OIC TODAY has the pleasure to talk with Mr Eric Yee Chee Yin, a Malaysian entrepreneur and social activist who shared a glimpse of his innovative solutions to the food industry
In today’s ever-changing world, surviving a business is quite a challenging task and every business leader aims for that. However, before that a company must have a strong foundation in order for diversification to go smoothly, because from that foundation other good things emerge, these were the first words of Mr Eric talking about his ventures into the food production and trading sector. His passion towards what he does heled to enhance business operations within and beyond the borders of Malaysia.
“For me it is just part of the responsibility of a human being. A person needs to become a good human first, and other things develop naturally. And I am very thankful to my parents, because they taught me how to think of other people since I was a child and that contributed to whatever I have achieved so far,” said Mr Eric. Growing up in a small Kampung (village), he developed exceptional skill that made him able to communicate effectively with different people.
“It is a very tough thing to survive in today’s business world. So the only way to sustain is to collaborate, there is no competitor in my life. All of us are friends and we should help each other towards mutual benefits.”
In explaining this point, Mr Eric highlighted the fact that Malaysia is probably the only country in the world where three major races (Malay, Chinese and Indian) have been live together in harmony for over 63 years. “When you communicate with different people with various mindset, you are actually dealing with varied attitudes which lead to behaviours that you may or may not expect. Having the ability to manage that give a great opportunity towards success in almost everything,” he said.
According to Mr Eric, who has ventured into a number of businesses through invention and innovation, business diversification is the only way for businesses to ensure they can survive, especially in trying times like the one the world is experiencing nowadays under the COVID-19 pandemic. “I believe that a 100 years ago people were already doing diversification, but apart from just diversifying, we must have a strong foundation, something from which other good things stem,” said Mr Eric.
Everybody around the world relies on food. Without food no other activity could take place because it offers the required energy for the body to operate physically and mentally. It is the first step in everything we do and that is why Mr Eric decided to focus on this sector, mainly because he believes that good food leads to a good start, which in turns results in good outcomes for individuals, organisations and communities at large.
While he emphasised that his business foundation is the food industry, he also argued that it has many segments and he only targets a specific segment which he believes has the maximum positive impact. “I only focus on halal, healthy, high-tech products, we call it the 3H principles and it represent the core values of my business. I cannot say our products are the most natural or the best food in the world, but I can argue we have some of the best products,” stressed Mr Eric.
When we asked Mr Eric how he differentiates his business to win against rivals, he expressed his stance opposing the concept of competition in business. “Actually, the more companies in the market selling food, the happier am I, because different companies they offer different products and have different marketing and positioning strategies. My position is in the production and marketing of plant-based products in compliance with the 3H core values,” he emphasised.
Speaking about his first venture into the food sector, Miko Food Sdn Bhd, Mr Eric mentioned that when he decided to establish the company, his main strengths were in the ability to innovate since he was joined with a team of researchers who create plans for producing different types of food and marketing them. However, he does not identify his business as a normal conventional trading company. Rather he has a unique business model.
“I believe that to be able to comply with future trends, one company cannot do everything from A to Z. Instead, different companies need to collaborate based on the speciality and talents each of them has in order to produce and market high quality products.”
“We are not like the other companies, which may jump into any business activity as long as they find it more profitable. I am not saying those who are doing this are wrong, but we just have a different approach, he said. This approach is represented in initiating long-term strategic partnership with any factory in the whole world to produce the products which are recommended by the Research and Development team, he added and said: “We have got our own strengths in creating products and marketing concept.”
Mr Eric give the analogy of what the giant technology company Apple is doing. They are holding the patent of the technology but don’t own any factories. “So I am like Apple in the food industry and I believe that to be able to comply with future trends, one company cannot do everything from A to Z. Instead, different companies need to collaborate based on the speciality and talents each of them has in order to produce and market highquality products,” he reiterated.
Transformation in Action
When certain products are approved for production, the factory is informed about the processes to follow and ingredients needed for each product. “However, sometimes the factory’s internal team may not know how to produce our products, and this is when our team steps in to provide technical knowledge and skills to train them,” said Mr Eric. It is also important to note that his way of looking at business is futuristic in the sense that he wants to be ready to offer what will be demanded.
“Ten years ago, some businessmen in China and India became multi-millionaires by producing and selling bulks of garments because that was in high demand. But today, I believe if we open our wardrobes, each of us has more than 20 shirts hanging. So, it is not about what the manufacturer wants to do, but rather about what the market needs,” he explained. The emphasis should be on creating value and protecting the ecosystem, he added.
“Some people can easily make profit in just 3-6 months. I have a friend who became a millionaire just within 3 months during the COVID-19. But the question that must be answered is how to sustain that success!”
Nowadays, the world is not talking about price differences, but they are discussing various business models and marketing strategies. While doing that, they make more friends and partners and gain trustworthiness within their respective markets. It is more of creating mutual benefits for different stakeholders. In this regard, Mr Eric gave the example of over 500 Japanese companies that are over 1,000 years old because they were able to produce high-quality products through partnership and following standard operating procedures.
According to Mr Eric, there is no right and wrong strategy, but perhaps certain policies work for certain times but not others. For example, he spoke of how the world was before COVID-19 and how it will turn to be afterwards. “Everybody has to adjust their life in this fast-moving world. Now we got 5G which means we have to go fast, but that is only one element! We also need to have stability in growth. People can make profit in just 3-6 months, easy. But are they able to sustain that?” he wondered.
The discussion with Mr Eric zoomed into the details of what products are offered and how his other company Graciate Sdn Bhd helps to promote a healthy lifestyle through innovation. “We Malaysians love to eat Nasi Lemak but it is high in fat which may have negative impact on our health. But if I am able to infuse the food with some active ingredient that can help you to block the carbohydrates and it does not affect the taste! Isn’t that good?” he asked.
Recalling the discussion of future trends, Mr Eric said that he is setting up the base for his business to grow smoothly and be ready. Hence, he classifies the products in the market into three tiers and positions his own at the second tier. “The first tier is just normal Nasi Lemak, for example, without any additional ingredient.Through our second-tier products, we are able to fill our stomach but without infusing more sugar inside our body,” he said.
Although these second-tier products may be more expensive and consumer have to pay extra, it is guaranteed that this is more benefitable for their health. “Instead of using the normal MSG we are using yeast extract to improve the taste of the food, but the yeast is 100% natural and its price is 3-4 times more expensive than the ingredients that are commonly used. However, we see many people who are willing to spend more for quality products.”
The unique attribute of the products by Miko Food Sdn Bhd and Graciate Sdn Bhd is that they are meat-free. Referring to some statistics, Mr Eric mentioned that if people stop eating meat products, we can save billions of children in the third world countries. In explaining that, he said “One gallon of water, if used for watering plans, produces enormous amount of food. But almost 70% of wheat and soy production worldwide is used as food for poultry industry.
“One of the reasons why I want to focus on meat-free or plantbased products is to follow the policy of the United Nations to create a sustainable future for our next generations. I believe that in the future, five to ten years from now, there will be a niche market that is looking for the labels on their food to say it is 100% natural. Apart from that, they will want some functional ingredients, so I am getting ready for them,” said Mr Eric.
Graciate Sdn Bhd
Another interesting venture of Mr Eric has been the establishment of Graciate Sdn Bhd as a company that promote moral values in addition to health benefits while at the same time making money. However, he looks at Craciate as an entity resembling the fundamental attributes of a human being rather than a company. He said: “For me Graciate Sdn Bhd consists of two characters: gratitude and appreciation and that is very important for me because my partners instilled these two values in me as a child. They used to tell me: you must appreciate and be grateful for what you have, even if it is too little.”
The lessons he learned in his childhood helped to shape his way of thinking and looking at things as an entrepreneur. “By experiencing things yourself, that is called wisdom. Without personal experience, anything we see or listen to is just knowledge. So, for me even though Graciate physically looks like a company, it is part of my life. I treat it as my child not as a business,” said Mr Eric emphasising the need for a change in mindset that is required at different levels in various industries.
Talking about the activities of Graciate he explained that the company sells plant-based products that are Halal, Healthy and High-tech. All products do not contain any animal-based ingredients. Among the wide range of products it sells are coffee, yogurt drinks, candies which usually contain animal components, but what Craciate sells does not have any of that. The emphasis always is on the 3H core values.
“So when I say I focus on high-tech products, it means I am not going to ask a housewife to manufacture something for me, because does not have quality assurance. That concept can survive in a very small community, before exporting and I believe there are a lot of people doing that already, so they do not need my help,” said Mr Eric. However, he still looks at helping the society through building and funding foundations that help single mothers and orphanages.
For many years, Mr Eric has been involved in the Federation of Chinese Associations in Johor and has strong connections with the Embassy of China in Malaysia. He believes that Malaysia’s blended race mix offers a great opportunity for the country to become a significant player in the international markets. Add to that the political stability in Malaysia which makes it more appealing to other countries, especially for China which has the world’s second-largest economy.
Although he opposed the concept of competition between businesses in the same industry, Mr Eric believes that there must be some sort of “good” competition between two or a few superpower countries, because this will bring benefits to other countries as well including Malaysia, which has a strategic location and enjoys abundant resources. Strengthening Malaysia-China relationships, according to Mr Eric, depends on future prospects of Malaysians.
“I have good connections with people who are older than me and I also have friends who are younger than me and I can see that we should and can work together. We can transform our lives and businesses to be successful.”
“Just like in a family when we have an elder brother, he might go around and bully the younger brother. But how the younger brother reacts to negotiate with the older one is significant to the relationship between them. The younger one should develop himself to be able to win the negotiations. So as a Malaysian, I wish Malaysia will improve on this side and this can essentially be done by enhancing the harmony in our society. Then we can have a different perception of the world,” he explained.
He also shared part of many Chinese businessmen who are keen to enhance their partnership with Malaysian businesses. He also encourages Malaysian businessmen to see the opportunity and be open to discussing possible ways to enhance investment prospects between the two countries. “We Malaysians have a lot to offer to the world and we only need to overcome our fears and become brave enough to venture into new markets, he said”
Like several other business leaders who we spoke to recently, Mr Eric sees the positive side of COVID-19, although he acknowledges the temporary economic fallout of the pandemic in a number of sectors. “I look at COVID-19 as a positive thing especially for young businesses. Like me, my company is only 6 years old and I am also 35 years old. It means that everything for me is an opportunity because I do not restrict myself,” he emphasised.
The key elements to succeed during trying times, according to Mr Eric, are two. First, a person who is leading a team or an organisations needs to continuously upgrade himself, and second they need to collaborate with other people in order to make things happen and solve any issues that may occur along the way. “I have good connections with people who are older than me and I also have friends who are younger than me and I can see that we should and can work together,” said Mr Eric.
“We always talk about transformation, but it does not happen in one day. It is actually the accumulation of efforts and perceptions of where we want to go. It related to how the leaders lead their normal life. If they just sit there and count the money in the bank, and do not go into the field or improve themselves and acquire more knowledge, transformation won’t happen,” he emphasised.
“For example I am in the food industry, if I do not read articles related to food industry, if I do not follow the political, psychological and economic factors involved in my industry, I believe that I will not be able to transform myself and not transform my business,” he added. He also stressed that learning new things makes the business leader and his organisation more attractive for potential partners to com in and join the progress.
Corporate Social Responsibility
Giving back to the society is a very important element that reflects the success of any business. Mr Eric believes that, regardless of the intention behind engaging in corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes, these programmes are good because man people benefit from them. His view matches the natural progress of a person or a business and how goals and needs might change over time.
In this regard, he said: “Some people do something and look for some returns, I do not say they are wrong. If someone is doing CSR and they need fame, we just give them fame! Because at least they are helping the society. But slowly when they grow older, reach probably 60 years old or more, they do not need fame anymore, they will probably need health! So we have to accept them and not be judgmental.”
Mr Eric has been involved in various initiatives to help the society since he was 19 years old. He has accumulated great experiences before that age through the advice and guidance from his parents, whereas after that age more people and organisations contributed to shaping his future way of thinking and working. This includes the period of his graduate studies, his involvement in Non-Governmental Organisations, and his work experience with some of the big, reputable companies in Malaysia.
“The environment is very important. Who we are with and who our friends are. All that matters. Certain people leave a great impact in our life and I learned a lot from different people and I am grateful for that. I learned that you need to step in whenever there is a situation that is critical even if it does not directly affect me,” he said. I do not judge or talk about intention of people because someone’s intention it is more to spiritual and God only knows that. I can only judge the actions and their impact, he added.
Prior to establishing the group of companies in the food industry, Mr Eric had a business called GT Channel Solutions which focused mainly on green technologies and the contribute to protecting the ecosystem. The company which is still in operations gains more importance today compared to when it was established in 2008 because of the rising environmental concerns. Mr Eric also offers exclusive advisory services to some of his friends via research and technical consultation.