Total Rewards Asia Summit 2024 Singapore
"You must continue to love what you do": How passion for his job keeps Infinity Logistics' MD going

"You must continue to love what you do": How passion for his job keeps Infinity Logistics' MD going

Having seen his company grow from a micro-business with just four employees, to 20 years later, having a regional presence, truly brings to life Dato' Seri Chan Kong Yew's belief in "doing what you love". Priya Sunil shares his journey of passion and resilience, for all leaders to learn from.

Established in 2003, Infinity Logistics & Transport was the brainchild of Dato' Seri Chan Kong Yew, then an entrepreneur who had left a business development role,  and his partner. Fueled by a desire to realise bold ideas and untapped potential, the decision to launch a solo venture was driven by a need for autonomy and a platform to innovate within Malaysia's growing logistics & transport industry.

Initially focusing on land logistics, Infinity Logistics pioneered a modal shift from road to rail transport, offering customers alternative solutions and intermodal services between Thailand and Singapore. This entrepreneurial approach, coupled with a strong emphasis on business development, laid the foundation for the company's early success.

As the company evolved from a micro-business with just four employees, to a regional brand and embraced the role of a third-party logistics provider (3PL), it started to make strategic shifts including investments in assets and infrastructure, transforming into a total logistics provider with a diverse range of capabilities.

Alongside learning about the company's growth and journey, in this interview, Priya Sunil learns about Dato' Seri Chan's personal growth and leadership lessons that have both guided him through the challenges and good times, and continue keeping his passion shining for what lies ahead for the organisation.

Q You founded Infinity Logistics as a micro-business in Klang in 2003, with just 4 employees. Today, it is a public-listed company with a workforce of over 600 and presence in the region. Tell us about the journey that led the company to where it is today.

I founded the company with an entrepreneurial background, as I was a business development manager for a logistic company. My strength is in entrepreneurship. When my ideas got too wild for an organisation, I realised that I was unable to assert my dreams, and so I decided to venture out on my own and see if we could make it.

I was only 30 then, and I always told myself that if I don’t make it, I can still return to the role of a professional manager. The opportunity in the logistics and transport industry in Malaysia was pretty open as a growing, sunrise industry in that time, so that’s what drove me to start my journey. We [at Infinity] did not come with a background of inheriting a certain business, but we have a lot of ideas about what we want to do, and a lot of innovative thoughts on how we can do a modal shift in the industry. So, the company started off as a land logistics provider, where the focus was on doing a modal shift for road to rail. We started to transport goods, and offer inter-modal services – i.e., road-rail services – between Thailand and Singapore. We gave customers an alternative mode of land transport using rail, instead of road.

That is where we were – and the focus was first on business development, as we were a micro company. The majority of micro companies who succeed and go on to become corporate companies are those whose leadership have a good entrepreneurial mindset. This does not mean that these companies will always make it as it does still depend on the market situation, but the thing is, if you don’t have good entrepreneurship as a micro business, then your chances of making it are also not going to be too high.

In short, in the first two to three years, the organisation operated with a very entrepreneurial focus in how we got things done. Our founders, members, stakeholders were mostly from an innovation background.

That’s how we started. Along the way, we were lucky and managed to make it to where we are today! We are no longer micro, we are now operating like an SME (small-and-medium enterprise), while still being a ‘3PL’ (third-party logistics provider). The majority of people we work with are very good in customer service, coming equipped with skills in being the intermediary between the first-party provider (the asset provider) and the customers.

For context, in my industry, being a 3PL means, you know, you basically do buy-and-sell, like trading, so you need to a trading mentality. The people you employ and work with need to have such a mentality, as they have to chase people as a middleman every day. Efficiency is not the key here; instead, the key is that the customer is happy to use your service, and you are able to convince the service provider to work for you. Today, you buy your IT equipment from a manufacturer or service provider who does not own anything but provides you a service – that turns it into a service industry.

Our SME journey started after two years in operation. The people mentality then was more towards freight forwarding. Three years later, we saw that we had some reserves. We have this policy of giving back every single cent or dollar made to the industry, instead of living lavishly. We used that to buy assets and became a little more asset heavy, so we could tell our customers – we own this truck, this warehouse, this container; and show our customers the value in working with us directly. Overtime, we invested and became heavier and today, we are now a total logistics provider with our own assets.

I won’t say we 100% don’t need to rely on the industry – the biggest freight forwarders or logistics companies in the world still have to depend on someone. And this industry is very unique. We work with the ecosystem, and we need our stakeholders, which is more often people in our industry.

When we moved more into having our own assets, the people that we worked with and needed to employ needed to have different skill sets. And that is one area of how we manage our people and the people we bring in. There is no one formula. The people we get in are different – we get in industry people, chemical engineers, and more to be in the team. You have a mechanical engineer managing my fleet, and even a psychologist becoming an HR manager because they have the language skills and are able to improve communication.

Later on, when we became more corporate, we set in place things like KPI, management by numbers, reporting, and so on, which needed us to bring in people with different skill sets. One challenge, though, is that after a few years, you see for instance someone who has very strong entrepreneurial skills and is very innovative. He may not have the management skill set, does not understand how to do calculations, does not get the importance of budgets, can’t speak proper English. But he thinks he should still be in his role because of seniority; while someone with high qualifications might think they deserve to be in a managerial position because they have a better skill set. It’s common to see this when you a growing from a micro-organisation to where we are today, and this is where my job is to ensure that the organisation can go on without any conflict.

Apart from the above, we also work on a strong innovation and blue ocean mentality, focusing a lot on value proposition. We believe in being vertical – going deeper than what a service provider needs to be. For example, in product vertical – enough to know the product, but not enough to trade the product. Knowing it is very important, so you can duplicate what you know to service your customer better, while at the same time servicing the industry.

Q Tell us about the meaning behind the name ‘Infinity’.

We had a hard time naming the company – it was one of the difficult things we had to do.

My partner and I got this name when we were watching the movie ‘The Recruit’ back in our younger days. A bus had appeared with the name ‘Infinity’, and we thought it was a nice name for us. So we tried to register it, and succeeded in doing so. That’s how the name came about – we were not that innovative when it came to naming [the company], but somehow, it was something that suited the industry.

You talked about the journey to getting to where infinity Logistics is today. Obviously, the industry itself has changed in the past 20 years since the founding, having better infrastructure, automated processes, and lots more. How have you adapted your people agenda to ensure that your workforce continues to thrive amidst all this progress?

As the driver of organisation, we have to adapt to the times – what the industry is looking at, how we have to deal with different geographical needs, and so on. Different markets have different needs and strategy – in Europe, everyone talks about sustainability, and, to them, it is key even if there is no food on the table. Whether that is suitable in the Asian market, is something you need to balance and decide.

About 10 years ago, everyone was talking about digitalisation, saying it was the only solution forward. But I chose to go manual. People were saying, ‘you must have this computer software, I’m the solution provider and the key to the business’; but he would take 2mn dollars from you while you’re in an organisation that only has 500,000 dollars.

Essentially, you need to have a balance. The Chinese used to say that before you start a meal as a family of five, you have to see what is being offered on the table. If there are three pieces of chicken, you don’t take the entire piece, right? So, you must know what is good for the organisation. That is how Infinity was able to sustain to where we are today – we looked at when we needed to start adopting digitalisation; when we need to embark on automation; when AI must come in, and when blockchain should be our charter.

On that note, the next strategic thrust that Infinity will be focusing on is to accelerate digital transformation to bring the business to the next level. Could you elaborate on this?

A major bulk of our operations is in Malaysia, a place that has a very low population. We are now at a point where we need digitalisation to come in so that would no longer require so many people for communication. Only with digitalisation, can I move into automation and stop doing data entry. When a nation evolves, everyone is a graduate and no one wants to do data entry – you end up housing the function in another country. In that sense, we don’t need to create jobs anymore; instead, we need to do a better job. And if I don’t move ahead, I will be pushed to the back.

Finally, only with automation can I move into the AI space. We are now in the automation phase and hopefully, one day, we will have enough learning to decide that we can adopt AI practices too.

In what ways are you equipping your stakeholders - the leadership team, middle managers, employees – for this, and how are you overcoming potential resistance?

Especially for your field workers, how are you ensuring job security in line with this transformation?

That is the toughest part – giving our key people the assurance that this is something we need. Having their assurance and certainty is very important, because we are in the service industry where we always need to keep in mind that the business remains a ‘people’ business at the end of the day. The company will not be what it is if the people have lost passion. The system can only help you, but it has no passion.

So, it’s about getting the message across that this journey is our journey and [technology] is not here to replace anyone. This transformation is ours, and if you choose not to be a part of it, then I can’t help it. That, is the message I send. It has to be top-down while at the same time getting buy-in from the bottom.

A healthy organisation is one that allows their people to move on. If not, you don’t get fresh blood or new ideas in what you do. I do very much want to keep everyone, and we do give them enough, but we cannot and should not stop them from moving on.

We see a lot of HR managers come in and say, ‘Sir, you have very high turnover as compared to a lot of organisations. Of course, these are new HR managers that have joined me. I tell them, ‘I just have one question for you: Look at my organisation, do we grow every year? Do you see disruption? I don’t. That’s where our success lies.’

I have a lot of ex-colleagues who have left us and get paid higher somewhere, doing well. Why? Because we have a very good training system that allows them to learn fast on the job and gives them easy access to learning so they can handle their job better. I give seniority less weightage, and that’s what leads to our success.

Today, if my staff comes and says they got an offer for RM500 more than what I pay them, and asks me to pay them that amount, I’ll say, ‘No, it should be viewed as industry contribution. You should, instead, go to that organisation and help him earn that extra RM500 and help him grow his organisation, so I can then give another person the opportunity to be where you are one to two years later.’ That’s how we keep our costs competitive.

Having said that, we can’t do that to our key staff; that’s why we have a good balance on our team. It emphasises this point – you see 100s of resumes and every one of them has the same format. Everyone knows how to do well in the interview and the kind of answer to give. But it’s only after a few months that you know if they are suitable to be on your team.

It’s like dating –I won’t say we 100% don’t need to rely on the industry – the biggest freight forwarders or logistics companies in the world still have to depend on someone. And this industry is very unique. We work with the ecosystem, and we need our stakeholders, which is more often people in our industry. only after a few months of going out can you tell if he is suitable for you. Likewise, no way can I employ someone and say that he is suitable right away.

Q The Malaysian Investment Development Authority once cited a vision to position Malaysia as a regional logistics hub in ASEAN. What opportunities & challenges do you see this posing to your People agenda?

I am fortunate to be part of certain policymaking, and I have been very vocal in pushing for these policies. I could spend the next three hours convincing you on how good this industry is, and maybe one day you might want to leave your current work and come join this industry, because I have a big belief in this.

First of all, geographically, it’s a given. Secondly, the market is already there. We don’t need to create it because we have a good neighbour and everything we have is great, I just need to open the door bigger so they [the talent] can walk over. There isn’t just a ‘push’ factor, there is also a ‘pull’ factor. The only thing that we don’t have at the moment is the people – we can by our IT system, we can build our facilities, but we don’t have the people.

However, we do get the support we need from MIDA because we have promised that we are a people-oriented organisation – and we demonstrate it too. They know we can be a flagbearer. In short, the potential is humongous.

On the personal front, how are you as a leader keeping yourself equipped and relevant so you can continue to steer the business forward?

First, you must continue to love what you do. Continue to have passion because if don't have love and passion in what you do, that will be a problem. I love what I do. I still have a lot of passion.

Of course, it changes from time to time, period to period, year to year, as you may come to a stage where profitability is just not the ultimate [goal]. That’s when you will have to find a new passion to [motivate you to] continue. So, that is what is keeping me going in the driver's seat.

I have always had a 10-20-year vision. It sounds crazy, but by having such a vision, you are able to keep the organisation going. With this vision, I want to see a modal shift from road to rail to save lives. I want to see Malaysia become a leader in green logistics.

The sun is free, we have so much of roof we can convert into renewable energy to at least get into level two. We are not really in level three yet, but we can be in level two.

Finally, being involved in certain policymaking meetings, it is an achievement when you see them being chosen to be implemented. I would like to one day write book – so I tell myself that I must learn; learn enough to innovate enough, to write an interesting book. If I accumulate enough knowledge and credentials, I will be invited to lecture or give a talk.

In short, that’s what keeps me going.

Photo: Provided

Follow us on Telegram and on Instagram @humanresourcesonline for all the latest HR and manpower news from around the region!

Free newsletter

Get the daily lowdown on Asia's top Human Resources stories.

We break down the big and messy topics of the day so you're updated on the most important developments in Asia's Human Resources development – for free.

subscribe now open in new window