KUALA LUMPUR: Ko Chuan Zhen has harboured a passion for solar energy since his university days, as he believes clean renewable energy is the best way forward for mankind. His career decision firmed up further when he came across a magazine on green investment trends during his student exchange days in Taiwan.
After graduating, he quickly found work as a solar systems engineer, but after four years working with a Japanese company and then a German one, he wanted to be more than just a worker cog in the machine that pushes the solar industry forward. He wanted to have a place in the driver seat too.
More so after Malaysia finally warmed up to solar energy and passed the Renewable Energy Act — which paved the way for the creation of the feed-in tariff policy — and the Sustainable Energy Development Authority Act, both in 2011, to raise investments in renewable energy sources.
The timing couldn’t be better, Ko told The Edge Financial Daily in a recent interview.
So he got two of his best buddies together, college mate Poh Tyng Huei, who was a banker at the time, and his high school friend Ryan Oh Zhi Kang, who had worked as an electrical and hardware systems engineer in Australia, and brainstormed on how to capitalise on what he saw would be a rising green energy trend.
What was borne from an intense three-month discussion was Leaf Energy Sdn Bhd, a project management consultancy company, which they established in 2012 with core competencies in the fields of renewable energy.
But consultancy work wasn’t all they aspired to do. The goal was to own power plants in three years.
So they went on to establish Plus Solar Systems Sdn Bhd a year later, a total energy solutions company that provides procurement and construction works. At the time, the trio was just 27 years old. With the money earned from Plus Solar, the trio set up a power plant investment company in 2015, Leaf Solar Sdn Bhd. Via Leaf Solar, the trio now own solar plants in Kedah and Penang.
As business expanded, they set up an energy solutions company in Singapore this year, Plus Solar Singapore, to tap the Southeast Asian market.
Ko said the reason for the exponential growth of their business was primarily because they went in at the right time.
“When you run a business, you can’t just rely on one technology or one single business model,” said Ko, adding that a business has to constantly change, move and transform to stay relevant as market dynamics shift.
However, as business expanded, they also realised there was a huge gap between the local education syllabus and the demands of the green energy sector.
Hence, they established Plus Solar Academy, a free education workshop targeting university and high school students to give these young minds exposure to the solar energy sector via solar farm visits, introduction to engineering calculations, designs, et cetera.
The key to nurturing the industry’s future talents, they believe, lies not just in catching youths’ interest, but also inspiring and nurturing their passion for green energy.
Oh said he used to spend a lot of time studying how Apple Inc works and how Steve Jobs established Apple University in 2008 to inculcate staff into the Apple business, and wanted to be able to do the same one day.
Looking on all that they had achieved these past few years, Ko said passion and trust were what brought them together to start their venture.
“What bonded us is the trust we have in each other as friends. You don’t just start a business with strangers,” said Poh. He added that they trust each other’s abilities and so divided the work accordingly.
To Ko, the biggest challenge in the journey so far was converting his mindset from that of an employer to an entrepreneur. Though he believes he is doing better now, he still thinks there is room for improvement.
“The sky is the limit, but in a company, the limit is how far the boss’ mindset can extend. It’s how visionary they are that will determine the future of the company,” said Ko.
For Poh, it was dealing with the uncertainties that come with cultivating a new business. While Oh, who likes to tinker with new ideas and innovations, said his biggest constraint is time as he has too many ideas to work on.
No matter the challenge each of them face, they appear to have done well, going by Plus Solar’s accomplishments. Notably, it was honoured with the SME Green Excellence Award 2016 in the Platinum Business Award ceremony by the SME Association of Malaysia in October.
Not only that, Ko, who took on the title of executive director in Plus Solar, together with business director Poh and project director Oh, have now been shortlisted as one of the nominees of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year nominee in the Emerging Entrepreneur’s category.