Chong Yong Seen (second row, second from right) during the Advanced Course for SME@University in Japan.

FIVE years after setting up a limousine and taxi company in 2009, Chong Yong Seen was at a loss as to how he should move forward. He felt he was at a dead-end where business and revenue growth was concerned and he was having problems managing his staff.

“I was stuck strategy-wise and due to my own frustrations, I was becoming a feared and dreaded boss at the office,” said the Limocab Sdn Bhd chief executive officer.

In hopes of finding a solution, he decided to seek financial assistance from SME Corporation Malaysia (SME Corp Malaysia), a central coordinating agency under the Ministry of International Trade and Industry Malaysia (Miti) that formulates overall policies and strategies for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and coordinates the implementation of SME development programmes across all related ministries and government agencies.

But instead of offering funds, Chong was offered to join a programme called SME@University. The programme provides a three-month structured learning opportunity to the CEOs and higher management of SMEs to experience and gain knowledge on entrepreneurship and business tools from theory and methodology to applied skills, and develop insights especially on creative marketing, innovative business networking as well as what it takes to become world-class CEOs.

“For a person who was already in his 40s and has long left the classroom, it was a scary proposition. It was quite alarming and challenging to visualise myself sitting in a lecture hall listening to professors all day long. But the people at SME Corp Malaysia said it could be inspiring and even open up my mind to new ideas and possibilities. I decided to bite the bullet and went for it,” he said.

Enrolled in the programme which was conducted at Univeristi Putra Malaysia (UPM), Chong found his expectations couldn’t have been further from the truth. The programme had a semi-coaching and semi-consulting approach, conducted by the specific field experts and guest speakers among academicians and industry players. In addition, a sequence of case studies, field learning and a specialised course was also offered

“I got to learn new things and have enhanced insights on old stuff. On a personal level I learnt about leadership styles — that one should share one’s vision, entrust and empower staff, encourage and put in a reward system, lead by example and be more open for discussion,” he said.

The stint allowed him to put in place significant changes in the company like better management of cash flow, investing in human resource and implementing an operation system for the company.

“I realised changes needed to be made in terms of organisation style and working environment. And I strove to build a new culture for Limocab,” Chong said. In doing so, he has led Limocab to be certified for ISO 39001 Road Traffic Safety Management System which provides for quality improvement and brand strengthening.

“With that we can provide clients with better service and be qualified to enter tenders with corporate clients. With the certification we have begun to improve and expand our range. For example, this year the company has won a logistics support outsourcing project from a multinational company,” he said.

DIVERSIFICATION

VG Offshore Containers International Sdn Bhd sales and marketing director Anusia Menon, too, has gained a lot from joining the SME@University programme.

Having graduated with a first class honours degree in Information Technology from Coventry University in United Kingdom, Menon was already on the way to climb the corporate ladder in telco company Maxis. But the offer to join the family business by her father in 2006 got her thinking; with everything in place — product, factory and workers all ready — this was her chance to chart the future of her own company.

“I thought what I needed to do was implement systems, improve the people and work on the branding. And that was exactly what I did when I came in. My father gave me the oil and gas portfolio and he said run it the way you want it. So, he gave me the flexibility from the start,” she related.

She worked on updating the systems within the company and on creating good branding in order to eliminate the middlemen in the company’s dealings.

“But I was not progressing. I felt I needed to pursue my studies to better equip myself for my role in the company. I was actually looking at several Master of Business Administration courses but with my job, travelling and family, I couldn’t commit to one,” she said.


Anusia Menon and Hafsah Hashim

When SME Corp Malaysia approached Menon to join the SME@University programme — with the requirement of three-month commitment, meaning all her weekends for three months would be taken up — she was determined to make it happen.

“I learned indeed — not only from the professors, who were quiet most of the time — we (SMEs) learned from each other. The professor will shoot one question and there will be 10 ideas. That was the kind of environment that we were in,” she elaborated on the SME@University programme conducted in UPM last year.

“As SMEs, we were all struggling; everyone had the same problem — money, workers not turning up, products that can’t be sold fast enough, branding, cashflow. This was the discussion we shared openly with 20 others without any reservation,” she elaborated.

For Menon, the module that was especially beneficial was accounting for CEOs. “They taught us how to read high-level management reports and what the critical points are — the dangerous factors you see in your report. What your accountants are giving you are glossed over and may not give you the real picture. With this skill, one can better plan,” she said.

So what’s next for Menon and VG Offshore Containers International? She is looking to diversify into new business opportunities — among which is into the healthcare industry through a fellow classmate she met at the SME@University programme.

“Initially, I was working out of desperation with revenue dropping. As a company, we looked at our skills and reconnect with the construction companies we have worked with previously. We plan to diversify very quickly within the next two years. We are preparing ourselves towards IPO (initial public offering) in the stock market,” she said.

THE PROGRAMME

The SME@University initiative is an outcome of the visit by SME Corp Malaysia, the Human Resources Development Fund (HRDF) and five public universities to Tokyo SME University in Japan in 2010.

A consensus was reached to adopt the programme with HRDF approving a fund of RM700,000 for the five universities to pilot the SME@University Programme.

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) was given the role of programme content developer while the other universities involved were UPM, Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM), International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) and Universiti Malaysia Kelantan (UMK).

Today, a total of ten universities have embarked on this programme. The implementing universities are branded as SME@University, ie SME@UKM, SME@UiTM, SME@UPM, SME@IIUM, SME@UMK, SME@USM (Universiti Sains Malaysia), SME@HELP University, SME@UMS (Universiti Malaysia Sabah), SME@UNIMAS (Universiti Malaysia Sarawak) and SME@UTM (Universiti Teknologi Malaysia).

Each of the centres have different specialised modules based on their specialities apart from the generic modules offered by all.

To enter the programme, SMEs must have a SME Competitiveness Rating for Enhancement (SCORE) rating of 1 STAR and above; are incorporated under Companies Act 1965 / Registration of Business Act 1956, and fulfill SME definition; with at least 60 per cent Malaysian equity; and acquire business license from local authority and operating in valid business premises.

A commitment fee of RM2,500 will be imposed to all CEOs (participants), in which it will be refunded upon successful completion of the course. Upon completion of the programme, a Certificate of Attendance will be issued to the participants.

SME Corp Malaysia Datuk Hafsah Hashim said the SME@University programme has benefited a total number of 635 Malaysians CEOs/MDs starting from 2011 until this year.

In order to further intensify the learning curve, a total of 60 selected CEOs-cum-graduates from the programme had the opportunity to enrol in the Advanced Course for SME@University in Japan, which was organised in collaboration with the SME Support, Japan and Tokyo SME University. Included in the group is Chong of Limocab.

The course provided participating CEOs an interactive platform to gain new insights from Japanese SME support agencies and Japanese SMEs, as well as obtain networking and business opportunities.

Hafsah said based on the feedback from participating CEOs, they now have better knowledge on refining their business direction and business plan; can articulate the business vision and mission in their organisations; are more confident in bidding for overseas projects and attracting investors from within and outside the country for business expansion.

Impact Assessment Exercise conducted by participating universities showed a total of 76 per cent of the respondents indicated that their sales had increased with the highest increment recorded of 100 per cent and profit margin growth increased — with 95 per cent of the respondents indicating that their profit margins had grown from one to eight per cent.

“In December 2013, the CEOs of SME@University Programme had officially established the SME@University Alumni Association of Malaysia (SAAM), demonstrating their commitment and passion to engage and share ideas for sustaining the programme. This year, we would be targeting to increase the participation in the SME@University Programme to 200 SMEs, with the existing nine universities and one new implementer, Universiti Sains Malaysia (SME@USM),” said Hafsah.

“We are calling for all CEOs/MDs to grab this valuable opportunity in order to expand and enhance their knowledge and skills on entrepreneurship,” she said.

SPECIALISED OFFERING

THIS year will be the fourth year that HELP University will be implementing the SME@University programme.

HELP University vice-president and ELM (Entrepreneurship, Leadership and Management) Graduate School dean Datin Dr Wendy Liow the university is expecting up to 25 participants comprising SME owners and directors from various industry in the next intake commencing in mid-August.


Zetty Raihan Mohd Yassin and Wendy Liow

“The specialised module for HELP University is Entrepreneurial Leadership for Sustainable Value Creation. We believe that growth capabilities of SME is an outcome of entrepreneurial leadership and management behaviours of its owners,” she said.

“This course is designed to help participants think deeply about their personal philosophies, values, qualities and vision as an entrepreneur. Participants will learn the trinity role of entrepreneurship (E), leadership (L) and management (M) and how these practices interplay to create, manage and sustain a business over different phases of its life,” she continued.

Universiti Teknologi Malaysia’s (UTM) Technology Entrepreneurship Centre assistant registrar Zetty Raihan Mohd Yassin said the university has started to promote the SME@University programme since February.

“This will be the second year we are running it. Our specialised module is on technopreneurship, which will cover design thinking and innovation and some basic part of prototyping. It is a tool used to redesign organisation, products, services and big ideas. It will also enable innovation as the front runner for sustainable growth, solve perennial business challenges and build adaptive meaningful solutions,” she explained.

As for newcomer Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), its specialised module will be focused on Entrepreneurship Immunity.

“We are still working on firming up the module. We are currently recruiting and plan to start in early August.

“We are expecting about 20 to 25 participants. As for next year, the intake and the number of participant depends on SME Corp and HRDF,” said USM Entrepreneurship Centre (EpiC) director Profesor Dr Mahmod Sabri Haron.

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