Thursday, March 21, 2013

Business Titan: Tan Chong's late Tan Yuet Foh

Few can command the type of love the staff had for the late Tan Sri Tan Yuet Foh. I had already left Tan Chong when news of Tan Sri’s demise reached me. I went to pay my last respect. You could see tears flowing freely. I was also overwhelmed. I sure missed him.

My stay in Tan Chong was short. I joined them on 1 June 1981 and left the company exactly a year later. The group managing director, Ooi Chee Seng, was quite upset over my decision. He thought I should stay on.

But that is all history.

Tan Chong was an extraordinary organization, founded by an extraordinary man. The man was the late Tan Sri Tan Yuet Foh.

The first few days at Tan Chong were rather uneventful for me. I was introduced to my colleagues and received some briefings here and there.

Being in the holding company, I shared the floor with the senior directors. The late Tan Sri’s office was in the more spacious corner across my modest room.

I was going through some of the company’s statistics and financials when Tan Sri walked into my room. He was so informal. While he talked, he enjoyed his tobacco. You felt very much at ease with him. No pretensions, no protocol. If he did not know, he asked point-blank. But be sure you know what you were talking. He was simply too sharp and analytical for one to bluff one’s way. He could conceptualize issues in their most fundamental forms and show you the way.

But many of my colleagues thought he was too “long-winded”. Some even joked that you could sleep through his “lectures” and still not did miss a thing. Others proposed to get him a tape-recorder…

I did not agree. To me he was a philosopher-extraordinaire. Many of the things he said carried a fundamental philosophy. If only he could write like Philip Kotler…

* * * * *  

He was totally committed to Nissan whose cars were known as Datsun then. While waiting for a company vehicle during the first few days in Tan Chong, I had to make use of my wife’s car, which was a Honda Civic. As a senior manager, I was entitled to park my car in the compound of a nearby bungalow, which housed the company’s advertising department. I did not quite know the protocol and merrily staked my right there. One evening I came down only to see my car missing. Somebody had banished it to an obscure corner.

Be sensible, you do not drive a non-Datsun around if you want to work in Tan Chong.

That was a good lesson.

* * * * *   

I had to go with the late Tan Sri to Singapore one day. We took an early flight. At the Singapore airport a humble Datsun met us. I was aghast - a 1200 cc car to fetch Tan Sri? The man who came to fetch us mumbled something. It was something to do with the availability of the bigger Datsuns in the office. Apparently, he could not get hold of one. But shouldn’t a multi-millionaire deserve something better? 

You must be kidding; the late Tan Sri traveled only in Datsuns.

* * * * *   

The late Tan Sri decided to stay back in Singapore. I had to go back to Kuala Lumpur. We headed for the airport where he followed me all the way to the check-in counter. There was really no reason for him to do so – I was already an adult!

When the counter clerk asked for $5 for the airport tax, he took out a five Singapore-dollar note from his wallet and handed it over to the girl, well before I could dig into my own wallet.

How can you bring yourself to tell such a man that you do not want to work for him anymore?

That was exactly what I had intended to do when I went back to Kuala Lumpur.

* * * * *   

Dr Saw had decided to emigrate to Canada. When it was made known that the late Tan Sri Tan had intended me to take over from Dr Saw in Tan Chong’s heavy vehicle division, the latter changed his mind. Frankly, I had rubbed him the wrong way somewhere before and he never took a liking for me after that.

I became a minister without portfolio. I could hardly keep myself occupied and felt totally vulnerable. No sooner, I was looking at job advertisements.

Just before the late Tan Sri and I left for Singapore, I had already agreed to accept a job offer. However, I just could not bring myself to tell him. Chee Seng, the MD, was my sounding board who took my decision quite calmly. He suggested that I should not see Tan Sri on the matter. He would inform Tan Sri instead.

* * * * *    

Chee Seng handed a cheque to me a few days later.  My three months’ salary was all there. I could leave early if I wanted to, he added.

I never had a chance to explain to the Tan Sri Tan. And I believed he never quite forgave me.

Had I the opportunity to discuss my decision with the late Tan Sri Tan, the outcome might have turned out differently. I have always been easily persuaded by kind words.



In the early 80s, cries for communal unity formed the backbone of manifestoes of the day of the community-based political parties. Amongst the Chinese community, you had a “thousand-men” dinner in Raub today and a “charity” sale in Pontian tomorrow, all in the name of Chinese unity.

Bukit Mertajam was where many of the big lorry transporters had their head-office.

Tan Chong Industrial Equipment was trying to penetrate the cargo lorry market with its CBs – I did not know what the letters stood for. They were nevertheless designated by Nissan Diesel for their range of trucks designed specifically for the cargo haulage industry – and when the somebody who happened to be the biggest fleet owner suggested that Tan Chong sponsor a unity event in Bukit Mertajam, you simply had to agree.

Dr Saw had already agreed to the sponsorship and the late Tan Sri Tan was happy to go along.

Tan Sri was advised to give a speech and I was given the task of drafting it.

Tan Sri reminded me to stay clear of politics. I could not help coming up with a lot of motherhood statements. He liked them all the same. He would take the draft out from the pocket every now and then to rehearse. He took everything seriously.

Six of us from Kuala Lumpur were asked to attend the function, besides those key colleagues in the Penang Island and Province Wellesley branches.

He left instructions for us to book a number of rooms in the Mandarin. We checked in at the same time. He just took one of the keys and did not ask for anything special for himself.

McAlister Road in Penang had many durian stalls. Eight or nine of us squatted around the stall-keeper, waiting impatiently for him to open the durians. Believe it or not, the late Tan Sri was one of us.

* * * * *   

Tan Chong had a nice bungalow somewhere in Penang’s Tanjung Bungah area. If you had any important visitor to entertain privately, all you had to do was to ask for the keys.

Tan Sri knew it was my first visit to the bungalow. He personally showed me around. The orchids were very pretty. But there was something unique about the bungalow which I remember, even up till today. It was the master bedroom.

The bed was a round one and I saw mirrors, mirrors everywhere, including one on the ceiling right on top of the bed!

Tan Sri believed in working hard and playing hard too.

* * * * *   

Some people live to eat, but the late Tan Sri ate to live.

He hardly had time for his meals. It is unlikely that he enjoyed his food, no matter how tasty it was.

If he had no outside engagements, he usually had his meals in the small dining room adjacent to his office. Everybody was free to join him.

The food was usually very simple, being mostly noodles, unlike the elaborate dishes served in the executive dining room across the road. If you had an ear for him, he would go on and on about his experiences. Some new, some stale, but all with a moral behind them. By the time we were excused, he was still struggling with his first or second mouthful.

He was a very heavy smoker who virtually chain-smoked. His meeting room had a generous supply of cigarettes. All of us ended up as passive smokers. One might as well take up smoking.

* * * * *     

When Tan Sri was in one of those very rare outbursts, nothing would be right for him. The advisable thing to do was to avoid eye contact with him.

The room was filled with cigarette smoke and nobody wanted to speak out.

I was quite new to Tan Chong then. Some of the things Tan Sri had just said sounded like crap to me. I remarked, “Tan Sri, how can you say he was wrong…”

Everybody was taken aback by my audacity. There was a complete silence. Tan Sri reached for his pipe, slowly lit the tobacco inside it, turned to me and said, “Yes, you are right…”

* * * * *  

A VIP from Nissan Japan was visiting the office. There was a lot of preparation at Tan Chong. Tan Sri personally went to the airport to receive this VIP.

The Tan Chong managers were introduced one by one to this VIP. When it was my turn, Tan Sri said this to him, “This very able young man has just joined us…”

I knew I was not going to have many friends in Tan Chong after that.

* * * * *     


Nissan Diesel was the sixth biggest truck maker in Japan then, I was told.

That meant it was one of the smallest.

But that fact did not bother the late Tan Sri Tan Yuet Foh at all. He was convinced Nissan was the best. He believed he had a good enough model in UG780 to break into the dump-truck market.

But do you know how a UG780 looked like? In the truck market, we called it a normal control model. That means the truck has a long “nose” in front of the cabin; the engine is housed inside this nose. Most modern designs are the forward-control variety – the engine is neatly tucked under the cabin. Somebody told me UG780 was a World War II-vintage but I could not verify the claim. Anyway, in Tan Chong, it was our duty to indoctrinate ourselves that anything Nissan had to be the best.

An advertisement had to be designed. The instruction was given out. Within days, the mock-up was ready as Tan Chong had one of the best in-house studios in town.

The background was the newly commissioned North Port in Port Klang. Against the majestic ships, the beautiful blue sky and not forgetting the sparrows (or crows?), UG780 certainly looked stunningly pretty. It was a great piece of work, everybody seemed to agree. The boys from the advertising department were visibly pleased.

But how come there was no word from the old man?

After a lull, the late Tan Sri reached for his pipe. He began, “You all do not know business lah. Come, write this down…

“Carry sand, carry earth, carry…, everything can. Make sure they are boldly written across the top of the advertisement.

“Next, take the truck to that stone quarry at Batu Cave, load it up as high as you can and take a photograph from there.

“Don’t forget to take a photograph of the cabin; drivers like big cabins. And the axle… Show that it can climb slopes better than others too!

“How often do you want this advertisement to go out?”

A schedule had already been promptly laid out for the late Tan Sri – Nanyang, xx days; Sin Chew, yy days; New Straits Times, zz days; Star, aa days, so on and so forth. All the major dailies were covered.

“Buyers of dump trucks don’t wear ties one lah. They also don’t know how to read New Straits Times, Nanyang…” Tan Sri was getting a little impatient. “You must go for Ta-chung-pao, Sen-hwok-pao… You pay for one day, these people will give you three days free…”

People in Tan Chong were fast learners.

Before the week was over, a new artwork was already there for Tan Sri to view.

Boldly written across the top of the advertisement was: CARRY SAND, CARRY EARTH, CARRY… EVERYTHING CAN.

Exactly what Tan Sri had said.

Against the Kanneison Quarry, which was a subject of outcries by the residents of Batu Caves over its less-than-careful operations, UG780 was hell of a beast. Arranged neatly below were a number of wide-angle shots. The cabin? I thought it looked like a Hilton suite. And the axle? Maybe a little bigger than MAN’s[1]. What about its climbing ability? No problem, it could defy the law of gravity.

* * * * *  

The mosquito press was never happier. It was the first time in years they had such a good hand-out from one of the biggest motor firms in town. They were glad to extend the buy-one-get-three-free offer.

* * * * *   

When I happened to drive past a construction site one day, I stopped by to observe how a UG780 worked. I must admit it was a good machine. And sure enough, while the driver was waiting for his truck to be loaded, he reached for the back pocket of his trousers, unfolded his copy of Sen-hwok-pao and slumped back comfortably in his Hilton suite to enjoy the juicy columns.

I forgot to tell you. This driver did not wear a necktie.

* * * * *   


This was what the late Tan Sri Tan Yuet Foh commented when he was told of the latest advertising blitz by his No.1 rival in the 1,200 cc range.

UMW had just put up some very high profile advertisements for its new generation of Toyota Corollas.

One advertisement showed a Corolla standing proudly on the top of a Greek (maybe Roman, I am not sure) pillar. As the camera rolled, smoke billowed from below.

Another depicted a Corolla sandwiched between a Benz and a BM. Or was one of them a Rolls? The background, the bungalow of a super-rich.

The late Tan Sri’s reasoning was very simple. “Who are your customers?” Similarly, Peter Drucker would advise us to ask this question of ourselves, all the time.

Or was the Corolla in the rich man’s house meant for the amah? Someone had to take her to the market. Obviously she could not go in the Rolls or the Benz or the BM.

* * * * *   

As for his Datsun 120Y, the late Tan Sri was content with this: The car for Tom, Dick or Harry.

Tom could be a teacher, Dick a butcher and Harry, a preacher. They could all be char-koay-teow men for all he cared. When Tom bought his Datsun, Tan Sri would make sure he was given a mysterious gift! If Dick bargained a little harder, he would get two mysterious gifts. And Harry knew all along what the mysterious gifts were, but he bought a Datsun just the same.

Elsewhere Corolla was No. 1. But not in Malaysia.

* * * * *   


“Other people’s wife prettier, therefore can give birth; my wife not pretty, therefore cannot give birth.”

The late Tan Sri Tan Yuet Foh of the Tan Chong fame used to use this line to demolish his sales managers’ and executives’ argument that his Datsun cars were not as saleable as Toyota.

Datsun, as Nissan was called in the early 80s, was competing neck-to-neck with Toyota. Its 1200 cc model was pitted against Toyota Corolla. It was obvious that Toyota looked trendier. But Datsun was priced slightly lower and had its own followers.

The late Tan Sri Tan was a very hands-on man. He would join operational meetings whenever and wherever they were held.

When asked to explain why a particular branch or area was behind Toyota in sales, some executives and managers would always lament the truth. But the truth was what the late Tan Sri did not want to hear.

* * * * *

[1]               MAN of Germany, manufacturer of heavy trucks


  1. Yu Book
    I never know you were in Tan Chong before.
    I was supposed to join Tan Chong in 76 or 77. Unfortunately I got bell-spouse and could hardly speak well subsequently. Hence could not join and remained in Mida for my whole working life. Else we would have been colleague again for the second time there.
    In my place Tan Chong hired Dr.Saw to run the spring factory in Klang.
    Life is really 人算不如天算。

  2. I dont know much about my family history but i believe this man was my great grandfather :)

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  5. Dear Sir
    My late parent was a long lost family friend of the late Mr Tan. I have been trying to find out where is his burial ground so that I can pay him my respect on behalf of my late parent as it was one of the things on her bucket list.

    Could you please be in touch with me or let me know the address, if it is not much of trouble?

    Thank you very much.