Report: Glory days

This article first appeared in Options, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on July 8, 2019 - July 14, 2019.

Monte Carlo’s Opera Garnier provided the sumptuous setting for WEOY’s Hall of Fame and Alumni Recognition Ceremony

With my family after receiving my Country Winner trophy

Networking took place everywhere, including around the Casino Square in between events

At a special dinner organised for the Asia-Pacific country winners

The chic setting of the Monaco Yacht Club for the EY Global Dinner and celebration

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Plaza Premium Group founder Song Hoi-see on the nexus of business and pleasure that was the EY World Entrepreneur of the Year 2019 in Monaco

Winning the EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2018 in Malaysia was a pleasant victory, but representing Malaysia at the EY World Entrepreneur of the Year (WEOY) 2019 for a chance to win the global title was an incredible honour. The programme takes place in Monte Carlo over a long weekend and is packed with interesting events, culminating in the WEOY award ceremony.

WEDNESDAY

Afternoon: It was a wonderful drive from the Nice Côte d’Azur Airport in Nice, France, across the border to Monaco, with sunny weather and spectacular views around every corner. After settling into my room at the luxurious Hotel Hermitage in Monte Carlo, my work for the day began. Each of the 57 country and territory winners contesting for the WEOY 2019 title had individual coaching sessions to prepare them for the final round of judging, which I thought was very helpful.

The sunny courtyard at Hotel de Paris

We Asians tend to be very modest, which makes us poor presenters on an international stage like this. I am sure that all entrepreneurs experience ups and downs, but although we prefer focusing on the ups, the judges want to hear about the hard times and how we turned things around. We also tend to downplay the holistic side of our businesses, such as how we care for our employees, customers and community. Everyone here is a successful entrepreneur, but these aspects will make you stand out.

Rao presented a letter from the Prime Minister to me

Evening: I had a meeting with the judges, followed by two interviews and a photography session for an official portrait for the event. Philip Rao, EY partner and director of the Malaysian Entrepreneur of the Year programme, presented me with a framed letter from Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad as a token of acknowledgement for representing Malaysia at this event. I was very touched and proud to receive that letter.

Found my star on the EY Walk of Fame at Casino Square

My wife and two children, who are part of Plaza Premium Group, were with me. We walked over to the beautiful Opera Garnier situated within the Casino de Monte Carlo for the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Hall of Fame and Alumni Recognition Ceremony. Fronting the venue, which was packed with supercars and curious tourists, is the Casino Square, where I found a star with my name imprinted on the EY Walk of Fame! Each and every country winner had a star. That was exciting. We snapped photos to commemorate the moment before going inside for the ceremony. I was happy to stand on stage with these immensely talented people from around the world.

 

THURSDAY

Morning: The first day opened with keynote speeches at the Opera Garnier by supermodel and philanthropist Natalia Vodianova, and Jen Rubio, co-founder of luggage and travel products brand, Away. Natalia is an impressive person, especially when she talked about her charity work. I thought it was smart and savvy of her to use her position, platforms and reputation to draw attention to the causes she champions.

Backstage with Rubio (centre) and my wife

Jen’s session was just as interesting. She was born in the Philippines but lives in the US. She was a traveller who saw an opportunity for a well-priced, quality luggage brand and designed clever marketing strategies that found her a place in a very saturated market. EY arranged for me to have a private meeting with Jen backstage since we are in complementary businesses and we wanted to explore the possibility of a future collaboration that would be beneficial to Plaza Premium Group members.

Afternoon: A buffet lunch was served at the historical Salle Empire in Hotel de Paris, but we chose to sit in the sunny courtyard, where the people I dined with made the afternoon a memorable one. This was a great networking opportunity and I made quite a number of useful contacts from Hong Kong and China.

The breakout sessions began after lunch, and attendees could choose talks or discussions to join in. I went for the “Building Your Future Workforce” talk, hoping to learn more about skill building or management, but the session was focused on how technology would impact the workforce. That was not very relevant to me since I am in the people-centric service business, but it was good knowledge. Then, I attended the “Building Trust through Your Board” discussion on building the relationship between decision makers and executives, which had some valuable key points.

Evening: I had an interview with a Slovakian magazine, and then headed to the EY global dinner and celebration at the Monaco Yacht Club. Marc Ferrero, a contemporary artist, did a live painting onstage that was auctioned off immediately, with the proceeds going to charity. Although I did not bid, I picked up a catalogue and was invited to visit Ferrero’s studio if I had the time. The Yacht Club has a lovely setting — by the pier overlooking the sea. I enjoyed the food, especially the scallops and ripe cherries, before doing another interview, this time with Forbes Japan. The reporter introduced me to a Japanese bed distributor and we established initial contact to see if we could work together. Obviously, we were not there to do business, but these were ideal platforms to lay the foundation for future collaborations.

Everyone had a good time at the Monaco Yacht Club, where Ferrero did a live painting for immediate auction

The programme was quite tight, with one thing after another non-stop. You could skip some items on the agenda, I suppose, but I think that defeated the purpose of being there, especially with so many opportunities to form relationships.

 

FRIDAY

Morning: Jet lag must have finally caught up with me, because I overslept a little and missed a networking breakfast session. Luckily, I made it in time for the keynote speeches by Brazilian billionaire and real estate developer Rubens Menin, and managing partner of Pritzker Group and heir to the Hyatt Hotels fortune Anthony Pritzker. After lunch, I sat in on the “Are You Ready for What Doesn’t Yet Exist” discussion, where we were introduced to products such as a concept battery for domestic use, the Sixt car rental app, Vision-Box’s facial recognition software for airport security and the La-Vis Group’s funding strategy that invites investments to buy future wines, underwriting the vineyard’s cultivation. Some of these ideas were quite new and interesting.

With the coaches after my prep session

Evening: After another quick interview, I attended the by-invitation-only EY Entrepreneur of the Year VIP cocktail reception with the EY alumni, country winners and judges at Hotel Hermitage’s Salle Belle Epoque. I was not sure if this was part of the judging process, but I took the opportunity to shake hands and introduce myself to the judges. I enjoyed having the chance to talk to and learn from so many entrepreneurs, as well as collected many name cards.

Being introduced as the Malaysian candidate for the global title at the opening ceremony

We had the Asia-Pacific dinner at Twiga, an upscale restaurant, lounge and nightclub by the sea. There was a great band and a good variety of food. We mixed with the other APAC country winners and EY representatives, which was a lot of fun.

 

SATURDAY

Morning: The first half of the day was for sightseeing or rest after the hectic days prior. My family and I visited Nice and the neighbouring Eze to explore its coastline. The view of the French Riviera was very scenic. Then, we went to the open market and checked out the original Le Petite Maison restaurant, which ended with a seafood lunch at the port commune of Villefranche.

Evening: We were driven to the Salle des Étoiles concert hall in vintage cars for the EY World Entrepreneur of the Year award ceremony, which was in sync with the vibe of Monaco. After multiple events across exclusive locations over the previous days, I was wondering how EY would top them with this gala.

It felt a lot like attending the Oscars. I was most taken by the setting, especially when the hall’s ceiling retracted and turned into an al fresco venue, with fireworks against the backdrop of the French Riviera. The disco-era group Sister Sledge delivered a truly wonderful performance that night as well.

There was much anticipation in the air and I felt anxious. Of course you hope to win, but you are also mindful that you are in a room full of winners. Spending the weekend with like-minded entrepreneurs from around the world was very inspiring and fruitful. I was immensely grateful to the EY team and past Malaysian winners who came and contributed to the event in various ways. The possibility of winning would have been the proverbial cherry on top.

Onstage receiving my Country Winner trophy at the WEOY gala dinner

Brad Keywell, country winner for the US, won the title. But even if Malaysia did not win, it was overall a great experience, from the different events and talks to surprises like the EY Walk of Fame at Casino Square. The magnitude of and attention to detail put into the event … was amazing. Also, each entrepreneur had worked hard for years to arrive at the place they are now. The community of people who were there and walked the talk is something I will remember forever. They are all winners, all stars in their own right.

— As told to Petrina Fernandez