Ticking all his boxes

knew next to nothing about corrugated boxes, but Lee Poh Chuan took up the challenge, started a manufacturing concern and now, two decades later, boxes have become his life.

He was clueless about the corrugated box business when he started, but Lee Poh Chuan’s drive and tenacity turned Golden Corrugated Box into the successful manufacturer that it is today. JOY LEE reports.

AS a young man, Lee Poh Chuan remembers looking at other companies and wondering when his time would come to be the boss. And the 55-year-old Lee is happy and grateful that the opportunity did indeed come in his lifetime.

He founded corrugated box manufacturer Golden Corrugated Box Sdn Bhd (GCB) as a small concern in 1996. His big break came when he was helping his father with his transportation business.

Lee’s family had little. His father drove a lorry, and when Lee was still a teenager, his father started a humble delivery service. Lee often followed his father on his delivery rounds to help with the loading and unloading of goods for various manufacturers.

And it was during his rounds that Lee found himself inspired to one day build a business as successful as his customers’.

But it wasn’t just about being successful. Lee said he admired their capability and the way they were able to command a company and converse confidently with their staff and clients.

One day in the mid-1990s, the opportunity came knocking on Lee’s door when a regular customer asked if he was keen to be a subcontractor to produce small quantities of corrugated box and filler boards for them.

“That was an opportunity that came and challenged me to start on my dream. But at the time, I didn’t know anything. I had no experience or knowledge on how to make corrugated boxes. I didn’t even know the name of the machine that we had to use,” he recalls.

Still, Lee took a leap of faith, and in 1996, he invested whatever money he could pool together to start a business he knew nothing about. He poured in about RM50,000 in initial capital to pay his staff and to put down the deposit on his machinery.

Lee Poh ChuanLee hardly spoke a word of English and didn’t know a thing about how to make corrugated boxes when he first started his company.

He operated out of shoplots in Bangi, buying paper boards from the main contractor and converting them into boxes.

But two years after that, Lee’s one and only customer ran into a tight spot during the Asian financial crisis and they were forced to cut down on their subcontractors.

“He asked me, ‘Can you survive without me?’ and I said, ‘Can’. So now I had to learn to do it on my own,” he remembers.

S.Y. LawLee’s wife, S.Y. Law, has been a great supporter of his efforts and hard work in growing the company.

Although Lee grins broadly as he recounts his experience, it was a tough period for him back then. He could easily have closed shop and gone back to helping at his father’s transport services company. But he was persistent and wanted to challenge himself to succeed independently.

“I couldn’t run back to my father’s business. Otherwise, how to build my confidence?” he asks.

One of his biggest challenges then was to look for new customers for his carton boxes. He couldn’t speak very well but Lee forced himself to meet up with prospective customers every day. He held on to the “work hard” mantra.

He remembers a particular potential European client whom he went to meet every other day even though he could barely understand English back then. And his persistence paid off when he finally secured a sizeable order from this client.

Golden Corrugated Box team

Lee (second from left) is grooming his team of second-generation leaders to drive the company forward.

In 2000, GCB caught the eye of a Japanese company that was interested to buy its boxes. However, GCB was a small outfit with little or no management system in place and could not meet the foreign company’s standards.

But Lee was willing to learn, and he took the effort to put his house in order so that he could meet his customers’ requirements to grow the business.

“If people don’t trust you, it is hard for them to give you any business. We want to make sure that the market can trust us. So I have to build my team. They have to be trained to represent the company well. We must have the right skills and operations and be able to communicate with our customers,” he says.

Getting the fundamentals right proved to be a boon for GCB, as the business grew and the company moved to its 1.2ha factory in 2004.

Up until 2007, Lee was still buying paper boards from his suppliers and converting them into carton boxes. He soon realised that he would not be able to compete with bigger players if he continued to rely on them for his materials.

It was a daunting move, but Lee decided to purchase a secondhand corrugator machine for RM3mil to make his own paper boards. This also meant having to stock up on rolls of corrugating medium as opposed to buying paper boards as and when he needed them.

Golden Corrugated Box production

Once the paper boards are cut, they are sent for customised printing according to a customer’s specification.

While operating cost shot up, the decision allowed GCB to grow as a manufacturer and to control the cost of its products.

According to Lee, the price of corrugating medium ranges from RM1,500 to RM1,800 per tonne. GCB currently buys about 1,500 tonnes of paper a month and produces about 1,200 tonnes of corrugated boxes a month.

“Our customers are happy with our service, and we have plans to expand. The country’s GDP growth is still good, and about 1% to 3% of the GDP is made up of industries that will need corrugated boxes,” he says.

As GCB’s production is reaching its 1,500 tonnes capacity, the company is looking into plans for a second plant, a 2ha plot that would double its current capacity.

Lee has roped in his son and daughter into the business to help manage GCB. But he emphasises that continuity in the company does not lie just on the shoulders of his biological successors.

Golden Corrugated Box working in factory

Workers feeding paper boards into the machines to be glued into boxes.

“Building the second generation in the company is not just about one person. It has to be a group of people. We need to keep changing as a team because the industry keeps changing,” he explains.

His son, Evan, has been involved in GCB for five years. Evan tries to take after his father, whom he describes as visionary, aggressive and persistent.

Evan notes that Lee has plans laid out for the company many years in advance with ideas to diversify into different segments of the business to provide various people with an opportunity to grow and to progress in the company.

GCB is targeting revenue growth of more than 50% this year, and Evan says the company is on track to meet its goal.

Lee has grown a lot along with his business. Today, he is able to narrate his story in English, a language he could barely understand a few years ago, and command his company in a business he didn’t know anything about when he started.

He still enjoys his work and the challenges that come his way. He hopes to train his staff to continue to work hard and to evolve with the market.

“I feel I have achieved what I wanted. I started at zero but I wanted something big. I changed and did whatever I didn’t know about. Good thing I had the patience and energy to do it. And my wife has been very supportive throughout.

“I have enough, but the company needs to keep growing so that we can take care of the team,” says Lee.

Source from The Star: Boss of the Box

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