MAKING TECHNOLOGY WORK

Malaysia 2016 | ECONOMY | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Datuk Vinod Sekhar, Chairman and Group Chief Executive of Petra Group, on the entertainment sector, rubber recycling, and what makes Malaysia special.

What is the vision behind Petra Group?

We look at things that make a difference. I'm a social capitalist. What we're about is making money, but in the process of that seeing if we can make a difference to society, and if we can improve things. I always look for businesses and ideas that can achieve such progress, whether it's in biotech, in industrial tech, or whether it's in our movie business. For me it's just finding new innovations. We're all about strategic partnerships and we're very keen to work with other people. So it's not just about selling something, it's also about contributing to creating a more affluent society. I need to play a role in education, to help people move up, to make an impact on society. If everyone did something, imagine how things would change. Once you do that, you've earned all the bells and whistles. You've earned your money.

Could you fill us in on the nature of your movie business?

The fastest growing area in Asia is entertainment and the delivery of entertainment. The challenge is how to entertain the new generation of Asians who are growing by double-digit percentages annually, and whose demand for instant gratification is higher, and how to also educate them through entertainment. We undertake the production of movies and are also aggressively looking into technologies that are related to the media. We have also been working on a number of TV series.

The group, through its subsidiary Green Rubber Global, is engaged in recycling rubber. What social problem does this address?

The world's number one environmental problem right now, believe it or not, is waste tires: we throw out 1.4 billion tires a year, which go into landfills, tire mountains, or are burnt for energy. Burning tires for energy is disastrous, releasing sulfur and toxins into the air. Yet if you bury tires, you contaminate the soil and the water table. As for tire mountains, they breed mosquitoes and hence diseases like malaria or dengue fever. And if these piles catch fire, you cannot extinguish them. It's not talked about because it's not a product you can claim to want less of. The more development and wealth, the more cars, and the more cars, the more tires. So what we've come up with is a way to recycle it back into a compound that can then go back into tires, or shoes, or any rubber product. It's the world's only truly commercialized process for recycling rubber for tires. So it's true recycling, and the recycled compound is cheaper than the original. It's one of those few products where nobody loses. I win, the manufacturer wins thanks to the lower cost, and the end user wins, too. We're opening a plant in the UK now, which PM David Cameron has recently announced, and also here in Malaysia and in the Middle East. We will export this recycled rubber all over the world. We want to expand into America, South America, Southern Africa, and indeed, comprehensively. Our aim is to make it the focus of a poverty eradication program that allows communities to recycle their waste. So the idea is to visit communities and teach them how to turn what is waste into green rubber. This will galvanize communities into considering the environment, while at the same time empowering them as they will be generating income in the process. In short, it's a good balance.

To what causes is the Sekhar Foundation committed?

About 60% of Petra Group is owned by my foundation. The foundation builds schools and orphanages around the world. We have orphanages in Colombia, we built a school in Armenia, and have facilities in India. We want to build and contribute wherever there is a need to be met. We are involved in programs for autism, also helping terminally ill children—all programs that have a tough time gaining public awareness. We believe that businesses must be involved in advancing society, and that society must be defined as the people living in it, as communities. This is not about getting a CSR box ticked off. It's got to be a part of what you do on a much more integrated level. That's why we set up our Sekhar Institute for Social Capitalism & Leadership, where we are set to research and provide coverage of social capitalism, leadership, and how companies and governments can play a role. It's beyond a think-tank, and is an actual research institute. We are set to stage our first social capitalism conference soon; a platform from which we will endeavor to change the public mindset for the better. We are keen to start the debate to make a lasting difference.

What is your outlook for the year ahead?

It appears that the situation will not be a pleasant one. That being said, down cycles are where opportunities lie. No matter what people know about Malaysia, they know of its success as a trading nation, and ultimately the backbone of this trading nation is the small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) and industries operating within it. Local SMEs and SMIs are thriving, and inspire much faith for the future. As a nation we have been blessed with a well-educated and English-speaking workforce, natural beauty, rubber, palm oil, petroleum, timber, paddy (rice), and little to no major natural disasters. We'll get through these issues, but what foreign investors must see now is opportunity, and Malaysia will be this land of opportunity for the next year. We have to go through this down cycle. We have to accept that the US will introduce higher interest rates, that this will impact the dollar, and us. It will happen. But the fundamentals are strong, and the small and medium size industries are what drive this country, regardless of the politics. We'll continue to thrive and trade no matter what. Politics and other sources of noise aside, the nation is nothing if not an example of opportunity, strength, and promise.