Janet Lee, the intrepid lady who crossed gender roles during the peak of the 1980s, founded Jalex Interior Builders with her partner Alex Chan. From a measly RM5,000 as capital and no rich aunts or uncles to inherit from, she now stands at the top of a group of companies that is recognized as a leading firm in interior construction. Strong-willed and an adaptable character have given her access and some mastery of the male-dominated world of construction. Patiently dealing with rambunctious construction boys and three young ones of her own, she rushed to arm herself with the gritty ins and outs of construction and picked up Cantonese, the de-facto lingo of contractors, in order to get from one job to the next. She even appeared at dangerous job sites while 6 months pregnant! The effort paid off, and it paid off well, as within a few short years Jalex secured a prestigious company-changing project. The KLCC Twin Towers was a project that put Malaysia on the world map and Jalex in the spotlight.
But as things go up, so do they fall. And following in the footsteps of the infamous Skyscraper Index by Andrew Lawrence, Malaysia was soon caught in a death trap known as the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997. Struggling to get monies due to the company, even from the larger players in the market, Janet went through hell and back, giving no quarters when dealing with bankers in order to stay afloat and wait for the storm to recede.
Challenges abound and hard times did not stop the group from expanding, with partnerships to create a manufacturing base to solidly support the top-notch interior building project management service that Jalex provides. With a joinery/timber factory that covers the major works of most interior projects the group started off with its first additional member in 1989; its purpose being to ensure quality furniture and millworks on all its projects. Next was Revillon Metal in 1991, a move to strengthen the company’s presence in another major component in interior construction. Soon, Park Wah Furniture followed in 1993, to focus exclusively on chairs and sofas. And last but not least is Stone Empire in 1994, to round up the construction trinity of Wood, Metal and Stone.
Even now, after 28 years since the founding of the group, Executive Director Janet Lee still prefers to keep her hands dirty, keeping abreast of all projects in hand while delving deep into the chaos of rushed tenders and convoluted operations. A multi-faceted woman, she is often seen wearing her safety helmet, safety vest and safety boots in the morning and out of nowhere, power dressing in the office in the afternoon.
The company now employs over 150 office staff and another 250 factory men and women, while supporting an extensive list of sub-contractors and suppliers. No plans have been made to expand overseas, as the hands-on nature of the business requires personal attention to maintain the quality that Jalex is known for. As a mark of quality and a sign of continual improvement, Janet has also mandated LEAN thinking, quality oriented approach, ISO standards and monthly training sessions.
To understand the chemistry and characteristics that make a person as successful as Janet, we have to look into her past, the experiences that formed the building block of her character and the turning point of when she became an entrepreneur. Thus we take a glance back to 1981, when Janet graduated from the University of Malaya with a BA (Hons) in Economics. Like many others, University is the catalyst for bringing out your true potential, and for Janet it was the time she met her future husband, partner, confidant and father to her three children.
After university, Janet started her career in Tan Chong Motors in sales and promotions, moving on to head of marketing and promotions at Sungei Wang the de-facto shopping center of the 1980s and then being headhunted to be the General Manager to set up the Lot 10 shopping mall. The sales, managerial and interpersonal experience garnered during her employment years was further bolstered by an MBA degree that she achieved concurrently whilst working.
At that juncture Janet and Alex with his charm, confidence and his work experience created Jalex. This led to the company’s nomenclature which should not be a mystery by now, it is in fact a blended word, mixing both Janet and Alex, their names forming the name of the leading interior outfit group we all know today.
Whilst appearing to embody the stereotype of an Iron Lady, Janet is a people person and leads the group with a warm heart. There is a JOS (Joy on Saturday) meeting every month where staff stationed at project sites and the desk warriors at office can meet up, chat and get together over a free lunch. Kind and health oriented, Janet also endorses healthy living, giving a weekly badminton, hiking and yoga sessions at the office for free. This, coupled with an annual meet for team building and fun, makes for a very conducive and friction-free workplace. One such example is the Great Jalex-ian Ascent of Mount Kinabalu 2013 where 40 company sponsored members enjoyed the challenge of climbing a national treasure amongst camaraderie and good cheer.
“We would like our staff to be Happy, Healthy and Wealthy” – Janet Lee
The group practices a rather flat management architecture that improves communications. Janet herself has an open door policy. This is not to retard the efficiency of a proper chain of command. The emphasis on quality also has the group employing dedicated quality managers, and Jalex is also proud to be one of the first companies to hold the ISO9001:2015 standard.
Admittedly, all this success was not the product of just plain hard work and dedication. Janet has shown perseverance and discipline in making sure things happen, and happen correctly. What she does for the company is a sacrifice of self, taking up most of her waking hours and robbing her of the chance to indulge in her real passions of reading, travelling and spending time with her children. Fortunately, both she and her husband share the same interests in travelling, yoga, Pilates and reading; of which they both indulge in whenever their busy schedule permits. In fact, they have successfully ascended Everest Base Camp in 2011 and have also conquered numerous mountains in Morocco, Bhutan, Nepal and China.
The success that was paid for in blood has paved the way to an interesting future for the company. It currently faces a trying time of economic slowdowns, tenuous economy and global volatility. Many questions arise on what would the future be for Jalex? True to her style Janet answers these questions by focusing on the group’s core strengths and to make conservative decisions. She believes that in the brick and mortar business, getting rich quick is also a recipe for bankruptcy. She has not come all this way after 28 years to risk it all away, and thus she advises all budding entrepreneurs to “start small, don’t spend money you have not earned yet, and cash flow, cash flow, cash flow. Once that’s done, look at the cash flow again”.