Be individualistic, be a maverick

IN this week’s Success, The Insight Story column, SunBiz has a leisurely chat with Sim Choo Kheng (pix), the founder and CEO of Sim Leisure Group, which owns and operates the Escape brand of theme parks

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

Coming from an impoverished background, I have always had a burning desire and strong will to succeed and rise above my circumstances.

I’ve always been an inquisitive person since I was young. Because of my questioning nature, I often see and do things differently and take the path less travelled. Over time, this has taken me through lots of ups and down. The many failures have allowed be to rise up to be wiser, bolder and stronger as a leader.

You can’t be a leader by just having a certificate; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. To be a BMX champion, you don’t read the bike manual. You bring the bike out and ride like mad, and suffer lots of cuts, bruises and broken bones in the process and you’ll be on your way.

From a young age, I was inspired by my hardworking mother. She came from a tough background and yet succeeded in raising and providing comfort for nine children single-handedly. She was my hero and I want to be just be like her.

What traits do you look for in your talent or how do you decide who is right for a job?

The number one trait that I look for in my employees is attitude. For a senior employee, attitude and ability to think (which is rare to find these days), to be teachable, have a willingness to learn and desire to improve themselves.

Experience and knowledge are not as important. Bad experience is no value-add and knowledge today is as far away as Google. Anyone with a good attitude and ability to think will be successful in life.

I especially look out for senior executives from large corporations who have left because they couldn’t bear the bloated paper-pushing culture and office politics. These are people with self-respect and who speak their mind.

How do you think the industry you are in will evolve?

For many years the big boys in theme parks have dominated the industry and constrained innovation. The traditional theme park business model has been failing for some time and this has been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has created opportunities for more nimble and proactive players, such as myself.

Covid has reset the race – money has a new value and people now have different perspectives in life.

Now we are seeing a new beginning in theme park development and operations, where new players are emerging and disrupting the industry with innovative business and operating models by creating attractions that are more relevant and appealing to today’s generation.

The hardcore mechanical theme parks will be out of fashion soon, and parks that promote well-being and “techy” VR will be the new future. Like travelling, people want to do more for less so the experiences we offer have to be affordable and fun and designed for recreation to be repeated.

What advice can you offer those looking to start their career/own business?

First of all, you have to stop believing there is a shortcut in life to get rich. There simply isn’t one, or else no one will go to work and everyone will be gambling on cryptocurrency or stock markets.

Think of something you’re good at, passionate about and have natural talent. Follow your heart and not what your friends tell you; worse still what your parents tell you, because parents can be overly-protective wanting their kids to be safe.

If everyone endorses your business idea, don’t do it because it’s just an average idea but if no one approves your idea, you have two options: don’t do it because it’s a stupid idea or act on it because it’s brilliant; which even your nerdy friends can’t see.

Business is about having a competitive edge. Do something no one or few do, because it means you’ll have the headstart advantage. Forget about pulling strings, which is so common in Asia.

Using influence will not prepare you for the real competition in a free market economy. That’s why many businesses out there that were dependent on “sweetheart deals” are in trouble because cronyism is coming to an end in this age of “freedom of information”.

People are better informed and they will choose who they want to do business with.

We all know about the industrial revolution, are we in for a technological revolution? Your thoughts?

Technology is just a platform. What is much more powerful is the creative revolution and the application of technology which comes from creative thinking. This is sorely lacking in today’s society. We can see this with iPods and the iPhone. It may not have been be the most cutting-edge technology when it was launched, but it is more about the consumer experience and he creative design and thinking that has gone into the product. Having thousands of songs in a gadget or having a phone that works as browser, camera and music player was simply unheard of.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional life?

I never had mentors in my life and don’t believe in mentorship as I believe you should rise above those who mentor you rather than limiting yourself. It’s a bit like learning from teachers – as the saying goes those who can’t do, teach.

We need to be individualistic, non-conforming and mavericks in following our passion to build businesses that are innovative and successful.

Learning from your coach helps fine tune your skills but it’s the riding-like-mad that will make you the world BMX champion. Most of the greatest rock stars were self-taught – they didn’t graduate from music school. So be a maverick if you want to be the best.

What do you want to accomplish in the next five years?

In short, to achieve world domination of our industry. I have been 32 years in the industry and am impatient to see my dreams realised and am confident that my business will grow exponentially over the next five years and beyond.

Best piece of advice you ever received on your career.

Don’t believe everything you are told and there are many con men out there, particularly in Malaysia.

Most-admired business leader? Why?

In terms of business leaders, I admire the creativity and passion of Steve Jobs. However, I am inspired by the mind of comedian/thinker George Carlin – someone who has contrarian, thought-provoking views of life and society.

How do you stay abreast of issues affecting your industry?

I am always pre-empting and having foresight of where the industry is heading and future trends. I imagine, day dream and allow my imagination to run wild to get ideas.

I make it a point to be many steps (not one) ahead in every situation. I am never complacent nor do I rest on my laurels. Whilst I don’t forecast everything correctly, I only need a small number of things to come to pass to realise strong success in my business, and I learn from incorrect ideas. I try to set trends, not follow them. Most people are followers whether they realise it or not. Followers are either lazy or bankrupt of ideas.

If you could have an hour with any thought leader in the world, who would it be and why?

Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Al Maktoum, the Ruler of Dubai.

His transformation of a desert into the most successful cosmopolitan city and tourism icon in the world is mind-boggling. There aren’t any other leaders out there that are as visionary as he is. He treats Dubai as an entrepreneurial endeavour, like a big corporation except he’s far more efficient and relentlessly getting things done, fast without being hindered by bureaucratic procedures.

Perhaps we Malaysians can learn a thing or two from Dubai.

What has been the biggest challenge you have faced, and what did you learn from it?

Getting people to see what I see and understanding my vision and thinking. This has taught me that if everyone can see what I see, then I am no longer special. Instead, I focus on those people who get what I am trying to do and walk away from those who don’t. My lesson learnt – most people aren’t as bright as their report cards show.

What was the most outlandish business proposal you have ever heard of?

I have had so many crazy business proposals with many from the Middle East where money used to fall from the sky. However, the craziest would have to be a client that wanted me to design and build an underground theme park. I did the design, but it was never built.

How do you expect policies on climate change to impact businesses in the future?

No one can stop climate change as it is a cyclic planetary effect and we all need to adapt to climate change. Nonetheless climate change policies will affect business for good as it prompts more people to reconnect with nature and get back to the basics of life.

What man-made innovation confounds you? Why?

There are many but I want to single out the laughable one – nutritional supplements that have been created are questionable in terms of their efficacy. Many of these supposed benefits can be found for free in nature. For instance, you can get vitamin D by walking or sitting out in the sunshine unless you live in Siberia.

Bottled mineral water is the other one. As a kid, we never had bottled water. We were never told we had to drink six litres of water a day. We drank a lot less and had fewer toilet visits as a result. Despite this, we are perfectly normal and survived without the experts’ advice and so-called research, probably paid by vested interests.

Malaysia’s greatest brand.

Malaysia Truly Asia – the brand created by Tourism Malaysia at a time when I lived abroad and it really made me proud of my country. It puzzles me why this great brand is not being more widely used today.

What are the top three factors you would attribute your success to?

Hard work. Don’t accept things as they are. Ride it like mad – never give up.

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