Grab whiz Tan Hooi Ling happy to stay low-key
I WAS planning to use GrabCar to get to my lunch with Tan Hooi Ling, the co-founder of Grab.
But the night before, I heard how a private-hire car driver had to ask his passenger to guide him along the route. I didn’t want to risk being late, so I called for a cab instead.
Tan has chosen Bukit Merah View Market and Food Centre to meet. I settle at a table in the quietest corner I can find and message Grab’s PR manager to let her know where I’m sitting. They arrive, via Grab, of course.
Hooi Ling, 33, whose title is co-founder and chief operating officer, is tall and very slim.
She’s in a black T-shirt and jeans, both from Uniqlo, and white sneakers. She’s barefaced except for a lick of lipstick, and carries a haversack-styled bag.
She could pass off as a university student, except she is one-half of South-East Asia’s most exciting start-up, Grab. In 2012, she and fellow Malaysian Anthony Tan founded Grab in Kuala Lumpur.
It set out to make taking taxis in KL safer by signing up taxi drivers whom customers could trust.
Today, Grab operates in 65 cities in seven countries, and its business is anchored on two planks – transport and e-payments. It offers rides via private cars, taxi partners, shuttle buses, bikes and social carpooling, as well as delivery services and e-payment solutions.
While Grab has yet to turn in a profit, it has already attracted more than US$1bil in funding.
Its headquarters is in Singapore. Starting out with fewer than 10 people, it now has more than 2,000 employees. While Anthony – Grab’s other co-founder and its chief executive – has been the face of Grab, Hooi Ling (they are not related) has been media-shy.
“In general, I prefer to be behind the scenes,” she says.
“I’m introverted by nature, and also because I just enjoy getting work done and spending time out of the news.”
She has a friendly, pleasant demeanour and, while she is clearly very bright, seems determined to stay humble and grounded.
Her accent has British and American inflections because she spent years in both countries.
She uses “awesome” a lot, but also terms like “synergistic investments”, “scalability”, “true value” and “learning cycles”.
At one point, she asks for paper so she can draw out what Grab is about. She’s a visual, whiteboard sort of person, she says.
Her life started ordinarily enough. Her father is a civil engineer and mother a remisier. An older brother, now living in New Zealand, is a software programmer.
“We used to fight a lot but I love him like to – I don’t want to use the word death, but that’s how much I love him. A lot. I respect him a lot,” she says. She adds that if I were to print this, “he probably will take a picture and send it to me with some crazy emoticons”.
They lived in Petaling Jaya and she went to state schools. She liked sports like badminton and also played the piano and violin.
She “fernangled” her parents to let her study mechanical engineering at the University of Bath in Britain. She’d always liked logic, physics and maths and enjoyed seeing her father tear apart stuff to try and fix it. She took a year off during university to do an industrial placement at pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly’s manufacturing plant.
But her biggest takeaway was that business decisions are made at management level. She went back to finish her engineering degree in Bath but also “decided to change my career trajectory”.
“That’s when I said: ‘Hey, I need to step back.’ Mechanical engineering, despite what I initially thought and loved, was not going to be the future I wanted to spend all my time on. What I wanted to do was understand how businesses make decisions.”
Back in Malaysia, she joined management consultancy McKinsey & Company. She did well enough for them to sponsor her to Harvard Business School (HBS), and that was when her life really changed.
There were five Malaysians in the 2011 batch at HBS, which she says was “super unusual” as there are usually at most two. Among them was Anthony, whom she and the others knew as a scion of conglomerate Tan Chong Motor. Anthony is a grandson of the founder.
The first year, they met at the food gatherings Asian students had and got to know each other. She found him “very atypical” of a tycoon’s son.
“He’s actually way more hardworking than I was, super humble and just a nice person to be with.”
In the second year, they found themselves choosing the same two courses. One was Business at the Base of the Pyramid, which is about how business can play a significant role to improve the quality of life of the low-income, especially in developing countries. The other was Launching Technology Ventures.
They discovered they had the same world view. In the course of many discussions, they came up with a business idea to make taking taxis safer in KL.
They took this idea to a business plan contest held by HBS, which gave them access to external resources like advisers. They were runners-up. After graduation, they started Grab in KL. It was initially known as MyTeksi. They changed the name later to give it a more regional appeal.
She took six months’ leave from McKinsey to help launch it, then went back to San Francisco to serve out her bond, but kept in constant touch with the Grab team. After McKinsey, she worked at US tech company Salesforce and returned to join Grab full-time in April 2015.
She currently oversees people operations and technology while Anthony, 35, who is married with a son, handles the commercial aspects, but she says their portfolios are interchangeable.
“We disagree a lot and it’s important to disagree, but I don’t think we argue because we are aligned at the principles and ethical foundation.”
Do you have perhaps a brother-sisterly relationship? She says: “Ya, there’s a familial bond there.”
Hooi Leng, who is single, doesn’t own a car.
The last five years have been a wild ride. Grab took off quickly, got more funding, expanded its services and to more cities.
It fought for market share with Uber and tackled challenges like regulations in different countries amid questions about its long-term viability.
“We’re five years old but I feel as if we’ve evolved and changed as a company at least five times, if not 10 times,” she says.
She says the biggest learning experience over these five years has been how you need to continuously adapt.
“Scaling at a hyper-growth rate requires constant attention,” she adds. What had worked before does not necessarily work today.
Another is how ideas are a dime a dozen, but what really matters is putting them into operation. And to do this, you need to be practical.
She speaks with passion about how Grab wants to create “true value”. She relates how Grab has allowed people who have been retrenched to make a living, given housewives a source of income and taught people to become more tech-savvy.
“It’s not just a win for our drivers, it’s a win for our passengers, it’s a win for the partners, whether government or private, and as well as Grab. Because when you don’t do that, that’s when something will fall and something will break,” she says. — The Straits Times/Asia News Network