The eldest son of Tan Sri Dato' Pang Tee Chew and one of Tatler Malaysia's Asia's Most Influential reveals what it was like having to work his way up in legacy business and boldly launching Malaysia's new lifestyle destination in the thick of a pandemic

For many Malaysians, particularly those who grew up in the '80s, the furry, blue monster savoury noodle snack was a large part of their childhood memories. Whether it’s an after-school treat purchased off the friendly neighbourhood roti man (a common sight back then in the suburbs of Malaysia) or a snack you convinced a grandparent/parent to buy from a nearby kedai runcit (mom-and-pop store), the nostalgic Mamee Monster was a hit with children nationally.

Decades on, the beloved blue monster continues to win the hearts of the young 'uns not just locally but also internationally. Somewhere between then and now, the company that created the Mamee Monster Noodles, Mamee Double-Decker, went on to become one of the leading regional food manufacturers, innovating quickly to launch a slew of foods including chips, biscuits, beverages, and instant noodles. Then came the one thing that took Malaysia by storm: Daebak Ghost Pepper Spicy Chicken cup noodles, which records a Scoville scale of 1,041,427 SHUs.

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The premise of household sensation, well-timed to ride the global Korean wave and right around the time Samyang Foods' Samyang Buldak Bokkeummyeon noodle series peaked, was simple: noodles so insanely spicy, it'll reduce you to tears and have you begging for mercy. For a duration of time during its initial launch, the risqué noodles were also made limited edition, which meant that rare commodity flew off the shelves of every convenience store. Its marketing game was rock solid, with viral challenge videos comprising of influencers firing up various digital platforms. Before long, the Daebak Ghost Pepper Noodles #CanOrNotChallenge even found willing victims recording their mukbangs–it became a movement.

Spearheading this was then director of Shinsegae-Mamee Sdn Bhd, Vuitton Pang, whose first foray into the world of Korean products was met with resounding success. As Shinsegae-Mamee continued to roll out Daebak Ghost Pepper-type foods (chips, cola, packet noodles), the wheels in Pang's head were already turning, blueprinting his next big venture: emart24, South Korea’s fastest-growing convenience store.

"Small format retail is now very popular in Asia but convenience stores in Malaysia still have a lot to be desired, I think we can all agree with that. The introduction of FamilyMart definitely helped," the Asia's Most Influential honouree says. "When we travel to Korea or Japan, we view convenience stores as the perfect place to drop by to get food. Why don't people think like that in Malaysia? I think it’s down to the fact that those convenience store concepts aren’t available here. Malaysia’s convenience store industry still has a lot of room to grow."

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"This growth comes from two factors: one is per capita, the number of convenience stores here in Malaysia and also the frequency of visits. The typical Malaysian will probably visit the convenience store once a week, once a month but in Korea, they visit multiple times a week. The frequency of visits alone shows that there are opportunities in the convenience store industry. From the per capita standpoint, in Korea and Japan, they have one convenience store servicing 1,200 people. In Taiwan, one store services 2,400 people. But in Malaysia, you have one store servicing 8,000 people. So it goes to show that there’s still room for growth when we compare ourselves to the more mature countries. That’s why I decided that a convenience store is going to be a very interesting and exciting space, and I really wanted to be involved in it," he enthuses.

For the University of Melbourne graduate, his entrepreneurial drive is a trait that has been deeply ingrained in him thanks to the exposure to his family’s business. Pang says they (him and his siblings) were groomed from a very young age to one day join Mamee Double-Decker and eventually take the reins of the business–but he still had to work his way in, from the ground up.

“That path was already set for us but my family had a very good policy whereby if we wanted to join the family business, we must first gain some external experience so that we could actually contribute to the company and not just be someone who was parachuted in and not have any respect for the employees,” he reveals.

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“You know what they say about the third generation. Everyone’s worried that the third generation will singlehandedly bring the company down,” he muses. Pang spent three years as a management associate for OSK Investment Bank Bhd before joining Mamee-Double-Decker. “I had to start from a very low level. I spent a bit of time in production and sales, but ultimately my responsibility was to build an investor relations team to go out there and market the company, and to raise awareness about Mamee-Double Decker as a company. It was a good experience and I learned a lot," he says.

Perhaps it was these lifelong lessons that emboldened Pang to not only take on his next mammoth of a project but also to roll it out in the thick of the Covid-19 pandemic. emart24's first Reserve Store opened its doors in June 2021 in Bangsar South, Kuala Lumpur, smack in the middle of Malaysia's nationwide MCO (Movement Control Order). On his decision to launch the first emart24 during such a time, Pang explains: "It’s never going be the right time, there’s never going be a perfect time to open. For us, it was very unfortunate that the timing wasn’t the best. I wouldn’t recommend anybody open any business in the middle of a full lockdown but it is what it is."

"We were very confident that we had a very good concept, we had people hired, everything was ready to go. We decided to just go ahead and open. In hindsight, it was a really good decision because if we waited, we wouldn’t be opening for the next two to three months. We basically had no choice–we were ready to open and we decided to just go with it. The response has been very humbling and surprising, it was very positively received and we did receive a good crowd as soon as we opened despite the lockdown. We take a lot of confidence from that," he adds.

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In speaking about how he overcame his challenges, Pang shared: "I think it all starts with having a really good team. I'm very happy that I have a very good team of people around me with the right kind of experience. We learned a lot from one store to another–there were so many learnings. We also took this opportunity to get feedback from our customers to see how we can further improve our offerings so definitely it’s through getting feedback during this time and refining our product offerings. Store to store, you would notice that there are a lot of differences, as we try to better ourselves and come up with a concept that customers want. We would get feedback, take a step back, really review our operations and our product offerings, and make improvements for when things start to open up again to ensure we have the right kind of products for consumers. In hindsight, it was a blessing in disguise."

While the inadvertent lull from the pandemic has given Pang time to improvise and fine-tune his strategies, he is not taking his foot off the pedal; the F&B whiz kid is already developing a massive growth plan for emart24. "We are definitely on an expansion mode and the team is very busy working on trying to open at least two stores every month as we have been given the target to deliver 300 outlets in five years. But while it is all about opening as many as we can, as fast as we can, I think we have to also take it one step at a time," he says.

"This project alone, it’s not a small project. This is something that requires a lot of focus and dedication over the next 10 to 20 years. For us, we can’t possibly be thinking about what’s next, for us it’s all about how to prove to our partners that we are a reliable and capable operator of emart24. Us and our partner, private equity investors Karrin Associates. We are very fortunate to have them on board and fortunate to have them believe in our vision in bringing emart24 to Malaysia. So together, we are working very hard to see how we can expand and grow emart24 beyond just Klang Valley. We are really excited about our concept and believe that it's something that can work," Pang explains.

Tatler Asia's Asia’s Most Influential is the definitive list of people shaping Asia. Asia’s Most Influential brings together the region’s most innovative changemakers, industry titans and powerful individuals who are shaping the region through positive impact. View the full list here.

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