99 Speedmart Founder Lee Thiam Wah & The Business’ History
Drive through most neighborhoods and you’ll likely come across a 99 Speedmart around the corner. The convenience store brand is best known for its affordable prices with a wide range of options to meet your grocery needs.
Whether this is the best mini-market around is subjective, but for many it’s a reliable staple store that neighborhoods can count on, so it’s no surprise that it has found enough popularity to open more. than 1,500 stores in Malaysia. In 2020, it was reported that the brand had also opened 3 outlets on the roadway.
The man behind its success is Lee Thiam Wah, who founded the convenience store 32 years ago.
No legs, no problem
Lee was born with polio – a disease of his central nervous system – and at 8 months he was already bound to a wheelchair for life.
With 10 siblings in a low-income household, her construction worker father and peddler mother worked around the clock to feed them, giving them time to care for Lee.
Due to his disability, he had to drop out of school after his primary education, as secondary schools were too far from his home for him to travel. “Struck by this condition, I envied my siblings watching them lead normal lives. They went to school, played sports and spent time with friends when I couldn’t do anything but sit, ”he revealed to The Star in 2017.
Lee got closer to his grandmother who would feed him and encourage the then teenager to find his own way. She told Lee that he was only physically disabled, not mentally; he was smart, and she said he could still use his hands to do a lot more.
His words struck Lee, who realized that no one in his family had ever pursued anything in business. This inspired him to earn money selling snacks on his porch.
Saving what he earned from these sales, he opened his first miscellaneous store called Pasar Raya Hiap Hoe in 1987 at age 23, with a capital of RM17,000. This was the start of his retail training where he learned what customers would buy and connect with suppliers to find out more about their prices.
All of this would later come in handy when running his mini-market empire.
If it’s not 100, then 99
5 years later, Lee sold his miscellaneous store ($ 88,000 according to Forbes, RM 38,000 according to Enterprise Asia, RM 30,000 according to The Edge) and opened a mini-market called Pasar Mini 99 in Klang Utama. He wanted to take on the challenge of running a larger business and therefore chose to build a chain of mini markets.
“If you don’t have a scale, you can’t compete with Chinese medicine rooms on price, and you can’t compete with hypermarkets in terms of range,” he said. In 1998 it would grow to have 8 more outlets around Klang, and in 2000 the entrepreneur renamed the store to what we now know as 99 Speedmart.
The name is also symbolic for Lee: “We chose number 99 because it implies that even though we are not perfect, we always aim to offer our customers the best services and products that we have at a competitive price,” said he told The Star.
In true Asian fashion, too, the near-perfect score of 99 also reminds Lee that there is always room for improvement.
99 Speedmart keeps its prices low by selling products in smaller sizes. With the experience of running his diverse store, Lee knew exactly which fast-moving products had high turnover rates and would supply them.
At the very beginning of the brand, the profit margins of some products were sacrificed to sell them at the lowest possible price. However, it helped build the brand’s reputation, with Lee tediously overseeing its operations. The businessman also had a good relationship with suppliers and avoided delaying payments, which the biggest grocers were supposed to be infamous for.
With Lee, sellers were able to cash in their payments within 30 minutes for a previous order when they dropped off a new stock of product at outlets. Suppliers have appreciated Lee’s strong commercial reputation.
Under his leadership, 99 Speedmart grew rapidly and had 100 stores in 2008. In 2011, they achieved a turnover of RM 1 billion with 300 stores to their credit. Based on its growth of 500 stores recorded in 2013 and 600 in 2014, we could say that 2 outlets would open each week.
In 2017, Lee celebrated his 1000th store in Shah Alam Section 13, Selangor. While the exact number of 99 Speedmart stores today is inconclusive, there are at least 1,500 in Malaysia and 3 opened in Singapore in 2019.
No sign of slowing down
Although it does not have an e-commerce site, 99 Speedmart was still one of the top choices for physical grocery shopping during the 2020 MCO. The budget grocer was booming, as 39% of Malaysian consumers (who responded to a Vase.ai survey) purchased their groceries at 99 Speedmart.
The other 40% and 21% would buy their groceries from mom-and-pop and Tesco stores respectively.
According to The Edge in 2014, Lee had no plans to go to hypermarkets or supermarkets. To stay competitive, he intends to stick to what he knows when developing his convenience stores.
- You can read more about the 99 Speedmart here.
- You can read more about other Malaysian startups here.
Featured Image Credit: Facebook / Wikipedia
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