Saturday 28 July 2012

Suhaimi Rafdi: Role model to his kids and community

Cathay Organisation Holdings chief exec Suhaimi Rafdi tells Susan Long he wants to help fellow Malays overcome the cultural stigma 'that Malays can only do so much'.
The Straits Times, 27 Jul 2012

MR SUHAIMI Rafdi, 44, likes to joke that he deserves a cape.

The widower was left to raise two teens aged 10 and 15 after his wife died of bone cancer nine years ago. But he went on to adopt two newborns from broken families.

In between running the household as a single dad and climbing the corporate ladder to become chief executive officer (CEO) of leisure and entertainment giant Cathay Organisation Holdings, he studied at night for two distance-learning degrees to improve himself.

To top it off, he has taken in 23 stray kittens. The cats have a purpose-built room at the back of his 3 1/2-storey terrace house in Loyang, where he lives with his four children and two maids.

He has garnered a clutch of entrepreneur accolades but the one he's proudest of is the recent Berita Harian Achiever of the Year Award, which lauds exemplary Malay/Muslim achievers.

It is a badge of honour he wears with pride because Malays tend to be under-represented in top-flight corporate positions, and those who are CEOs tend to be heading companies they founded themselves, he says.

'I am different because I worked for a Chinese employer all the way up for 17 years and gained their trust. They had a choice to hire any CEO but they picked me, which shows that race or religion is not the issue, it's character,' says the man who buzzes with high-octane energy and rapid-fire conversation.

What made him press on all these years was his desire to be a role model to both his children and his community that 'they, too, can do it'.

'I want to transform the cultural stigma that Malays can only do so much. We can go further and be more than what we are today.'

He wants to change how Malays look at themselves. 'I would like the Malays to see themselves as equal to anybody else in this country. It's not about your education any more. It's not about your cultural beliefs. It's about you being able to perform and deliver results.

'We are worth much more than what we think we are. Look far and aim high. Don't settle for administrative clerk or think this is all I'm good for,' he says. He plans to mentor aspiring young Malay entrepreneurs and business undergraduates in an upcoming Association of Muslim Professionals initiative.

Of course, success won't come on a silver platter, he adds. 'You've got to put in the hours and work three times harder than your fellow colleagues.'

He cuts such an inspirational figure that today, a good 70 per cent of Cathay's operational workforce - which includes 400 full-timers and 200 part-timers - are Malays. It also hires another 120 corporate-level employees at headquarters. 'Maybe it's in the blood of Malays that they enjoy movies and the gathering aspects,' he says. 'Also they feel that they have a place here and there is no glass ceiling.'

Long way to top

HIS biological parents split the scene after he was born and left him and three older siblings in the care of a childless grand-aunt and her husband.

His grand-uncle - whom he called Dad - ran a struggling orchid nursery, which could hardly put food on the table. His grand-aunt or 'Mum' died of cancer when he was 16, forcing him to grow up quickly. This rocky start made him resolve to 'push myself real hard to make sure that history doesn't repeat itself and that I will be there for my kids', he says.

He was a 'late bloomer' at St Stephen's School and St Patrick's School but found he could galvanise a crowd. He did his A levels privately at Stamford College, funded mainly by flipping burgers at Hardee's and McDonald's.

He then became a management trainee at the former Hotel Phoenix, which sponsored his hospitality management diploma at Shatec for two years.

There, he met and married restaurant manager Maureen, a Eurasian, and they had their first child shortly after.

After national service, he became a trainee manager at KFC and was promoted to restaurant manager within three years. He knew there was no further room for progression and he would have to 'hentak kaki' (march on the spot in Malay) if he stayed. So he moved on to become housekeeping manager at Singapore General Hospital, which was then modernising its operations. He was put in charge of 200 housekeeping attendants who were not particularly receptive to change and prone to retort 'I've eaten more salt than you've eaten rice'. The 'Aunty Killer' resorted to drawing pictures of how to dust, mop and sanitise and got the job done with jocular diplomacy.

Five years later, a Cathay director got wind of how he managed to turn around his housekeeping unit and 'headhunted' him to help update Cathay's operations and retrain its elderly workforce. The harried father of two, who never had time for movies, mulled over it for six months, before joining Cathay as deputy general manager in 1996. 'It was a bold step to take. One minute, I was looking at dead bodies, mopping floors and looking at dust. And the next, I'm looking at buying films and designing multiplexes. I had to learn fast,' he recounts.

His key role was to shape up the heavily unionised older workers. Some had night blindness but continued to project blurry movies, sometimes too loudly, because they were half-deaf. When the movie started, ushers would tuck into their packet of rice at the door, he recalls, aghast. He was summoned to the Ministry of Manpower at least six times for mediation with unions.

But he pushed through reforms, along with helping to renovate The Picturehouse and conceptualise Cathay's first multiplex, Cineleisure Orchard.

Having proven himself, he was posted to Malaysia to set up three multiplexes in Penang and Johor Baru. He returned to Singapore three years later as general manager, overseeing Singapore and Malaysia operations.

Tragedy struck in 2003 when his wife was diagnosed with cancer and died within the year. He refused relatives' help in tending to his daughter, then 10, and son, then 15. He sent the maid back for six months and took them on trips to bond with them. 'I learnt to react less like a disciplinarian and more like a buddy,' he recalls.

It was a 'shock' how much work it took to keep the household running. But the most difficult thing, he recalls, was having to help his daughter, nearing puberty, buy undergarments.

Feeling the urgency of brushing up his skills because he was all his kids had, he embarked on night classes three times a week to pursue a marketing degree with the National University of Ireland, then a master's in marketing and casino management with Adelaide University.

He was being promoted steadily from general manager to vice-president to president and was made CEO at age 39 in 2008. 'I could go right to the top and just put my fat butt there and say I made it. But I chose to study because I wanted to show my children that you must continuously upgrade yourselves,' he says.

Happy cash registers

UNDER his watch, Cathay cineplexes has grown from a six-screen organisation to 41 screens here, with 19 more in the pipeline. The group turned over more than $200 million last year.

In 2008, he inked a deal with Dubai's Emaar Malls Group to manage and develop cineplexes across the Middle East, North Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Indonesia. Two are already operational in Dubai, including a 22-screen theatre in the world's largest shopping centre, Dubai Mall. He is also helping to design, build and operate multiplexes in Jordan, Oman and Qatar.

'We never knew we would land ourselves in the Middle East. But it just put the puzzle in place because being a male Muslim, it's easier for me to do business there,' he says.

In Singapore, he has kept the cash registers ringing. He has tapped new niches of cinema-goers, from insomniacs to retirees. Cathay was the first here in 2003 to introduce 24-hour movies on Saturdays at Cineleisure Orchard. 'Believe you me, even at 3am, you have 400 people watching movies across three screens - that gives an occupancy rate of about 80 per cent,' he says.

This has seen a new category of patrons who tuck into a movie after supper, as well as those who sleep off a night of pubbing in the cinema to avoid the after-midnight taxi surcharge, then catch the first public transport home at daylight.

Since 2004, Cathay has rolled out daily midnight and 3am screenings - which no one else offers - catering to insomniacs and shift workers. 'Over these years, we have created a name for ourselves so much so that consumers know there's always a showing at Cathay, just come out in your slippers, pyjamas, with your smelly pillow.'

On Sunday mornings, Cathay rents out 75 per cent of its 41 cinema screens to Protestant churches. On weekday mornings, droves of senior citizens above 55 drop in after taiji classes, and pay $4 to watch a movie with free flow of coffee and tea.

Operating such long hours, his staff are stretched thin but it has paid off. 'Our data shows that Cathay has a screen share of only 21 per cent in Singapore but in terms of market share for any movie we release, we hover in the region of 32 per cent in sales. That's a 60 per cent higher yield than any other operator in Singapore. It speaks volumes about our popularity and how we do things differently,' he says.

On the side, he also spearheaded Cathay's foray into mall management, its eponymous Chinese restaurant, Cathay Residences in Handy Road, electronic gaming and the Hangout brand of budget boutique hotels.

Box office weekend

HE NOW lives and sleeps by box office hours.

The first opening weekend of a new movie - Thursday to Sunday - is the pivotal indicator of profitability. 'Once you get it right, it reels in about 20 per cent to the entire gross season total takings,' he says. He stays up, scrolling through live Internet bookings to gauge how well his 'bets' are doing. If the screens are all sold out, he sleeps like a baby. If not, it's back to the drawing board on Monday to devise a new marketing strategy.

Weekends are reserved for his kids. Every Friday night, he does an inventory of diapers and groceries which are running low, goes to the supermarket on Saturdays, and spends Sundays cooking his children's favourite beef rendang and corned beef stew. 'It's a freak show,' says the single dad, who sleeps no more than six hours a day. Two maids help out, and his sister or an aunt drops by when he is out of town.

His son, now 24, is studying for a business and marketing degree, while his daughter 19, is studying finance at a polytechnic. The two kids he adopted - in part to 'help my community' and fulfil his late wife's wish to have four kids - are now aged two and three. 'At least I can think she's now smiling, looking down at this family, which is now considered complete.'

His views on...

'I am a Singaporean Malay-Muslim and I want to lead by example and show that everybody has an equal opportunity to build a successful career in this multiracial society. As long as we stay positive, hold on to our dreams and don't give up, there is light at the end of the tunnel.'

'There are (interested parties). But my first priority right now is to bring up my kids, see my two older ones finish their education, get a career going and settle down.'

'I wouldn't have known that I was worth this much until I was given the opportunity to prove I could do this job. If other fellow Malays are given the opportunity, they may do just as well.'

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