Mr. Lee Thiam Wah has been wheelchair-bound since eight months old, and had only six years of formal education. However, he is the founder and Managing Director of 99 Speedmart which consists a chain of 570 outlets (as of 29th June 2014) and rakes in RM2.1 billion in annual revenue.
Life has challenged Lee at every turn. At barely eight months old, he was diagnosed with polio and lost the use of his legs. Financial burden was just too much for his parents and six years of primary school was all they could afford for young Lee Thiam Wah. However, this had not deterred Lee and his disability has not affected his zest to success in life. He started out selling snacks by the roadside, eventually saving RM17,000 by age 23 to start a sundry shop, which kick-started his career in the retail industry. This humble beginning has allowed Lee to gain first-hand knowledge and insights into the sundry retail market through personal interactions with customers and suppliers.
In 1992, Lee sold the business off for RM38, 000 and opened a 99 mini-market in Klang Utama, representing the very first step Lee took to realize his vision of building an integrated chain of mini-marts. With sheer dedication and hard work, Lee expanded 99 mini-market to eight other outlets in Klang via the chain store format. Amidst the growing popularity of 99 mini-market, Lee rebranded the name of the store to 99 Speedmart in 2000. Two years effort of refining the 99 Speedmart business model yielded encouraging results from increasing customer traffic volume and new store openings. This breakthrough convinced Lee that a new super chain of 99 Speedmart mini markets was ready to take off.
99 Speedmart received its first Consumer Choice Award from the Ministry of Domestic Trade, Malaysia in 2006. This milestone award proved 99 Speedmart’s success in winning consumers’ hearts and minds. Under his leadership, 99 Speedmart had continuously been awarded Consumer Choice Award from 2006 to 2009 & 2012 and Kedai Harga Patut in the years 2010, 2012 and 2014. Currently 99 Speedmart operates more than 570 outlets in Malaysia and employs more than 6000 employees. With 4 Distribution Centres and 105 Trucks, they are able to meet the demand of rapidly expanding chain of 99 Speedmart outlets and managing delivery to 300 outlets daily.
Lee’s self belief guides him to achieve the best result. Even while facing the toughest challenges and crisis, he was always positive and sought to conduct business in the most ethical manner, creating trust and honesty among his outlets and his suppliers. Lee has never skipped his weekly outlets visit or daily company operation with his management team. In order to achieve the company’s mission, Lee is consumer-centric by supplying daily used products with reasonable pricing. It is this unceasing passion that enabled him to convert many business associates into good friends and willing to collaborate with 99 Speedmart. In recognition of his efforts in this area, Lee was awarded the Outstanding Entrepreneur in 2014 from The Chinese Chamber of Commerce & Industry Kuala Lumpur and Selangor (KLSCCCI).
With two decades of success behind him, Lee admits that Malaysia is a potential country to grow, with much room yet to be explored. As long as a strategic location with 2000 to 3000 neighborhood population is present, it will be suitable to open a 99 Speemart outlet. Currently, he does not rush to expand his business overseas. In addition, a new 99 Headquarter in Taman Berkeley, Klang will symbolize another milestone for Lee. It is the ultimate goal for Lee to expand 99 Speedmart to every corner of Malaysia before expanding to another foreign country.
Lee has proven that hard work and determination is the key to success in anything when one sets his or her mind towards it. Lee has made his own way to survive. He did not mull over the fact that he is wheelchair bound, nor can he speak English and was only equipped with primary school education. He is self-reliant and works harder than anyone else, and the knowledge he has gained builds up his self-esteem. Being in a wheelchair is not an obstacle in his life but he uses what he has to build something for himself, family and the community. 99 Speedmart is a lifelong career for Lee, and he has never thought of leaving his business. Although Lee operates more than 570 outlets currently, he continuously sources for investment opportunities to promote business growth. His motivational advice to his staffs and friends:” Strive for perfection (99 marks), but knowing there is always room for improvement.”