Tales from Malaysia
Nick Liew CA’s career has been full of twists as he combines his passions for finance and tech. Now Head Commercial Venture Builder for Petronas, he reveals why Kuala Lumpur means working both smart and hard.
Originally from Sabah in Malaysia, Nick Liew CA came to the UK in 2009 to read accountancy at Lancaster University. Graduating in 2011, he began his ICAS qualification, working in audit for EY’s real estate department in London. “I was so junior – I remember spilling coffee over the partner’s laptop on my first job,” he groans. “He just picked it up, dried it off and carried on.”
But working in London did also provide him with invaluable experience and nurture the positive expectations that he has carried with him throughout his career. “One of my main drivers for working in London was that the UK currency is a lot bigger than Malaysia’s,” he says. “One pound earned in London buys you a lot more over here. But as it happens, I earned pounds and I spent too many pounds – which rather defeated the objective.
“The other driver though was to work in an international city and meet a globalised workforce. London gave me insight into a European way of business that built my confidence over time to work with anyone in the world. I can be in a room and know that I can talk to someone of a different background, history, culture and nationality because of what I learned in London.”
In 2014, after reaching Assistant Manager level, Liew decided to return to Malaysia and settle in the capital, Kuala Lumpur (KL). “A university friend told me he was starting a small business supplying Uber there,” he says. “It was a start-up, just launching in South-East Asia, and they needed someone to manage the finances, so I stepped in. But we actually ran the car-and-driver side for Uber for about three years, after which I joined the company in-house. That experience taught me a lot more about business as a whole, not just the finance function.”
Liew has always had a strong entrepreneurial streak. “It was exciting to be in that early start-up stage,” he says. “When I started, I’d no idea what I was doing. It was a very operations-based role, so I learned a lot of tech tools and different skillsets quickly. I rode the wave and just enjoyed it while it lasted.”
Guiding the way
Doing business in Malaysia has its complications, however. “In terms of working styles, the UK is a lot more straightforward – if you want to get a licence, for example, you can find out how to do that easily,” Liew says. “Whereas in Asia, it is a bit greyer. There is an official answer and there’s the ‘unofficial’ one. To do business here I’d definitely recommend having a local guide. If you’re a mid-size company, have a local guide. If you are a huge company… have a more influential local guide.”
After the business was acquired by a local rival, Uber exited South-East Asia in 2018, leaving Liew ready for a fresh challenge. Luckily, it was just around the corner. MyPay provides text messaging services for the Malaysian government, with large amounts of data flowing through, from announcements to driver’s licence renewal reminders. The company’s shareholders wanted a digital turnaround and asked Liew and his business partner, a tech expert, for their thoughts – their winning suggestion was to turn the process into an app.
“I was made the CEO with the responsibility to run that project, but also its existing legacy businesses as well. This involved profit and loss and all the financial management and reporting that comes with it, which was where my accounting skills came in handy. We built the app and it proved to be successful, and by the end of 2019 we had grown into a sufficient size and maturity that our shareholders decided to exit. When we had come into the company it was valued at RM3m [£550,000]; they sold it for RM18 million.”
View from the top
Riding high on that success, even the challenges of 2020 have not dampened his ambition and vision. At the beginning of the year, he took up a new role at Petronas, the state-owned energy giant ranked by Fortune as Malaysia’s largest company. “I’d seen start-ups and a medium-sized company under a corporate umbrella and how they worked – and I really wanted to see how ventures worked in a large company next,” he says.
Fortunately for Liew, Petronas was creating a venture arm and offered him a position in which he could combine start-up agility, corporate scale and deep talent pools to innovate solutions to some of the company’s most pressing areas of concern. “Oil and gas are in trouble over the next 20 years, so Petronas is looking at different avenues – and one of the key businesses is logistics,” he says. “It is looking at using its petrol stations as logistics hubs for e-commerce, which is booming, so we’ve spent much of this year rolling out digitalisation projects and launching apps around that.”
One of the biggest differences in Malaysia, he notes, is the work-life balance, especially in a corporate setting: “In that respect I definitely miss London. It is much more heads-down here, which is a bit of an Asian stereotype – but it is actually true. Work is intense and you are expected to be working until at least 7 or 8pm… simply because every other competitor is doing the same. Personally, I am not sure our productivity is any higher, but you get used to it. And because shops open and close later here you also tend not to realise you’re working longer hours after a while.”
For Liew, the past 12 months have been split between home and his office in the giant Petronas Towers, from 1998–2004 the world’s largest buildings, joining a legion of workers around the world who have been adapting to an unfamiliar flexible working style with all its unexpected pluses and minuses in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis.
“Initially, I found the work-life balance even harder to maintain because calls kept coming in at all times and, as I was at home, I didn’t have an excuse for not answering or for leaving meetings,” he says. “We’ve all had to figure out ways to deal with this though, as it has gone on.” Flexible working, he thinks, is something that will continue long after the pandemic and may have a long-term positive effect on KL’s working culture.
“My concern has been more around inequality though, to be honest,” he continues, “People in offices are pretty safe, with regular salaries, and they have been largely carrying on as normal. In fact, it’s been a good year for white collar workers because everyone has spent less. But there are a lot of middle-income workers in the service industries, restaurants and factories who are having a very hard time right now.”
Like all of us, he’s hoping the year ahead ushers in an easier time for everyone – while he personally remains focused on exploring the full suite of digital possibilities to add positive change to the business world: “My motivation is always to see things improve, especially with tech, because the impact can be really powerful when you automate something. You can see real change in a couple of months, unlike something like a construction project which can take years.”
“For me, joining companies which are slow to uptake with tech is something I really enjoy, because the improvement is usually huge. The other day I was speaking to some factory managers for a printing company who have been printing in the same way for decades. I was learning about their process, and asked them why they were still sending documents back and forth and not using Google Drive? They asked me what Google Drive was – I explained it to them, and this information literally changed their world.” Nick smiles. “I thought it was common knowledge.”
5 things to do in Kuala Lumpur (and surrounds)
The best view of KL is from the viewing gallery on the 86th floor, midway up the world’s tallest twin structures. From there you can spot the city’s many lively rooftop bars. Petronastwintowers.com.my
Village Park Restaurant
Nasi lemak is a national dish of rice with coconut milk and pandan leaf that transcends Malaysia’s 510 different ethnicities. This Petaling Jaya restaurant is my go-to place to eat it.
My old home state in the north of Borneo is just two-and-a-half hour’s flight from KL. It is home to Mount Kinabalu and some truly world-class diving, especially along Kota Kinabalu’s islands. sabahtourism.com
This traditional rice fermented drink is unpredictable – brews can be either light or as strong as wine. Try tuak-based cocktails or drink straight – the Attic bar in Chinatown offers both options. atticbarkl.com
One of the best places to tandem paraglide in all of Malaysia, Bukit Jugra is under an hour’s drive from KL, offering gentle thermals and wonderful views. paraglidinginmalaysia.com