From Groundnuts to Hotels: Growing a Household Brand
When you’re a third-generation CEO in charge of growing a company that’s long been a household name in your homeland, time doesn’t get more valuable. Such is the case for Yu-Gene Liew, who runs Pagoda Foods, the booming snack foods division of his family’s business, the Thong Fook Group, in Malaysia.
Liew has been a busy man since taking the helm in 2008. Until then, Pagoda’s only product, which paved its road to prominence, was the mengelembu groundnut. On a mission to appeal to broader and younger markets from the start, Liew renamed the company to make the brand more recognizable and successful internationally.
Next on his list—diversify. Under Liew’s leadership, Pagoda has grown dramatically offering a variety of nuts that amount to more than 25 products. With sun flower seed, almonds and cashews in the family now, the company is experiencing double-digit growth despite some initial bumps and bruises.
“We faced a lot of challenges in the beginning,” he admits. “We overcame them and we will continue to develop more products that suit the market, allowing our customers to have more options.”
Back In The Day
In making these bold decisions, Liew is just following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps. His family is highly respected within the business community, and he and his brother, Yu-Wei Liew, are dedicated to carrying on their legacy with the same entrepreneurial spirt that has created 70 years of exceptional growth.
Liew’s grandfather, a former grocery store clerk and vegetable farmer, started his groundnut business in 1945. At that time, he was operating out of a small wooden cottage—a far cry from the massive 14-acre facility they use now. He developed his own production process, which is used today, and involves a meticulous series of steps for rinsing, boiling, sunning and roasting the nuts to give them a flavour that is unique to the Liew family’s hometown of Ipoh.
In the 1970’s, with Liew’s father in charge, a financial crisis in Malaysia created a shortage of plastic. He invested in machinery to manufacture plastic bags, intending to support their groundnuts operation. The move transformed the company into a consumer and industrial packaging business. Later, in the 1990’s, he diversified again by going in to the plastic components and assembly industry.
With a history of expansion, it comes as no surprise that yet another business venture would present itself. This time, though, the third generation of leaders would be in position to take advantage of evolving the buisness and brand.
In branching out to different industries, the Liews established partnerships with stakeholders mainly based in Europe. When they would come to the family’s hometown for shareholder meetings, the hotel accomodations always sparked conversation.
“Whenever they are here, they always complain about the hotel conditions,” Liew explains. “We realized there was big potential for a better hotel in Ipoh. Ipoh deserves one, too.”
Located in the heart of the city, the 313-room Weil Hotel has a chic, modern vibe with rooms featuring handpicked bedding, furnishings and amenities designed to provide comfort and luxury. It also has a gymnasium, spa and rooftop infinity pool with a view of Ipoh’s landscape and iconic limestone hills, as well as a wide variety of dining options. With its strategic location, the hotel affords its guests good connectivity because it’s near a transportation network that attracts inbound travelers within Malaysia and Asia.
With the business continuing to expand, Liew says he’s fortunate to be a Vistage member because it gives him a safe space to share his issues and challenges. His father was a pioneer member of the Vistage VCE-1 group that began in November 1994, and is now part of the Vistage Trusted Advisor group.
“There’s no conflict of interest. This allows us to openly share our successes and failures, as well as understand the issues every industry faces,” Liew says. “I always use the opportunity to share new ideas, and allow everyone in the group to share their thoughts and challenge the idea.”