A Man with a Mission

loading Sundaram’s factory at Alma, Bukit Mertajam.

For SK Sundaram, the man behind Raviraj, the key to success is winning the hearts of employees and leading a balanced life.

SK Sundaram.

Cashflow. Customers. Staff.

These are the three critical factors an entrepreneur has to manage, according to SK Sundaram, CEO of Raviraj.

From its humble beginnings as a kacang putih stall in 1940 to a small retail outlet selling lentils and pulses in Lebuh Pasar in George Town in 1960, to its current retail arm in Lebuh Pantai, Raviraj has been transformed into a global presence employing a staff of 165 selling dairy products and spices. “We have 5,200 customers,” Sundaram says, “equally divided between our dairy and spices businesses. We export ghee to the Middle East, Maldives, Mauritius, Brunei, Thailand and Korea.”

The company produces its own brand of tea, Hi Top Tea, and Soyamate, a textured vegetable protein product, both available at hypermarkets and retail shops. Sundaram bought his first factory at Perai 25 years ago. Today, his factory spreads across five acres of land at Alma, Bukit Mertajam. Raviraj, incorporated in 1991, distributes products under its brand name, Enrico’s, a Malaysian Superbrand, and is one of two distributors for New Zealand’s Fonterra dairy milk products in Malaysia.

Making Tough Decisions

The hardest decision Sundaram made was five years ago, when he was in hospital undergoing six rounds of chemotherapy for his third-stage thymoma cancer. Lying in his hospital bed, looking up at the white ceiling for days on end, he reflected on his life and decided that he would sell off 10 of the 11 businesses he had started.

“How did I decide which to sell? Those businesses that needed my attention had to go. Raviraj was on auto-run so it stayed.” It was a tough decision. The businesses he sold included a retail business, an IT business, three manufacturing facilities and offices in three cities in India. “I laid low for two years,” Sundaram says. ”Then I returned with renewed energy; it was as if the cancer had done something positive in me.”

Sundaram’s vision is simple and clear: “I want my company to be well-accepted in consumers’ minds. Within five years, I want to be one of the biggest FMCG (Fast-Moving Consumer Goods) suppliers of milk tea and ghee, and the biggest spice supplier in Malaysia.”

Coming from a family of traders (his grandfather came from India to Malaya more than 100 years ago), Sundaram, 62, recalls his father’s advice given three decades ago: “If you don’t have the courage to make decisions and move forward, you won’t get anywhere.” For Sundaram, decisiveness is critical in building a successful business.

It took Sundaram 10 years to take his brand to the international level. “Developing a good brand is about building trust,” he says. “Malaysia has a lot of good core products related to rubber and palm oil. Penang is an amazing state. Our state government is proactive in business and dealing with the government is easy as they are professional and efficient.”

Sundaram was happy to locate his factory and HQ in Butterworth. He has applied for approval to develop 2.5 acres of the land he owns to build more cold room storage facilities for spices.

What more does he think the government can do to support local companies? “They can organise more trade missions for us to show off our branded products and help to promote us in foreign markets. The government can help us get more export markets and perhaps organise more international trade exhibitions.”

Sundaram’s retail store at Lebuh Pantai, just a stone’s throw across from the original shop in Little India.

Sundaram is a practical man. His advice to budding entrepreneurs is: “Understand the power of the margin. Anyone going into business: if you don’t do your calculations, you’ll be stuck.

“If you are doing a RM50,000 business, you will need a 20% margin to break even. That is, you need to make RM10,000. If you don’t hit this margin, you die.”

Strategy is important as well. “Say you want to travel from Penang to KL. You need to have the proper vehicle, e.g. a car in good order. Infrastructure: the road system. Time needed: how long will it take to drive there? Counter-check: use milestones to gauge your progress. Once you reach KL, you need to review your trip. Did you make it in good time? Is there a need to improve?” Strategy is about asking yourself: what do I want to achieve? How? What must I do? I have to think short term, middle term and long term.

Entrepreneurs should have courage, a sound financial background and some marketing skills. One challenge entrepreneurs face is that they “don’t know how to manage their cash flow.”

Giving Back, One Step at a Time

This year marks Raviraj’s 26th anniversary, and Sundaram has set himself an ambitious goal: to develop young entrepreneurs in the Indian community by sharing his business experience in one-day, eight-hour talks at 25 locations in Malaysia. He has already covered 13 locations in three months. Each sharing session comprises 100-150 participants and he reckons that he would have spoken to 4,000 young people by the end of the six-month programme.

As a result of his experience with cancer, Sundaram runs an NGO, Lif-On Well Through Cancer, to take care of people who undergo chemo and radiation therapy.1 “I advise them on what will happen during treatment, what to do, what not to do.” His centre has catered to 300 cancer patients.

With regard to his business, Sundaram is aiming to reach 90% of 50,000 retail outlets, including supermarkets in Malaysia, and to fully automate his production lines by 2020. While pushing for this growth, he is also mindful of his employees’ health, and believes that his duties as employer do not stop at financial compensation. “We care about their well-being.”

Sundaram says it simply: “I want to give them happiness. There is a limit to salary increments. I want to get their heart and soul in the business. I want to encourage them to have a personal commitment to our company goals and vision.” Perhaps it is no surprise that “many staff have stayed with me for more than 20 years.”

To help his staff balance work with relaxation, Sundaram, with the advice of the local department of agriculture, encouraged his staff to plant fruit and vegetable trees which they then had to take care of for four months. Each plant, located on the factory grounds, is tagged with the owner’s name. “The workers come in earlier to water their plants.”

To promote a balanced work culture at Raviraj, Sundaram initiated a programme called Well@Work, where staff attend yoga classes every Monday and aerobics sessions every Friday. Health checks such as blood pressure tests are conducted during these sessions.

At the entrance to his factory are two bowls with flowers and garden pebbles. “If the staff feel heavy-hearted, they put a pebble in the bowl. If they are happy, they leave flowers.” This is Sundaram’s way of gauging his staff morale. Predictably, the bowls tend to be filled with more stones on Mondays, and flowers on Fridays.

What has Sundaram learned on his journey? “To be successful, you must have focus and foresight, be patient, have a good team – and have very good bankers with you. I have always gone to bankers for support. Bank funding is the cheapest. To build a good relationship with banks, you must keep proper records, pay on time and have no return cheques.”

Having been the first Indian Maybank scholar in 1975 and having worked as a bank officer and manager, Sundaram has learnt to leverage his banking connections to build his business.

“For me, the measurement of success is going home every day, laying my head on the pillow, and sleeping soundly, instantly.”

1 www.cancer.lifonwell.org.

Elizabeth Su is a Mason Fellow from Harvard. She believes that one of the best ways to learn is to ask the right questions.



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