Newspapers are rife with bad news, disasters and tragedies. It can be pretty depressing to start the day with a dose of such unpalatable news. However, once in a while, you read something that is so positively inspiring that you can’t help but be thankful that the powers-that-be in the newspaper has chosen to frontpage the news instead of tucking it in an obscure corner of the daily. Those of you who have read last Saturday’s The Star would know what I’m talking about.
Klang’s king of mini markets, The Star, 1 July 2006
BY LOONG MENG YEE
KLANG: Running a grocery business with a RM200mil annual sales turnover, local boy Lee Thiam Wah is giving hypermarket giants a run for their money.
Lee, 42, the founder of the 99 Speedmart chain of stores is Klang’s undisputed “Mr Mini Mart” and runs his business empire from a wheelchair.
At eight months, he was struck with polio, rendering his legs unuseable. The disability had in no way affected Lee’s zest to succeed in life and business. Pointing to his wheelchair, he said: “This is nothing.”
“Life should not be lived bemoaning what you don’t have. Rather, it is about using what you have to build something for yourself, your family and the community,” added Lee, whose journey to success has been one of blood, sweat and tears.
Life has thrown challenges at Lee at every turn. He was born into a poor family and his hawker mother and contract labourer father fended for their 11 children as best as they could.
However, the financial burden was just too much. His parents cried when they told Lee he could not attend secondary school because the journey was too far and they just could not afford the transport fare.
“I was sad but undeterred. I borrowed textbooks from neighbours and read them at home. I also read the newspapers and magazines,” Lee recounted.
At 23, he opened his first grocery shop in Jalan Tepi Sungai here.
“I took to trading because there were not much employment opportunities for me. Let’s face it, a man in a wheelchair with a primary education is not exactly in high demand.”
In a few years, his shop became the best grocery store around – known for its good customer service, fair price and variety of goods.
Business was good but Lee wanted more challenge. He sold the shop to a relative and opened a mini-market in Klang Utama with RM300,000 seed money in 1992.
“I was not afraid, having been in business for five years. I knew I could do better and at that time, the big hypermarkets were not around yet,” said Lee, who now owns 44 convenience stores here and in the Klang Valley. While the business has given Lee a tremendous sense of achievement, it is his wife Ng Lee Tieng, 27, and their two children, aged four and six, who have brought him much joy and a sense of completeness.
“Lee Tieng is my source of strength. Her vivacity complements my more reserved nature.
“More importantly, my wheelchair is invisible in her eyes and those of my kids. Their love allows me to walk tall, run, sprint and race towards success.”
I am happy for the success of Mr. Lee. 99 Speedmart is known in Klang for its low prices and fast service. Though they only stock the essentials, no fancy products such as whipped cream, turkey or exquisite glassware are available here, you can rest assured that prices here are fair. What’s more, they now accept credit card payment for purchases of RM50 and above. Just last week, a friend was raving about how cheap their vegetables are. I don’t usually do my marketing at 99 as their vegetables are limited in variety but I remember buying a packet of fresh chillies at RM1.20 which would have cost me more than RM5 at the market.
Mr. Lee is truly a success story. I am awed by his attitude, he who views his disability as “nothing.” How often we let lesser challenges knock us senseless. But here is a man who has conquered adversity and turned his life around for the better. Way to go, Mr. Lee!