs, email customers from midnight till dawn, and test all the amps.
“Each amp is going out to make music. It’s going to bring happiness to someone,” said Nik, who has tested thousands of amps. “The rave reviews from customers make my day.”
On a whim, Azlin swiveled around, fired up the PC, and clicked on the Ceriatone Facebook page set up by a fan. Together we read the most recent posting which went up minutes earlier. “I love the tones I’m getting out of this baaaaby,” someone wrote.
“The feedback is immediate,” Nik said, as he beamed at his wife.
“We haven’t spent a single cent marketing our products,” Azlin said.
“It’s hard to go global. But once we have a product that’s good, it’s easy. Our amps are not mass-produced or rebranded stuff. If you have a good product, you have a niche. Here in Malaysia there are maybe 20 people buying the amps. But in the world, with 100 countries, your product becomes so much more,” Nik said.
Today Ceriatone remains the sole manufacturer of hand-wired guitar amps in Malaysia, maybe in Southeast Asia. They’ve sold about 10,000 amps and kits since 2007.
“What’s so significant about what Nik’s doing?” I asked Dato’ Sri Idris Jala. Besides being CEO of PEMANDU, Idris made a resonator from an acoustic guitar, complete with aluminium cone, which he converted from a kitchen pot. He fitted it with piezo pickups and F holes to emit clear sounds. He learnt to do this from Julian Mokhtar of the Blues Gang.”
“I refer to Nik in the same breath as Sime Darby and Petronas,” said Idris. “You need success stories of companies and people in Malaysia who can look at the market abroad and create products that beat the competition. Nik shows us that you don’t have to be big. You can be small and win it out there.”
I asked Nik: How can you be small and win big?
“You’ve got to compete based on global standards. If you’ve to be supported by the government, it’s a sign of weakness. What I can’t stand is how mediocrity seems to permeate everything in Malaysia now. We see this in our education, business and politics. Serious work is being given to non-capable people, so everybody will stoop down to minimum acceptable standards,” Nik said.
We paused. A few feet away, a young man from Kelantan was soldering capacitors to a board. At Ceriatone, new workers practice soldering for three months before they are allowed to work on an actual amp. Nik’s most experienced staff take years to master “lead dress,” an intricate technique for running wires in the amp to minimize noise and enhance tone.
“You’ve got to maintain the quality. You’ve got to think, I want to be the best, or at least, be similar to what other people deem to be the best,” Nik said.
“And you have to sustain that quality,” Azlin added.
“Yes, it’s going to consume your life. I’ve no time for such things as a normal social life. The last long vacation I had was…” Nik said, his voice trailing off.
“…three years ago,” Azlin said.
“Your life is defined by what you do. So you might as well do your best,” Nik said. He explained that he was influenced by the culture of ultra-hard work at his alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University, and its philanthropist founder, Andrew Carnegie, who once said: “my heart is in the work.” At the same time, Nik reminded me of the quintessential craftsman from Kelantan who will do whatever it takes to produce a wau or a wood carving – except Nik was doing it with tubes and transformers.
Days later, I asked Idris, who has ripped apart German and US-made guitar amplifiers, what he thought of people like Nik who’ve gone global with their products.
“Nik is a world champion in what he does. Nik has studied all his competitors. And he has produced amps that are similar – which are anytime cheaper and better. Malaysians must stop arguing about the small pond. We must excel in products and services in the big ocean,” said Idris. “The amp is so good, and so loud, it could bring my house down.”
Alvin Ung is a facilitator, executive coach and author of the bestselling book Barefoot Leadership. To view more videos, photos and insights on Nik and Ceriatone, please visit www.businesscircle.com.my. The column and multimedia content are a collaborative effort between the columnist and the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP).