Surging demand for electric vehicles and solar energy is proving to be a double boon for low-profile Malaysian entrepreneur Tan Eng Kee, cofounder and CEO of Penang-based Greatech Technology. The company, which makes industrial automation equipment for a variety of different manufacturers, saw its shares jump 330% in the past year, propelling Tan into the billionaires club with a net worth of just over $1 billion.
“Renewable energy and electric vehicles are hot now,” says Tan, 50, who established the business in 1997 with his school buddy Khor Lean Heng, who now serves as Greatech’s COO. “They have boosted our profitability.”
Sales for the nine months ended September 30, 2020 were up 17% to 184.78 million ringgit ($44.44 million), while net profit jumped 64% to 59.338 million ringgit ($14.27).
Greatech makes automated equipment for production lines for a host of manufacturers–from medical device makers to renewable energy producers to semiconductor companies. The company, which gets more than 50% of its business from international markets, primarily the U.S, has a list of marquee clients including Lordstown Motors, a manufacturer of electric pick-up trucks in Ohio, and Arizona-headquartered First Solar, which makes solar energy systems
Greatech’s more notable products include a robotic hand for placing solar modules in a production line; equipment for handling solar wafers on a production line, and an automated measuring device for smartphones.
As it migrated from making single automation equipment to producing entire production lines and as it won more orders from clients like Panasonic and First Solar, the company’s annual revenue and net profit rose ten-fold between 2015 and 2019, the year when Tan decided to list Greatech on the Kuala Lumpur stock exchange.
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In October, Kuala Lumpur’s Public Investment Bank projected that Greatech’s revenue was poised to grow at a compounded rate of 47.5% over the next three years “Greatech is well positioned to capture the growth in the solar photo voltaic segment through its indirect exposure via First Solar, by supplying more production lines to First Solar,” wrote Chua Siu Li, an analyst at the bank, who authored the October research report.
Meanwhile, Tan, who is often referred to as EK, is taking his newly acquired billionaire status in stride. “I never had dreams of becoming a billionaire,” he says. “I did not expect this at all. I have a simple life–I come to the office; do my job and I go home. Nothing changes because of this.”
Tan grew up in Penang in what he describes as a “poor family,” the only son among four children. His father, who was a cab driver, died when Tan was just 13, forcing him to take on more responsibilities at a young age. At 16, he was working part-time after school at a bakery.
Tan went on to earn a certificate in mechanical engineering in 1991, and began working as a production planner for a precision tooling company. Two years later, he borrowed 10,000 ringgit from his mother, and set up Greatech (M) Sdn Bhd to make components for engineering equipment. He enlisted a friend to help him with marketing, and in 1995, convinced his school pal Khor Lean Heng to join him, too. But in 2001, Tan wound up the company.
Meanwhile, in 1997, he started a new outfit with Khor–Greatech Integration–to produce semi-automated and automated equipment for the consumer electronics sector. Greatech expanded into the semiconductor industry in 2002, and to the solar sector in 2010.
Tan says that while there was some downtime during Malaysia’s pandemic-induced lockdown, the company’s eight factories are now all up and running again. “Our business is getting stronger,” says Tan, who’s gearing up for further growth.
In December, Greatech expanded its capacity when it opened a new assembly plant in Batu Kawan and is currently looking to buy more land in an industrial park nearby. Greatech also opened its first office in the U.S.– a testing facility in Michigan–in the third quarter of 2020 for its electric vehicle customers. A couple more such offices will open in the third quarter of this year in Illinois and Arizona. Tan also plans to establish an office in Germany by the third quarter of 2021 and expand further into Europe and India.
Tan is upbeat: “We will benefit from the importance being placed on ESG (environmental, social and governance) as companies move toward achieving zero-carbon status,” he says.