This Man Went From Gangster To CEO

Leadership

September 29, 2018 | BY Kathlyn D'Souza

Chiau Haw Choon turned his back on a life of crime to build a brighter future for Malaysia. He tells his story to Generation T.

In the showroom of 8th & Stellar, the newest Kuala Lumpur development of Malaysia’s Chin Hin Group, Generation T honouree Chiau Haw Choon recalls his latest adventure, the demanding climb to the Base Camp of Mount Everest.

Despite regularly working out and having run a number of marathons, the young group managing director, the youngest of a publicly listed Malaysian company, struggled to reach his target. “I thought it was just a normal mountain trek, but halfway through it struck me,” he says. “The oxygen was half of what we have normally, my heartbeat went from 60 per minute to 120… I was having altitude sickness.”

But his determination, and the company flag he was carrying, drove him on to success. “That experience made me believe that anything is possible—you just need to work on it step by step and eventually you’ll get there,” says the 34-year-old, adding that keeping himself in shape for such feats helps him run his business, Malaysia’s only building materials conglomerate, through which he is responsible for 1,400 employees.

“I didn’t expect to take over the family business… The only experience I had was being part of a gang”

Some 40 years ago, the predecessor of Chin Hin Group was just a hardware shop in Megat Dewa, a small town in the state of Kedah. It was founded by Chiau’s grandfather, Chiau Kok Heah, of whom Chiau speaks fondly. “I always talk about my grandfather because without him and without that platform, I wouldn’t have my passion for building materials,” he says. “I basically grew up in that hardware shop. Then, when I was in primary school, my family ventured into cement trading and we moved from Megat Dewa to the state capital, Alor Setar.”

Also read: 10 tips on how to successfully inherit a family business

A change of scene, a change of heart

That move saw Chiau’s life take a dark turn. When he was 13, he dropped out of school and got involved in gangs. The rebellious boy, who couldn’t even speak basic English at the time, was getting “up to all kinds of nonsense.” At one point when he was 15 years old, he was caught up in a criminal investigation and thrown into a police lockup for five days, during which he had to sleep on the floor of a tiny cell.

“While I was in there, I told myself I wouldn’t [repeat my behavior]. But nothing changed. I think I just had too much freedom.”

At 16, Chiau realised he was in a pretty bad place. At around the same time, his mother asked if he was interested in studying basic English in Singapore for six months. “I thought, since there was nothing to do in Alor Setar, I might as well give it a shot. But again, my motivation was not to study, but to have fun,” he recalls with a laugh. 

In Singapore, under the care of a guardian, he began his tuition, and Chiau chuckles at the memory of the first words he mastered: “It was eat, ate and eaten.” His tutor also preached the gospels to him, and out of curiosity Chiau began attending church, beginning a healthy period of self-reflection.

Back to school

“I looked at myself and I looked at all my friends,” he recalls. “A typical Malaysian would have finished their secondary school by then, but I hadn’t. So I felt the need to start all over again.” And start over he did. He signed up for an intensive language course and was soon accepted into Secondary One in Singapore—at the age of 17, while his classmates were mostly 13-year-olds.

“I still remember, on the first day of school I looked around and realised I was the eldest. Not in my class, mind you, but the entire school. That was a very difficult time for me. Everyone would look at me funny and tease me—students and teachers alike. I still couldn’t get used to it during the first year and skipped school often. But then I thought to myself, ‘You’ve already started Secondary One, you might as well finish it. You need to.’” He just wanted to be “normal” and restart his life.

On completing high school, he left for Melbourne to study finance and marketing, but he was obliged to return home at the age of 22. Chiau’s father had become unwell and was unable to run the business, which by this time was experiencing a downturn in fortunes. “I didn’t expect to take over the family business,” he says. “The only experience I had was being part of a gang.”

Thirteen years later, however, things are a lot different. When Chiau returned from Melbourne to Malaysia, Chin Hin Group was just a cement trading company. Since then, working on the rationale that it is too risky to be selling just one product, Chiau has expanded the business into a one-stop building material distribution company. Within three years, he’d grown it into the country’s biggest, and soon the small cement trading company of the 1970s had become two publicly listed giants.

The big question

“You know, our quality of life depends on the type of questions we ask ourselves,” Chiau says. “When I was 16, I kept asking myself, ‘Do I want to continue living like this?’ That question changed my life. This is the same concept I applied to my business philosophy, even when we did very well in the trading business. I asked, ‘Do I want to continue in this line of business for the next few decades?’”

His answer to that question led the company to expand into innovative building materials, solar construction businesses, modular construction businesses and property development. And the company’s AAC products—moulded lightweight concrete blocks, panels and lintels with excellent insulation properties—allow houses to be built faster, cheaper and greener. “With such a strong demand for our products, we now have two local plants, one in Johor and one in Kuala Lumpur. So, the fact that we transformed the industry really excites me,” says Chiau.

Tricks of the trade

Business aside, Chiau is passionate about mentoring, which is unsurprising, given his rebellious past. He realises the people who helped him along the way played an important role in shaping who he is today, and he wants to do the same for others. “The reason is very simple: I have gone through that. I often get invitations to share my story with people, and I find it meaningful. My past, what I have gone through, can be a blessing and lesson to others.”

Asked what he now thinks of the dark years of his youth, he smiles and replies, “If I didn’t go through the things I did back then, I wouldn’t be so disciplined and focused in what I am doing today. I think my past wasn’t a mistake.”

So, what’s the biggest takeaway for this rebel-turned-entrepreneur? “I wouldn’t have thought that a school dropout would have been able to transform the country’s building industry, let alone win the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2017, but there you go. It really isn’t too late to make a change in life, and one should never be afraid to make a mistake. Never allow failure to bring you down. Failure, to me, is part of the process. The more mistakes you make and learn from, the better you can be.”

Chiau Haw Choon features on the Malaysia Generation T List. To discover more young leaders like Chiau who are shaping the future of Malaysia, see the full list

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