May 18, 2024


It's the Technology

Farm Fresh CEO Loi Tuan Ee on company culture & leadership

Farm Fresh CEO Loi Tuan Ee on company culture & leadership

Sitting down at the restaurant in Farm Fresh at UPM, Charmaine Chow, the head of marketing at Farm Fresh that helped coordinate the meet-up, told me how lucky it was that I managed to get some of the CEO’s time.

I agreed. After all, the lunch has been a few months in the making. Surprising to none, Loi Tuan Ee is an incredibly busy man.

In fact, he had just returned from Singapore the day prior to our meeting, having been at the Steward Leadership Summit where Farm Fresh was recognised for its sustainability efforts.

Although laid back and soft-spoken, Loi does not lack conviction. From the moment I sat down, he immediately recounted the summit to me, talking about Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) and how some unethical businesses greenwash just to check off some boxes. 

He then talked about Elizabeth Holmes, recounting her story of fraud, lies, and broken leadership. 

ESG shouldn’t be ESG, he told me. Governance doesn’t cut it. Rather, the matter of leadership should be prioritised.

And instead of focusing on accountability, Loi much prefers the term “responsibility”. To Loi, accountability is more about auditing good deeds, while responsibility goes beyond that.  

As lunch is ordered—orecchiette, aglio olio, and sambal pizza, picked by Loi and Charmaine—they ask whether I have any questions.

Sambal pizza, straight out the oven

Of course, I do.

Addressing curious questions

In June 2022, Vulcan Post published an article on Farm Fresh. At the time, Loi had also just been listed on Forbes’ Malaysia’s 50 Richest 2022 list.

The article went somewhat viral, attracting plenty of kudos as well as less positive comments. There were discussions of race, with some expressing confusion about how they thought the brand was Malay-owned.

Remarks about how people thought Farm Fresh was part of the BMF or “Buy Muslim First” movement also entered the discussion.

These misconceptions likely stem from the popularity of Farm Fresh’s COO, Azmi Zainal, who has been endearingly referred to by Malay media as “boss susu”.  

Azmy Zainal is commonly referred to as the boss susu (milk boss) / Image Credit: Farm Fresh

Loi doesn’t seem to have a big issue with this, understanding that these comments come with the territory of growing bigger.

But still, he shared that it is “sad” when comments distort the situation or make it a racial issue.

He continued, “Azmi and I, our relationship goes back more than 20 years. Jacob [Mathan, the Group Senior Farm Manager] was a young Indian boy that came on board. We don’t look at colour, we don’t look at religion. It is about our relationship and how we bond. It’s very based on merit.”

Azmy, Loi, and Jacob from left to right / Image Credit: Buletin TV3

Some commenters had also accused Loi of using a “Malay icon” to capture the Malay shoppers, but it’s not like Farm Fresh has been actively hiding or downplaying Loi’s identity.

“He’s doing the segment of his job, and I’m doing my job,” Loi pointed out.

Rather, they’ve made media appearances together, alongside Jacob. TV3 had even used the term “3 Anak Bangsa” when referring to them. If anything, Farm Fresh seems to be pushing for the concept of unity and diversity.

Of course, that opens up another can of worms. People might think it’s for show, or a stretch for Farm Fresh to portray itself that way.

But Loi believes that somehow, Malaysians prefer it when the owner speaks directly to them.

“I think it resonates better,” Loi shared, saying that the response they got from other campaigns wasn’t as effective.  

In any case, he reiterated that such comments are inevitable, but he doesn’t pay much attention to them anymore.

Another category of comments we had received from a group of people who thought Farm Fresh was a foreign brand. Even Loi himself said that he gets that a lot.

Fresh milk sold at Farm Fresh at UPM

But does Farm Fresh intentionally do this to try and make its product seem imported?

“No leh,” Loi responded. “When I first started, we would clearly put down there [on the box], ‘Mawai Kota Tinggi’. We were very proud to be a Johor milk company.”

Of course, that was back when Farm Fresh only had one farm in Johor. Such a label would not be possible today, when Farm Fresh has locations all across Malaysia.

“After our IPO thing, we’re a lot more exposed,” Loi said. “But a lot of people are still thinking it’s a foreign brand.”

Catching up to the “Big Boys”

Farm Fresh had debuted in the main Bursa market in March this year, bringing Loi (and his siblings) to number 43 on 2022 Malaysia’s 50 Richest list at a net worth of US$380 million.

“Did the money really motivate me?” he mused. “I’ve already reached where I am now. Is money my driving force or not?”

Loi has admitted that he was financially well-off prior to starting Farm Fresh, so it wouldn’t be surprising for him to say no. But still, money talks, and many wish to have that voice.

He has mentioned that he used to work in the packaging industry and was making RM500,000 at one point / Image Credit: The Ethical Entrepreneur

“I can clearly tell you that it isn’t,” Loi emphasised. “I had more than enough already. But I’m still very driven in the sense that I want to do this, I want to do that.”

The CEO admitted that his wife occasionally chides him to slow down. But Loi enjoys doing business. He had enjoyed creating something in the startup days, and now, he enjoys giving people opportunities, especially ones that “do good” via Farm Fresh.

“If you do well by doing good, then it’s even better,” he told me a few times over the course of our lunch. 

Loi seems to hold a certain code of ethics about “doing good” and being responsible, believing that Farm Fresh’s values are what set it apart from competitors.

Beyond that, Loi also finds that the company’s emotional appeal is also what makes it stand out.

In a way, Farm Fresh has been positioned as a kind of underdog, compared to giants in the dairy industry such as Nestlé and Dutch Lady, to name a few.

“I think people like that kind of story,” he said, referring to himself, whose story of pivoting at the age of 42 is often featured, especially post-IPO.

Another result of the IPO is that competitors have become warier of the homegrown brand. Loi pointed out what happened upon the launch of Farm Fresh’s new product, Farm Fresh Grow UHT Formulated Milk, a milk for children aged 1 to 6.

This UHT Formulated Milk was launched in late October / Image Credit: Farm Fresh

Apparently, this had rustled some feathers in the industry.

“They felt that I was breaking rank with them,” Loi revealed, referring to other more established players with children’s dairy products. “What do you mean I break rank with you all?”

After spending time in the industry, Loi had begun to realise that some of the products weren’t as healthy as marketed, particularly ones for children.

This is a topic he’s discussed in the past, notably on The Ethical Entrepreneur.

Simultaneously, he began to realise that the dairy industry has been tightly guarded. Yet, he felt like Malaysian parents deserved to know better.

“A lot of parents don’t understand the words, all the funny funny names,” he said about milk’s ingredient lists. “It’s all just sugar but they call it carbohydrate, right?”

There’s a reminder on the importance of breast milk when you visit Farm Fresh Grow’s webpage

Admittedly, the “funny funny names” don’t really mean anything to me, so I suppose he is right.

Over the years, Loi believes that some of the bigger brands have had difficulty in keeping their brand promise.

“They started with good intentions years ago, but kept on changing, perhaps due to cost pressure or because they wanted to maximise profit,” he said. “When you want to maximise profit, what do you do? You replace the ingredients. And this is where the problem comes in.”

Hearing all of this, I wondered if the Loi Tuan Ee years ago would even understand all those “funny funny names” that the present-day Loi had just spoken of.

Loi laughed. “Never,” he said. “Sometimes I wonder, am I talking like a nutritionist?”

It brings a round of laughter to the table. But as the CEO of a dairy company, talking like a nutritionist is definitely not a bad thing at all.

Leaving a legacy

Mid-conversation, we were joined by a few other Farm Fresh staffers, including The Acre’s restaurant manager and JomCha’s managing director.

JomCha is a brand by Farm Fresh selling fresh milk and yoghurt-based beverages

Their rapport with the CEO felt natural. Wondering what kind of leader Loi is, I asked them about whether he’s easy to work with.

They laughed and said yes, but jokingly told me to ask them again after the CEO has left (I didn’t).

Loi himself shared that he believes he’s good to work with “kalau tak naik angin” (if he’s not mad).

He portrays himself as a rather coolheaded leader, though, saying that he can deal with mistakes, but repeated ones may make him frustrated. Yet, he draws the line when it comes to big-picture issues such as integrity and, what seems to be his favourite word, responsibility.

For instance, if an employee is caught abusing his “ladies” (the cows), they would be immediately terminated.

To Loi, one of the main things about being a leader is how you chart the direction of the company. This in turn becomes the DNA of the company, something that should never be compromised.

When discussing leadership, the topic of succession came up. It’s something Loi said he gets asked a lot, which is understandable considering that he’s on the verge of turning 60.

But children aren’t something that Loi brings up when talking about leadership. Rather, it’s culture.

Back in the day, Loi was able to memorise all the names and numbers of his 60 cows. But nowadays, with how large the public-listed company has grown, he finds himself not knowing all the names of his employees.

Today, the number of cows owned by Farm Fresh is more like 6,000 rather than 60

With how big the company has become, a good culture is the only way to reach all the employees. As such, Loi believes he must take extra care now to look at how the company values are cascading down.

The CEO shared that he wishes for everyone in the company, from admin staff to farmhands, to feel proud that they’re part of Farm Fresh. Moreover, he wants all of them to understand the values and mission of the company.

“I’m of the belief that this company has grown beyond me,” he shared. “The brands are very strong now. Regardless of who will succeed, the most important thing is holding the value close. You can’t depart from it.”

Over our lunch, the topic of keeping true to Farm Fresh’s core values and purpose was frequently discussed

To Loi, the purpose is all about serving Malaysians.

It’s generic, yes. Of course, every business would want to treat the population it’s serving nicely. But Loi seems to really mean it. He talked about the importance of not selling out or skimping on ingredients.

“It’ll catch up to you,” he said, almost like a warning to his successor, whoever that may be.

For now, though, Loi continues to be at the helm of Farm Fresh and doesn’t have any concrete plans of slowing down just yet.

Throughout our conversation, we discussed sustainability, race, culture, and leadership. All of these factors have undoubtedly created the Farm Fresh that Malaysians know and love today.

But at the end of the day, it all boils down to the fact that people simply like their product.

“We’re just selling fresh milk, for God’s sake,” Loi had exclaimed (in his own soft-spoken way) at one point.

And as long as they continue to deliver that, the CEO seems to think all will be well for Farm Fresh. 

  • Learn more about Farm Fresh here.
  • Read more articles we’ve written about Malaysian startups here.