Ko Chuan Zhen is the co-founder and executive director of Plus Solar Systems Sdn Bhd (+SOLAR), a solar company which believes in powering sustainable growth by offering world-class renewable energy solutions.
1. Tell us about your typical day at work.
Usually a week before, I would have already planned out my schedule for the coming week. So, my schedule would be fixed with agendas beforehand, just like this interview. For me, I would be quite focused with communications – internal communications and external communications.
Internal communications consist of mainly discussions on internal strategies, from HR, marketing, operations etc. I would also spend some time to do “coffee sessions” with my colleagues. I will try to catch up with each of them, asking them how they’re doing, how they’re feeling, if there’s anything I can help them out with, or if there’s anything positive that they want to share. We have about 60 people now so I can still manage to do that quite well. I’m quite familiar with some of them and we don’t need to communicate as often, so I prefer to engage with the newcomers. It’s all about communication. And through communication, you get to listen, and you can also share what the company is doing, why we’re doing it and where we are heading. I think it’s important to get everyone aligned internally.
In terms of external communications, this is more about networking and building relationships for the business. I like to participate in the sales meetings even though we have a business team, as this is actually part of my interest – I like mixing with different people.
There’s no fixed timing for working hours in our company. Sometimes, I will be here by 7am, sometimes 9am, it depends on the situation. I find that morning time is the best time to work as it’s less busy. In the evenings, most of the time I would rather spend it with my family. In our company, there is flexi-hour. We leave it up to the employees to decide when to come in and when to leave. Some of them who are parents may come in a little late, but stay a little longer at work. Or there are some who leave at 5pm sharp. Ultimately, it depends on the results they produce. I find that it helps, if they have a sense of control in the work they’re doing, they won’t feel forced to go to work.
2. You’ve been in the industry for about 10 years now. What was a milestone that was significant to you? Or if there was more than one, do share with us.
In the first 4 years, I was attached to different companies, Sharp Solar and Phoenix Solar – and without these important experiences, Plus Solar would not have become a reality. I learned a lot in those companies and traveled to so many countries, more than 11 countries and over 20 cities. We developed solar-powered plants in South Africa, to New Zealand, and even Tahiti.
During this time, the market for solar energy in Malaysia was quite bleak. But I was determined to stay in this industry and I knew that I had to wait for the right moment. And that moment was when the Malaysian government introduced Feed-in Tariff (FiT). That’s when I started my own business with Leaf Energy, then Plus Solar. It was challenging during the initial stage for myself and my co-founders (Ryan Oh & Poh Tyng Huei). Although I had some experience in the industry, I was only 27. When we approached our potential clients, they had doubts about our young company, but we proved with our positive track record that we had the capabilities and experience. And our company began to grow. We’re proud to say that some of the clients whom we engaged with in the early stage of our careers are still with us today.
Another significant milestone which I think will be important to us in the future, is the realignment of the company foundation and culture which we are currently doing.
3. As a startup company, what do you look for in a team member? What are the top 5 attributes that are important to you?
I can tie this back to our company values, which is being driven by Purpose, Passion and Persistence. We look for team members who know why they are here and understand their purpose. If you don’t know your purpose, then it’s best to figure that out before you join a company. It’s easier to align people when their purpose is the same as the company’s.
I think there's a cycle – sometimes you may not have passion, but you know your purpose and you are persistent in making it work. When you achieve your goal, then perhaps you will find your passion in the end. Or perhaps when you’re persistent in doing something, you develop a passion for it, and finally discover your purpose.
Secondly, teamwork is very important. We hire people who can gel with others, and we really look into the culture fit. We care a lot about our people, and we feel that there are times you need to be a leader, but you must also be able to follow.
Thirdly, we look at those who embrace failure, evolve and excel. We appreciate those who have experienced failure in their lives before and were able to recover and progress from it. We won’t hire someone who can’t face failure, because here in the renewable energy industry, it’s a very new industry and we will always face failures and challenges. So, it’s important to bounce back and evolve from those failures.
Fourthly, we value integrity, because we are a very transparent and open company. We don’t want to create or force rules to control people, instead we want them to behave in a manner that is ethical on their own. We don’t want to create a ‘factory’ mindset.
Lastly, we look for that hunger in our team members. Perhaps a hunger to impact the society or hunger for knowledge. Myself and the co-founders, we have the hunger to change the way people use energy.
4. Being a young business owner, what challenges did you face when you started the business at the age of 27? Was age an obstacle for you?
I did face that challenge because I was young, and the company had no background, but that was it. You might be lacking in terms of resources and knowledge but that can be overcome. It can also be an advantage to start a business at a young age, because you can accept more risk, be more energetic, and you can work nonstop with little to no rest (although now I can’t really do that anymore!). I don’t think age is an obstacle, because I believe that as long as you always do the right thing, do it professionally, have a deep knowledge in what you’re doing, and not try to lie to people, you will be successful.
5.How has your professional network been important in getting you where you are today? Also, other than the workplace, where should one start building their professional network?
Professional network is important. Some say it’s not about technology know-how. It’s know-who. I was a sales manager previously, so that’s where I started building my network. Networking is important because it’s all about the customer or potential customer. In fact you may end up becoming friends because of the relationship that you have built. From there, more and more people will be introduced through your network. You can build the trust and relationship with people through these physical connections, not just via Whatsapp or online media. That’s also important but you need to have the basics of physical networking. You need time to do this, and sincerity is also important.
You can also build your network through networking sessions. For example, I attended a conference chaired by the Energy ministry recently, where they spoke about the future of energy in Malaysia and I met with a couple of important players in the industry. So I think online and offline networking are both quite important.
6. In your experience, what is the awareness level on Renewable Energy in Asia?
Now it’s much better compared to when I first started out in the industry. 10 year ago, whenever I mentioned solar energy, people would associate it with electronic-compliance. And now, people can tell the difference between solar photovoltaic (generate electricity through light) and solar thermal (generate hot water through heat). And they’re also aware about the Feed-in Tariff in which you can sell solar energy to TNB. In Asia, Thailand is well ahead of Malaysia in solar energy development. Philippines is growing very rapidly in the past few years. If you compare Malaysia with US and Europe, generally the awareness level is at 60% in Malaysia and in US or European market is at 70% - so the gap is not too far, it will just take time.
7. You started from just 3 (you and the co-founders), and now you have almost 60 employees. Are there any expansion plans for your company?
Yes, we definitely have plans for expansion. We plan to set up more offices in Malaysia. Right now we have offices in Penang and KL, and we’ve also set up a regional office in Singapore. Our projects right now can be found all over Malaysia, excluding Sarawak. We are looking to have projects in Vietnam, Thailand, and Philippines.
8. What are the challenges you’ve faced in this industry? How did you overcome them?
We are running a sustainable business in a not quite sustainable way because of policy limitations. We are heavily reliant on policies and government incentives. Without policies in place, the business cannot run. But things are better now. Without the FiT, licensing or quota, we wouldn’t be able to run solar energy business because the price was high compared with TNB price. But now the price of solar energy has dropped the past few years, about 98% lower.
Now we changed to a new policy called Net Energy Metering (NEM) or Self-Consumption. With this in place, you don’t really need to apply for subsidy from the government but this is more for tax benefits. To overcome these challenges, we work closely with the government and policy-makers in designing such policies to make this industry more sustainable.
9. Where do you see the industry in the next 10-20 years?
I think there will be more self-sufficient energy sources. You may be able to build your own microgrid. From centralized power source, we may be going into decentralized power source. For centralized power source, the disadvantage is the emission energy loss is at 30%, which is quite substantial and inefficient. If you go for decentralized power source, for example you have your own micro grid and build your own solar energy source on your roof top, the way you conserve energy will be much more efficient. The empowerment of people to generate their own energy resources will be much higher than before. Renewable energy, clean energy will be smarter thanks to digital technology. Digitization will help with monitoring, controlling, and analysis of clean energy because then you’re able to use it in a more efficient way.
10. In this day and age, new technologies are emerging faster than ever before. How is technology reshaping the work that you do?
The changes in the energy industry is not that fast, compared to the retail industry which has evolved into online businesses. Energy industry is more challenging because there are infrastructure limitations. Large, established oil & gas businesses that have been in the industry for a while may have more resources and the infrastructure is owned by government. You can’t easily disrupt the infrastructure. It all takes time and persistence. Though now I think the progress will accelerate because the digital technology is much better and the grid is getting smarter.
11. There have been recent studies and articles that say the youths, especially millennials, are not so keen to join the Oil & Gas sector. However, they might be keener on Renewable Energy, as they are becoming more environmentally conscious. Do you see a boom in Renewable Energy job market especially in Malaysia?
Yes, there is a gradual boom in the job market. It used to be difficult to search for renewable energy companies. But now there is a bigger interest and demand in the industry. For example, we have someone who studied chemical engineering but had little interest in oil and gas industry. So she decided to explore and try working in a renewable energy company, and that’s how she ended up with us. I believe that youngsters nowadays prefer doing something more meaningful in their careers, rather than just focusing on the income aspect. Money is important, but they are also looking for ways to create a positive impact or contribute to the society, and they enjoy being involved in corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs. We do encourage this in our company and as a matter of fact, one of our upcoming project involves a village where we will help power up some of the houses with solar energy and we’re quite excited about this.
12. We all know what they say about all work and no play. What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I really do enjoy my work, so I don’t quite draw the line between work and play. I found this quote that goes: “If you can find a job that you love, you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” This quote changed my perspective. But in my free time, I like to read. I read about the business and the future trends. I also like to attend different events, mix with people from different industries such as IT, FMCG, etc. I enjoy finding out about different business perspectives. I like travelling. But sometimes when I’m travelling I also get ideas for the business! And I enjoy spending time with friends and watching movies.
13. What is the one piece of advice you wish you knew when you started that you want the next generation of Energy, Oil & Gas professionals to know?
Always focus on 3 things. Know what is your passion, know what it is you like to do. Secondly, focus on your strength. You may like to sing, but it doesn’t mean you can sing well. Put more time to focus on your strength so you can be outstanding. If your strength is what you like to do, that’s good. Third, look at the market demand. If there’s a demand for it, you’re able to solve a problem. These 3 things are your foundation. Next, you need to choose which industry you’d like to venture further. And you should also understand the entire supply chain of that field so you can decide where you want to be.
You should also ask these questions, if you’re an engineer. Do you want to be involved in business, become a Project engineer, or a Technical engineer? If you have no idea, I would recommend for you to start as a Technical engineer. If you have solid technical knowledge, you can move anywhere else. Your knowledge would be more valuable.
For non-engineers, if you want to join the energy industry, you still need to know everything about the industry.
For me, I knew that I wanted to be a Business type of engineer. But I started as a technical engineer and was very hands on, and I wanted to learn as much as I could to progress further as a business person.
It all starts with your mind. Know ultimately where you want to go. You must always start with the end in mind. From there you can plan your career path.
Source from : NRG Edge
Last Updated: November 22, 2017