From things cemetery to tourist attraction, Founder and Group Managing Director of Nirvana Asia Ltd, Tan Sri Kong Hon Kong has completely transformed the company beyond the imagination of many. At a time when it was a taboo to promote funeral services and when even the National Land Code had no provisions for private cemeteries, Nirvana scored a first when it became the pioneer and now the largest, death care service provider in Asia. In this issue of the Top 10 of Asia, the affable and visionary Kong tells the story of how he began the business “without a single cent” and the odds that were stacked against him, including a listing on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
Once a bankrupt in his early 30’s, Nirvana Asia Ltd Founder and Group Managing Director, Tan Sri Kong Hon Kong is unashamed about his passion for challenging the ‘impossible’.
He has proven his mettle when he built the world-class Nirvana Asia Ltd from ground zero to being the largest of its kind in Asia and listed the company successfully on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in December 2014. Nirvana was the first Malaysian company to have a singular listing on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
Even while Kong was toying with the idea of starting Nirvana, the odds were already stacked against him but he decided to challenge the ‘impossible’.
“I was inspired by the idea of setting up Nirvana in 1985 when my father-in-law passed away. At that time, there were no private cemeteries in Malaysia. I was tasked to choose the burial plot for him. When I went to the local cemetery managed by the associations, I found myself stepping on tombs and apologising repeatedly to the deceased.
“There were no proper walkways or landscaping. It was really eerie. It hit me that others too would not feel like going to the cemetery anymore under such conditions,” says Kong.
From then on, Kong felt that he needed to do something about the lacklustre way cemeteries were managed. Filial piety is a core value fiercely embraced by the Chinese community, and Kong was determined to ensure that it will be upheld.
“We can’t expect filial piety from descendants of the deceased when the cemetery environment is so depressing and unwelcoming. Surely, they would not be encouraged to honour their departed by visiting graves in such conditions. I was determined to do something about this so that the next generation will be attracted to carry out this aspect of filial piety,” Kong adds.
After a few months of feasibility studies abroad, Kong returned to Malaysia and began to look for land. He approached a geomancy master who found him a piece of land with good feng shui, or a good “dragon-head land”.
That land was located in Semenyih in the state of Selangor but the challenges for Kong were just beginning to manifest. The land owner simply refused to sell the land at Kong’s price. However, Kong was persistent and he continued wooing the land owner week after week. After much perseverance, Kong finally convinced the land owner to partner him in doing the business.
Kong’s next problem came in the form of the National Land Code. At that time, there were only three categories of land use – residential, agriculture and industrial. He recalls vividly how he broke down in tears when he got his rejection letter from the local authority. The reason given was that there was no recognition for private cemeteries under the National Land Code.
“However, a song I heard over the radio encouraged me to move on. The song reminded me that my future is not just a dream. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I listened to it. Then I told myself that I will start over again tomorrow,” shares Kong.
Kong, with the help of others, eventually managed to convince the Menteri Besar (Chief Minister) to give the green light for his business endeavour.
“After that I was faced with the problem of not having the capital to develop my bereavement care service business,” adds Kong. The people around him, including his family and friends, thought he was out of his mind and that it was a bad idea.
However, Kong went ahead with sheer passion, patience and persistence for the next 25 years until he made Nirvana the largest integrated death care service provider in Asia – and he has shown no sign of slowing down with Nirvana now a world-class brand.
One of the challenges that Kong faced in the beginning was the need for him and his company to be well versed with the intricacies of the local cultures. “It is important for us to comply with the specific cultural rituals required by the bereaved for the funeral service. Elderly relatives of the bereaved have often made it difficult for us to perform proper rituals because they have their own opinion on how things should be done. But today, we don’t face this problem anymore because of our position as the market leader,” Kong says.
Unique designs, creations and services have played a pivotal role in the company’s business development. For instance, Nirvana had spent some RM20 million in the setting up of its Chinese calligraphy Stone Gallery at the Nirvana Memorial Park in Semenyih. Kong believes that such an investment, though lavish, is absolutely necessary because of evolving consumer expectations.
“We realised that when people are buying burial plots, it is not just because of the plot. They are buying the environment and services that we provide. This is what I call the ‘hardware’ aspect of my business.
“As for the ‘software’ part, our employees have been well trained to treat the deceased with great respect just like they would their own family members. This has touched the hearts of the bereaved because they can take comfort in that their departed member is being ‘looked after’ with care and thoughtfulness. Our customers do remember us long after using our services,” says Kong. He considers this, and not the millions he has earned, his greatest achievement.
“I take pride in having successfully promoted this aspect of filial piety among the people, bringing them together in a meaningful way. Today, unlike in the past, you can find many families offering prayers to their departed on a regular basis – not just during the Ching Ming Festival (All Souls Day),” shares Kong.
Kong has even turned Nirvana Memorial Park in Semenyih into a tourist attraction where visitors to the Park are mesmerised by its tranquil beauty. He has managed to transform the public’s negative perception of the cemetery.
Nirvana’s listing on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange was a high point for Kong. “We managed to raise RM1bil without much difficulty. That would not be so easy in Malaysia. Our Hong Kong platform is definitely an advantage for us,” Kong says of Nirvana Asia Ltd which has 13 branches all over Asia. Its branch in China is currently under development.
In 2012, Nirvana was named ‘Asia Outstanding Brand in Funeral Service Industry’ and ‘Asia Outstanding Award in Multi National Expansion’ at the Asia Funeral Expo (AFE) Awards Ceremony. More recently, Nirvana was ranked No. 1 in “Best Small-Cap Company in Hong Kong” in Asia’s Best Managed Companies Poll 2015 by FinanceAsia.
All these achievements did not stop Kong from spending quality time with his family of two sons and three daughters.
“I may be very busy but I will still jog with my sons for about 45 minutes in the mornings. We have breakfast together as a family every morning and dinner on a weekly basis. Beyond that, we also travel overseas together. We’re a very happy family,” says Kong. His daughter, Jo Jo, who was present at the interview session says with a laugh, “We are very understanding too!”
As for the road ahead, Kong intends to improve on the “software” of the business even though Nirvana is already the largest of its kind in Asia. Kong believes that the biggest competitor is one’s self.
Having an undying passion to challenge the ‘impossible’ himself, Kong now fans that kind of fire in those who aspire to go into business.
“You must have a strong passion for the business. The secret to my success is my passion. I was at the memorial park site every week during the early years of the business. Even when my wife was pregnant, she would be there too. I really love my business. If you don’t have the passion to start with, then I’m 100% sure that your business won’t be successful!” says Kong.
His undying passion for the bereavement care business at the time when it was unheard of in Malaysia, has propelled Kong to dizzying heights.
“Nobody was doing it in Malaysia then doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible. I can’t help feeling that I have triumphed over many ‘impossibilities’. Nirvana has become a tourist attraction with even a spa in it. Can’t be listed in Hong Kong? I did it. No pre-planning for your funeral because it is a taboo? I have thousands of members doing it now,” Kong says.
For those who think his kind of success is only reserved for the elite, Kong insists that he is just an ordinary person, hailing from a background of rubber tappers.
“Don’t ever look down on yourself because anything is possible. In the past, I have looked up to a few people as my role models, but never have I imagined that one day I would actually be bigger than them. Your fighting spirit has to be there every day,” says Kong with an unmistakeable conviction in his voice.