Hani Abu Asfar knows a little something about cultural adaptability. After all, not many people can lay claim to starting a company from scratch in a foreign land and building it into a multi-million venture before its fourth birthday. In this issue, Top 10 of Asia speaks withthe energetic and intelligent Jordanian, who is the CEO of Asfar Holding (Arab Supplier Fabrication and Retail Sdn Bhd),about his love for Malaysia, the palm oil industry and the Bedouin lifestyle.
Hani Abu Asfar cuts an imposing figure with his tall and regal stature and decisive mannerism. A natural leader, he has a warm and friendly side to him as well, which adds to his versatility. He welcomes us in his opulently decorated office located at his manufacturing site and insists that we sip shot glasses of the aromatic “sada”, the black cardamom-flavoured Jordanian coffee. “In my country, we drink coffee like the Chinese drink tea,” says the gracious host.
He briefly visited Malaysia for the first time in 2006. So impressed was he with the wealth of opportunities and development in the country that he returned to Malaysia two years later, and has been residing here ever since. “Malaysia is a second home to me, my wife and my two-year-old daughter,” he says. “It’s the land of great opportunities in various industries. Malaysian products are very well-respected throughout the world and in Jordan they are priced higher than most products imported from other countries.”
In 2010, he decided to invest a small sum of money in the country and started a palm oil trading business in his house in the USJ area, a suburb just outside of the capital city, Kuala Lumpur. For the first few months, he did everything from planning the business to establishing good connections within the industry and sourcing for suppliers. After that, he moved to his first office located in Shah Alam, a neigbouring township, dealing mainly in the import-export side of the industry. Two years later, the company switched gears to become a full-fledged manufacturing business which necessitates its expansion to a manufacturing plant in Kapar’s Industrial Park, an industrial zone nearer to Port Klang on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia.
“Recently we acquired some shares in a refinery plant in Johor Bahru (a southern Peninsular state neighbouring Singapore) to expand our range of services.” Within a short span of time, Asfar Holding has evolved from a humble trading company to a leading manufacturer and exporter of a full-range of palm-related products, which also offers OEM services to local customers. The company may be young, but it is built on strong foundations. “I run my business based on the principles I learned from my father, who was a teacher. He taught me to honour my word and commitments, to be honest, straightforward and not hide facts. In the export market, trust is the most important commodity you can have. If there is no trust, you will have problems growing your business. As you can see, these principles really work!”
There are 11 brands represented by his company, one of which bears his name. Affectionately coined by the marketing staff after the dynamic CEO, the “Hani” vegetable cooking oil brand was introduced into the market just two years ago and became hugely popular in the African region. “Customers will come specifically to Malaysia looking for the brand and ask me, ‘Are you the manufacturer of Hani?’ and I will say, ‘No, I am Hani’,” he laughs.
He credits his success to his team, as well as the good opportunities and helpful industry players he deals with in Malaysia. “We also have a strategic product, palm oil, which is in high demand globally,” he adds. However, palm oil is notorious for its unpredictable fluctuating prices, which greatly affects the trading operations of Asfar Holding. “We could have a lucrative contract with a supplier, but once the price fluctuates adversely – which happens when we least expect it, we will suffer losses,” he reveals. With Hani’s prudent and responsive leadership, the company managed to navigate itself through the tumultuous waters, take control of the situation and emerged stronger than ever. “Thanks to our good relationship with our manufacturers in Malaysia, we could come to a mutually beneficial agreement that pulled us through those challenging times,” he says.
Though the industry is competitive, Hani is confident that the palm oil market is huge and there’s plenty of space for everyone. “Just don’t be greedy. Deal in sincere and straightforward terms, and don’t take unnecessary risks knowing how volatile the prices can get,” he cautions. “And don’t expect to get rich overnight. You will definitely see good results as the industry is huge but it will still take some time. You need to stay focused on your target in order to succeed.”
Wealth and success in this business may not come overnight but it sure did arrive at a phenomenal rate for Asfar Holding. “In 2012, our revenue was RM40 million and in 2013, it jumped to RM220 million when our manufacturing operations took off, making us one of the largest palm oil manufacturers in the nation,” says Hani, glowing with a sense of pride. His meteoric rise to become a successful entrepreneur mainly lies in his drive for success. “I love success. I don’t accept failure. It’s not a word in my dictionary,” he says earnestly. “Nothing is impossible. If you set a target, you will reach it no matter what situations you face, if you persist.”
Pleased with what his company has achieved, Hani is now venturing into new markets, such as South America, where no Malaysian palm oil exporters have gone to before. Seeding the ground in a region where soya bean oil is king is challenging, but Hani and his persistent team have managed to convince some of the strong importers in those countries to switch to palm oil. “Our efforts are starting to bear fruits. We recently managed to achieve some 10 to 15 containers, which is equivalent to 200 to 400 tonnes to just Panama alone.” He has also established offices in key locations within the Middle Eastern and African regions helmed by trusted and able marketing directors. And that is just a sneak peek at more exciting growth to come for Asfar Holding.
Hani plans to reside in Malaysia for the foreseeable future, but he is a Jordanian through and through; deeply patriotic and rooted to the Bedouin lifestyle of his forefathers. He visits Jordan at least twice a year, returning to his Bedouin roots by camping in his farm in the desert. For a man who is constantly busy from dawn to dusk, this is his favourite way to de-stress and rejuvenate. “The desert is a place where you are alone with yourself and your thoughts. Where no one will bother or disturb you. Where there is no phone reception and no internet,” he smiles. That’s the beauty of the Bedouin lifestyle, which he believes that everyone should experience it at least once in their lifetime to break free from the pressures of modern life. “When we return to our forefathers’ natural and simple way of living, we’ll feel really connected with them and be contented with our lives as they have been in theirs,” he says. “Rest assured, my investment in Malaysia is a lifelong one. But one day, I hope to replicate my Malaysian success story to my beloved country Jordan. I want to invest there and be a bridge between both countries.”