Straddling the old and new

This article first appeared in Wealth, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on July 26, 2021 - August 01, 2021.

"Money is a figure. There is no point in just keeping it. We have to be sure of our purpose and how we want to use the money for the good of ourselves and our fellow men who work for us." - Lim

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At 50 years old, Paul Lim falls between the baby boomers and the millenials. He is conservative in some areas and adventurous in others. He prefers to see himself as old wealth who is open to new wealth creators. 

“Old wealth, which is mainly defined as tangible assets, is the base to society. But we cannot ignore the potential and opportunities offered by new technologies and future trends.” he says.

Managing director and group CEO of Pestech International Bhd, Lim’s wealth comes from the electricity transmission business.

The conservative side of Lim prioritises relationships, trust and willingness to serve the interests of a nation, and that attitude is key. However, having studied in the US to obtain a Master in Engineering (Electrical) from Cornell University, an Ivy League institution, he is also a proponent of technology.

Lim has seen how electricity supply changes the lives of people in rural areas. And he believes that emerging technologies, such as renewable energy, will change the world in the same way. He has started building electric vehicle (EV) charging stations locally, setting aside a portion of his personal wealth to invest in such tech start-ups.

“Electricity is almost as basic and essential as food and water. People always come back wanting more. It is the same everywhere,” says Lim.

The critical challenge Pestech faced in 2000 — when Lim joined the company as general manager — was business expansion. The utility sector is one of the oldest in the country, monopolised by Tenaga Nasional Bhd.

A key decision made by Lim and his uncle Ah Hock, founder and executive chairman of Pestech, was to expand beyond local shores. A seemingly bold and aggressive move was deemed necessary to be successful in a decades-old industry.

Brunei, a neighbouring country with a population of about 400,000, was their first target. The country is smaller than Malaysia, but the duo’s main goal was to build a track record for further expansion.

So, Lim forged ahead and built a high voltage substation in Brunei in eight months, a short time frame that deterred many from taking on the job for fear of delay penalty and non-performance claim. It was a turning point for him, and Pestech went on to other markets.

“We have the track record in place. It puts us three to four years ahead of other local competitors who want to expand their businesses overseas,” says Lim.

“We have taken a long route in building up references. This is very important in the industry we are operating in.”

A quick pick-up in overseas expansion eventually led to the company’s initial public offering on Bursa Malaysia in 2012. In 2020, Pestech had a presence in 19 countries, including Iraq, Mali, Ghana and Tanzania.

As at July 8, the company’s shares were trading at 98 sen apiece, giving it a market capitalisation of about RM703 million. According to financial data and investment training service provider EquitiesTracker.com, Lim has about 20% equity interest in the company, which values his personal wealth at about RM140 million.

Lim’s motto is “You serve before you take”; attitude comes first and money later. The ability of a person to earn one’s trust is crucial, especially in the utility sector, where product differentiation is hard to come by.

The prudent side of Lim came from lessons learnt in 2003 and 2004, when Pestech was badly hit by high commodity prices and volatile foreign exchange rate. “We were a small outfit. I had been running the firm for only three years. No banks wanted to see me. We did not have a good hedging mechanism and ended up taking on too much risk without a fall-back plan,” he says.

“The company almost failed to survive. We took a substantial pay cut and reached out to creditors for help,” he recalls, adding that he learnt that market risks such as commodity prices and forex fluctuations could kill a business if one is not prudent.

However, Lim is quick to embrace technology, which is why he started building charging stations for EVs. “One day, we may have several hundred charging stations in the country when the EV trend takes off in a big way. With a mobile application, we can show people where to charge their EVs, and become the market leader in this area.”

He has also carved out a small portion of his wealth to invest in three start-ups, one of which farms black soldier flies for food management. Like crickets and sago grubs, the larvae of black soldier flies can be consumed by humans as a source of protein.

Two other start-ups Lim has invested in are involved in the quality food business and Internet of Things (IoT). The former aims to produce a new type of eggs that are of better quality while the latter is into the connectivity between various devices and equipment.

“Of course, these are businesses with a high burn rate. But I do not mind investing some of my money in these high-risk start-ups. I have gone through a similar phase in my entrepreneurship journey,” he says.

Do not fear and have an open mind, said his grandma

Born into a family of teachers, the first turning point in Lim’s life came when he was 17. He failed Bahasa Melayu in his Form Five examination and was not allowed to further his studies at a local university. Furthermore, his father was a teacher who taught the Malay language.

“My father was furious. My other siblings had done well in school. And without BM, it seemed like I could not survive in Malaysia,” he recalls.

The event forced him to think hard about what he wanted to do in life. He decided that his interest was in electrical engineering and the industry had a bright future.

With RM10,000 from his father, Lim studied hard and made his way to the US. He made sure he did well in exams to be entitled to a scholarship every year.

“Fear is a hindrance for many people in their pursuit of success. Fear of failure is one of them. It is often used to justify many actions or inactions. I constantly remind myself never to let fear influence my actions. There is risk in everything we do. We manage the risk instead of being fearful,” says Lim.

His late grandmother taught him the importance of learning and being open-minded. “I adored her a lot. Not only did she cook the best nasi lemak, but I also learnt a lot from her in her attitude towards life.”

Lim recalls seeing his grandmother sitting by herself and eating a small plate of red bird’s eye chilli. “I asked her why she was doing that and she said, ‘I am learning to eat spicy food so I can learn from our kampung neighbours how to cook and enjoy their food.’

“This is the attitude that everyone should have in life. It is about opening up to new things and constantly improving yourself. She always asked me how her food was and how she could improve it, even though it was perfect to me.”

Lim has gone from being a teenager in Kampung Atap, Melaka, to a businessman who has travelled the world. One of the things he has learnt is that horse meat is the “real meat” in Kyrgyzstan. And some countries that are deemed hostile and dangerous to many such as Papua New Guinea, can be the most generous and welcoming. He has learnt not to judge a book by its cover and how electricity supply can transform a nation.

As for money, it is only a series of numbers when it sits in a bank account. The meaning of money comes with how it is deployed. “Money is a figure. There is no point in just keeping it. We have to be sure of our purpose and how we want to use the money for the good of ourselves and our fellow men who work for us,” says Lim.